Originally Published: Monday, 14 May 2001 Author: Jessica Sheffield
Published to: interact_featured_articles/General Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Two Years of the LiNUX.COMmunity!

Celebrate two years of Linux.com! Join us as we take a look back at how it all got started, where we are today, and where we're headed. Come on in for the whole the story from the people who lived it!

In March of 1999, a company then called VA Research announced that they had acquired the Linux.com domain name. A consultant named Fred van Kampen originally registered the name in June of 1994 as a site for Linux hobbyists. Kampen sold the name to VA on the merits of their plan for the site (in addition to a wad of cash). "VA's motivation for developing Linux.com best represents the interests of the Linux community, and for this reason, I awarded the domain name to them," Kempen said at the time.

VA now had the name in Linux development, support, and community operations. What would they do with it? Trae McCombs recalls, "Well, Larry Augustin, CEO of VA Research hired me so I could run the site I created, themes.org... or so I thought. After being there for two months, Larry pulled me into his office and said, 'Ok Trae, here is the REAL reason we hired you. We are buying Linux.com, and we want you to create it.' I was sort of taken aback... but. :)"

The plan was to create a Linux portal for the community. Gerard Daubar, Senior Developer, says, "The original vision was something about world domination. That and becoming the Linux resource." Dean Henrichsmeyer, Site Director, adds, "It's pretty simple, 'Everything Linux.' We planned on being everything Linux to everyone."

Jeff Alami served as a writer and content manager for the new site, and was hired as its first Editor-in-Chief. "The original idea for the site was quite different from what's seen now. Linux.com would be comprised of two major types of content: editorials, and section content. For editorials we had a daily editorial from regular and guest writers, as well as regular columns from well-known community types like Illiad and Salon.com's Andrew Leonard. As for the section content, we had a whole bunch of sections covering different topics, each with an editor of sorts and their own writers."

Its aspirations were to be the resource to tie all things Linux together into an accessible and authoritative resource. That coupled with the @linux.com address was too much to resist! -Peter Clark, Community Support

Trae assembled a team of coders, writers, and artists to bring this vision to reality. "Anyone who knows Trae knows that he can be very persuasive," remarks Gareth Watts, Senior Developer. The original staff was thirteen people determined to launch the best Linux resource anyone had ever seen. Some of them were already working together on a project called 'SixSteps'. "Gerard, Matt [Trent] and myself were working on a site called sixsteps.org - interestingly enough Gareth was hosting it," relates Mike Baker, "the idea for the site was that any concept, no matter how arcane or complex, could be explained in six simple steps -- the idea was quickly dropped but the name was kept. It turns out the name was one of Trae's ideas... small world!"

Mike Baker continues, "Word about the [sixsteps] site eventually reached Trae -- just about a week before our scheduled launch. Trae wouldn't tell us exactly what was going on, just that it was "something big" which involved VA and that we shouldn't launch our site just yet. The next day it was on Slashdot that VA had bought the Linux.com domain. Gerard, Matt and myself joined the Linux.com development staff and met up with Gareth again and the rest of the original Linux.com staff."

Now that the team was together, the next step was to create and launch the site. The staff worked long hours and consumed much caffeine in the pursuit of their goal. "No sleep... tons of work," is how Trae remembers it, while Gerard adds, "The early days of development were filled with a lot of excitement as it was going to be a big launch. I remember a lot of phone calls from Trae and many late nights." Mike, Gerard, and Gareth worked on the code that would drive the site, while Garrett and Trae sweated over the interface. Peter Clark set up the original development server. "Things were coming together at a very fast pace. Every hour or so, the developers (read: Gareth) would want another module compiled into PHP. It was then that I became one with the true wonder of Apache's DSO module format. Using APACI, I would have had to compile the whole webserver each time another module was requested, instead of only PHP." Another win for open source software.

Oh, how we would have loved to have had a blueprint at times! -Gareth Watts, Senior Developer

The clock ticked closer to launch. The code began coming together. Gareth surprised everyone with a full-featured news system instead of the small-scale system they thought they only had time for. Garrett "doodled around in the Gimp using [his] trusty trackball, and came up with the original concept for the site." Quentin Cregan began "frenzied negotiations with Rob Levin of OpenProjects to get our server linked up as we realized that was necessary for the Java/Web IRC client to work effectively for #linuxhelp." Trae managed it all, cracking the whip where necessary and assuring Larry that yes, we would launch on time.

"I just remember having a big online discussion with everyone as to the 'countdown' - and how much we'd leak to Slashdot in the last few pre-launch days. We considered whether we'd start rotating 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 on the front page just to mess with people. I think we did a really limited countdown for the last few hours before the site launch," Quentin recalls. Other staffers, including Trae, remember even less of the push to get the site live. "The others, I'm sure, have a much more vivid memory of what went down. To me it's much more of a blur than anything else."

On May 18, 1999, coordinated with the Linux Expo in North Carolina, Linux.com went live. Those geeks who were not standing in line for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace tickets rejoiced. The site featured a news feed from LinuxToday, a Java chat client linked to #linuxhelp, editorials, tune-up tips, and many customizable user preferences. Feedback was generally positive, with the main complaint being the lack of archived content. The staff explained that their focus had been the site architecture, not the article content. "One of the biggest challenges of getting Linux.com up and running was our time constraints. We had to build a site that could stand up under the pressure of lots of hits, be maintainable by a large group of community volunteers, and be able to expand quickly - and the site had to come together in a few weeks time," recalls James Byers. Over the next few weeks the volunteer staff would grow by leaps and bounds as people signed on to write articles, manage sections, give out support help in #linuxhelp, and do all the other odd jobs that needed doing.

I can truly say that the launch of Linux.com was a team effort, and without that team, there would have been no site. -Trae McCombs, Site Founder

As the months sped by Linux.com added many new sections to its lineup. Hardware, desktops, and multimedia, among others, were featured with their own Linux.com sub-domains. The site got a facelift just in time for the second LinuxWorld Conference and Expo where many of the staffers met each other for the first time. Jeff recalls, "The first time we all met each other in person was an interesting time. The strangest thing about communicating remotely is that you create an image in your head of the person on IRC or email, and then you're often proven completely wrong -- not just with physical appearance but with their entire attitude." After many sleepless nights working on the redesign, it's no wonder that most of the attendees fell asleep in the beanbags at the Linux.com booth at LWCE.

By the fall of 1999 Linux.com had over fifty staffers, both paid and volunteer, working on everything from development to writing to systems administration. The site was attracting tens of thousands of unique page views every day.

The Linux.com working environment was a lot like a beehive. People from all over the world were collectively working on what would be Linux.com, a site that had never existed before. The initial development of Linux.com, with all the excitement and anticipation, was one of the greatest examples of teamwork I've ever been involved in. It is a good model of what the community is all about. -Dean Henrichsmeyer, Site Director

Meanwhile, the Linux world was heating up. Red Hat Linux's IPO shattered expectations and become an indicator of things to come, though of course no one knew that at the time. Suddenly, Linux was the hottest thing on the market. Companies scrambled to jump aboard the Linux train, and venture capital started rushing in. One community site after another was acquired by companies looking to get a foothold in the geek market: Slashdot and Freshmeat were the most visible examples, snapped up by Andover.net in a bid to become the Open Source community network. Internet.com started building its own empire, picking up Linuxnewbie, LinuxToday and others. The Atlanta Linux Showcase, while attracting nowhere near the number of attendees as the business-oriented LWCEs, had a never-before-felt atmosphere of excitement and anticipation among the 4000 hackers who attended. COMDEX added a Linux Business Expo to its Las Vegas show that attracted tens of thousands. There seemed literally no limit to the possibilities.

Computer manufacturers like Gateway, Dell, and Compaq jumped into the fray with announcements that they would ship boxes with Linux if requested, while companies with no product or plan, just names like LinuxOne, surfaced and filed for IPOs, hoping to cash in on the craze. Meanwhile, it was business as usual in the community as work on Debian Potato dragged on and plans were made for the 2.4 kernel. Linux.com added more sections to its lineup and more volunteers to its staff. Everyone wanted in on the action, and the winners were the community sites, enjoying amazing levels of funding and, more importantly, incredible community interest and support.

Gee. Remember when the big question was "How do we make money at this?" -Eric S. Raymond

As Linux stock fever heated up, so did acquisition fever. Red Hat bought Cygnus for $700 million in stock and began eyeing other companies. The spotlight would soon be stolen, however, by a pair of December IPOs that would make history.

Mere days before the Bazaar, (a trade show by and for the community opening in New York City) Andover.net and VA Linux Systems held back-to-back IPOs. Andover's stock would close at four times its opening price, while VA's skyrocketed 1000% from 30 to 300: The biggest IPO rise in NASDAQ history. Now Red Hat wouldn't be the only company with an eye for acquisition. Less than two months later VA and Andover announced a merger-acquisition that brought many of the community's favorite web sites together under one umbrella. Some rejoiced, others were apprehensive; no one doubted that it was one of the biggest stories in the open source world that year.

In the summer of 2000, Linux.com began a bold new program that would change the way the site was conceived of by its staff and by its readers. The program was Linux.com Live! Live! began with an idea by Mark Stone, then advisor to the staffs of Linux.com and Themes.org.

Mark realized that the real power of Linux.com wasn't in the software or the servers or even the articles posted every day on the front page. It was in the community behind all those efforts, and the way that community interacted via email, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), and other online communication methods. Mark set about finding a way to bring that powerful resource, and the power of the LUG installfests, directly to Linux.com's audience. The result was the Linux.com Live! Program, which utilized IRC to guide an audience through a task like partitioning and installing Linux.

If I have to practice installing Debian one more time, I will scream. There's a reason the apt-get dist-upgrade exists. -Jessica Sheffield, Interact Section Editor

The staff decided to do two demonstrations simultaneously in the OSDN booth at LWCE, August. We'd install Red Hat Linux on its own on one machine, and demonstrate partitioning a hard drive to dual-boot Microsoft Windows and Debian on the other. I was tapped to help direct the project and do the live presentations at LWCE, a job I found challenging, inspiring, and completely nerve-wracking as I suffer from stage fright! Nevertheless, we made it through the show with rave reviews.

Mark had this to say about the presentation: "Each day at the show we demonstrated a Red Hat install and a Debian Potato install in the OSDN booth. We used members of the audience to perform the install, and -- this is the key part -- rather than having them guided through the install by booth staff, we had them guided by a remote team of staff and volunteers connected over the network using Internet Relay Chat. We've now three times successfully shown that you can use IRC to guide and teach a Linux installation."

Mark continued, "The greatest proof of success came from a few of the anecdotes coming out of that week. At the end of our first demo, for example, someone in the audience approached Garrett LeSage and asked if he could bring his Windows laptop in the next day and follow along to get Linux installed on it. Sure enough, on day two I saw Garrett and this gentleman sitting side by side, working through the install. In the middle of day two's session, someone on IRC messaged Dean Henrichsmeyer and asked if we could slow down a bit, since we were getting ahead of him. Not only did we have an audience on IRC, but we had someone actually using our IRC event to help him do an install."

The program was expanded and refined over the next few months to include live chats with community developers, interviews with authors, open discussion forums, and more tutorials like the one that got it all started. In January at LWCE in New York, we demonstrated how to customize and compile the 2.4 kernel. The staff of Themes.org got in on the act too, hooking up a drawing tablet to our projection machine and starting a game of Pictionary using the Gimp. "I think the coolest thing about Gimp Pictionary was the complete geekiness of it," said Greg Sanders, Site Director of Themes.org. "We took a normal boxed game and found a way to play it completely on the computer using Open Source (free) tools." The audience loved the game, calling out the answers in exchange for, of course, free swag (kindly provided by ThinkGeek). Guest artists included Chris DiBona of community fame, Illiad from UserFriendly, some of the WindowMaker guys, and of course, the resident artists of Linux.com and Themes.org: Garrett and artwiz. It was another piece of proof that, despite the fading of the Linux boom, the community was here to stay.

Nowhere else could you win a sticker for shouting "BitchX!" -Paul Summers, Linux.com volunteer

The Linux boom was indeed fading. Layoffs happened left and right as companies suddenly realized they needed profitability to keep investors happy. (What a novel concept.) Stocks dropped like the proverbial stones, several companies went out of business entirely and everyone began to get antsy. What would happen next?

While dot com companies come and go, Linux is still gaining in market share and the hackers don't care about market share anyhow. -Gareth Watts, Senior Developer

Through it all sites like Slashdot, Freshmeat, Themes.org, LinuxToday, Kuro5hin, and dozens of others continued to bring members of the community together in their own ways. Sourceforge continued to host projects. Kernel hackers kept on hacking. Gnome and KDE kept on releasing better versions. SuSE, Red Hat, Mandrake, and other vendors continued updating their distributions. And Linux.com embarked on a complete overhaul of the site, bringing content to its readership in a fresh new way. Trae had moved on to become a community evangelist for OSDN (The Open Source Development Network), starting new projects designed to bring Linux to the masses, while Dean moved into the role of Site Director. We added a new Editor-in-Chief, Simon Hayes, who brought years of publishing experience to the team. After nearly two years of growing as a community, Linux.com was truly ready for the big time. (Despite the naysayers who said that the glory days of Linux were over.)

Today, we boast a staff of nearly a hundred, working together to publish the best Linux resource to the Web. Our articles teem with informational content; our Live! Events boast some of the best authors in the technical world; our staff bring a combined expertise to the table that some university Computer Science departments would envy. In the end, though, that's not enough; for what is a web site if no one reads it? What is a Live! Event if no one attends? The truth is that we owe everything to our readers. Many of them have become Linux.com staff themselves; those who haven't still contribute to the site in a meaningful way, via comments, article submissions, and feedback. Like all good Open Source projects, Linux.com is an evolving entity, shaped by the needs and desires of our community.

This week, our two-year birthday celebration, is a time to thank our community of readers, contributors, IRC regulars, and anyone else who's helped us along the way. A special thank you goes out to the staff, both past and present: Your contributions have helped to shape the future of Linux.com, and we never could have made it without you. We invite anyone with an interest in Linux to help out; drop by #linux.com on irc.linux.com and we'll find something for you to do, or use the article submission form to contribute content to the site. This week we're running a series of events to celebrate two years of community involvement; you can find more information on those events in this article. We hope you'll join us in remembering the past, celebrating the present, and looking forward to many more years of the LiNUX.COMmunity!

Jessica Sheffield (starlady@linux.com) joined the Linux.com staff in September of 1999 as a volunteer, and counts herself lucky to have worked part-time for the site since July of 2000, doing what she loves. She wishes to thank all the people who provided quotes and anecdotes for this article, and dedicates it to all the staff of Linux.com, past, present, and future - a better bunch of people doesn't exist in this world, and telling their story has been a labor of love.