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Joe Kaplenk and the OSes

By Fernando Ribeiro Corrêa

Joe kaplenk is dedicated to the teachings about the UNIX alike operating systems. He is the author of many operating systems administration books including UNIX System Administrator's Interactive Workbook and Linux Network Administrator's Interactive Workbook.

OLinux: Tell us about your career, personal life (age, birthplace, hobbies, education...)

Joe Kaplenk: I was born in Middletown, NY. I'm 53. My current hobbies include reading and watching history. I'm particularly fascinated with population migrations and the development of various nations. World War II and the rise of the various political movements fascinate me. The other hobbies include computers, of course, teaching and reading on technical business trends.

My college background includes going to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY where I majored in Math with a minor in Physics. From there I went to the University of Utah and graduated in Physics. My undergraduate interests included quantum mechanics. It was something I would only study for about an hour week and did very well in. I could recite much of the history of quantum mechanics while I was in High School.

My favorite instructor was Robert Resnick at RPI. He wrote the premier text series for undergraduate Physics. I was very fortunate to get in his class since there was a long waiting list. He made Physics very real and more exciting for me. Issac Asimov was my favorite author. Both of them influenced me to go into writing.

For graduate work I studied courses without a major in Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry and Journalism and worked part-time as a science reporter for the Daily Utah Chronicle, the campus paper. I hoped to go into graduate school in Biochemistry and Biophysics and had been accepted at several colleges after this. One of my fascinations included studying the effects of radiation on genetics. I believed that it would be possible to find a way to selectively modify genes with radiation, given the right parameters, and was hoping to pursue this line of research. Several of my advisors advised me against it and that it would never work, but I felt strongly this was worth pursuing.

However, after much thought I left graduate school at the University of South Carolina my first week. At this point I decided that it would be too much effort and the money wasn't there to support me. In the early seventies I spent several years in the southern United States helping in rural black communities. My religious beliefs as a Baha'i strongly influenced me in this.

My wife Ramona has been a really good support network for me. She's the love of my life. I have a daughter, Anisa, from a previous. She has been an outstanding student and has received a number of commendations.

OLinux: For what company do you work and what is your job nowdays?

Joe Kaplenk: I am currently working for Collective Technologies as a consultant. Some of my assignments have been working with Red Hat Linux, but most of them have been with Solaris. Previous to this, and until last March, I worked with IBM Global Services and did some Linux work there as well as supporting Solaris and AIX. In this position I was on the international team that did the IBM Redbooks on Linux. I looked within IBM for opportunities to do more Linux, but did not find anything that was satisfactory at that time.

Some of my spare time is on teaching system admin, researching ways to teach, and developing new methods of teaching. Other time is spent playing with various software, doing installations and testing. The rest of the time is spent on family things.

OLinux: When did you started working with Linux? What was your initial motivation and how do you see it nowadays?

Joe Kaplenk: My first exposure to Linux was around 1992. I was working as the main UNIX system administrator at Loyola University Chicago. There were several students that worked for me. We were all keeping up closely with the USENET, the internet news groups. They found something about Linux online. We had been playing with Minix, which was actually used in one of the Math classes. This was prior to release 1.0. The students were very excited when Linux 1.0 was released. This meant to then that it could now be more stable. It wasn't long after that that Yggdrasil Linux was released. We downloaded the code, did some installs and played with it.

I thought this was great since this gave the students an opportunity to play with a UNIX like operating system as root without causing havoc on production servers. We were running AT&T 3B2s at that time. These were the standard boxes for UNIX development then, so much of what they did on Linux could be done on UNIX also.

I see Linux as being a major player in the operating system arena in a very short time. Linux will not kill all the other versions of UNIX. But I do see a reduction in the versions. With the GNOME foundation being developed and settling on a common desktop for several versions of UNIX it will make Linux even more widely used. However, there are some things that proprietary operating systems can do better. They can be more focused on new apps, throw money at it, and bring together talent quickly to solve a problem. The Linux community is largely dependent on finding developers to do the projects that often do it for free or for the love of the project. But quick development and focus are not necessary attributes of this model. So both models will continue to be used.

OLinux: What role do you play in the Open Source world these days?

Joe Kaplenk:One of my major efforts at the moment is in bringing Linux in the training and academic system administration training area. Recently I attended and did a presentation at Tech Ed Chicago 2000. The presentation covered what I consider are the major areas of difficulty in teaching system admin. I hope to have it on my website shortly at I did it in Star Office and want to make it available in other formats also.

This conference attracted educators and trainers from universities, colleges, companies and institutions in Illinois. At the conference it was strongly emphasized that there is an increasing shortage of system administrators. The need to develop training programs needs to be given a high priority.

The role I see myself playing is in helping to develop programs for training system admins. Because Linux allows itself to run in more places than any other operating system it is a natural solution to the problem. Students can learn and develop skills that they might not otherwise have. The materials I developed over the years developed into my first two books, the UNIX System Administrator's Interactive Workbook and the Linux Network Administrator's Interactive Workbook. They also formed the start of the whole Prentice-Hall series on Interactive Workbooks.

OLinux: As an educator, what do you think about this Linux certification services proliferation? Beside your books, how can extent your Linux/UNIX knowledge to the users?

Joe Kaplenk: Some employers are demanding Linux certification. My last assignment was one that required me to have my Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), which I have. Personally, I think certification is overemphasized and the important thing is what the admin has done and can do. The RHCE comes the closest to being a true test because it has three parts. The first is multiple choice, the second is debugging and the third is installation. The other certifications that I am aware of do not have this. They are only multiple choice type questions. As an instructor that uses multiple choice questions, I am very familiar with the failings and I try to balance this with hands-on work.

I took the Sair Linux certification test right after passing the RHCE test. I passed 3 of the 4 sections, but took the networking twice. I failed the first time, so I answered any suspect questions differently the second time. It made no difference in the final result. I teach networking, have been doing it for 16 years and have written books on it. The pre-test material says that you only need to have several years experience. This indicates to me that there is some failing that will need to be looked at. While someone can and I'm sure has passed it, they may have passed it not because of knowledge but because of choosing the answers that were being looked for. But I know that sometimes the only way to find out whether is test is good is to give it, so I'm sure with time the bugs will be ironed out. The best test is real-life experience.

As I solve problems or during installs I have started writing up docs that explain the process. My focus is usually on the process itself. The outcome is important, but I figure that if I can speed up, clarify, or make easier the steps I have been a success. In one job I decreased the process time from two months to two weeks by analyzing and automating as much as possible. Eventually I'll have my own set of docs that people can refer to for these processes.

OLinux: How good are the Linux support services? Can you indicate some failure in these services?

Joe Kaplenk: I don't have a lot of experience with Linux support services other than doing them. Currently there are a lot of opportunities to do Linux support and this will grow rapidly because of the growth of Linux. Someday the CIOs are going to wakeup and see that they have production Linux boxes and their support guy just left. They will need to find someone to help them out.

The only failures might be in the lack of planning and training for what is becoming a tidal wave of demand for Linux. I have been a user of Solaris and AIX services and my observation is that Linux will be at those levels soon if it isn't already.

OLinux: What are the better and the worse Linux platform features in comparison with Windows platform?

Joe Kaplenk: My jobs have required me to work with DOS, Windows 3.1/NT/95,98, AIX, Solaris, HP-UX, AT&T UNIX and BSD. As a result I have come in contact with many of the features, good and bad, of these operating systems.

Linux is very scaleable. Ignoring hardware memory requirements, Linux can be put on wristwatches or IBM mainframes and run the same program.

The Linux source code is accessible so that a developer can figure out how to talk to the operating system. All the system calls are documented. This is not found in Windows where many system calls are hidden and only Microsoft knows about them. This gives MS a competitive edge. A Linux developer can know exactly what to expect whereas oftentimes Windows developers are shooting blind and hope they hit the target with enough ammo.

Windows does have some good points. It is widely used. There are many applications that only run on Windows, so that the user is forced to use Windows. However the open source community is coming along very quickly and providing equivalent functionality to Linux programs. Microsoft spends a lot of time and money testing applications on users to determine the best way to make something available to the user. I find some Linux apps confusing. They have simplified the process greatly. As long as you do things the Microsoft way and buy Microsoft products you won't have a problem.

But the problem is that there are many software manufacturers that write for Windows and really don't seem to have a clue. I've installed McAffe Office 2000, Norton Utilities and various Norton antivirus products over the years and inevitably remove them. After the installs my boxes will slow to a crawl, crash more often, lose icons and various other insanities. I figure that for about 5 years I could count on spending 12 weeks a year trying to fix my MS boxes and ultimately I would have to reinstall the whole mess. My final solution is to never install anything that gets to close to the operating system like these utilities. Then the boxes run a lot better. But I lose out the functionality of the software. Basically, if I leave it alone once it is running then it works great. But this loses a lot of the fun.

With Linux, and UNIX in general, the operating system and the apps are practically always separate. So when you upgrade to another version of the various system monitoring tools the system runs without a problem. If there is a problem the developer, whose email address is available, can fix it very quickly.

Microsoft is in a difficult position. They are trying to control the process while giving a certain amount of flexibility to other companies. They realize that other developers create ideas more quickly than MS. So if they let others develop the ideas then Microsoft can buy these companies out, steal the ideas or put them out of business. This model won't last long. While MS has been pushing the UCITA laws that passed in Virginia and which prevent reverse engineering they will have closed one of the doors they use. I'm reminded of TI that had the best 16 bit microprocessor in the late 80s. I think it was the 9600. But HP decided they could control the process and tried to design 96% of the software. Eventually people went elsewhere and the processor did not achieve its goals.

OLinux: What does mean the big companies, like IBM, involvement with Linux? Is it really good for the Linux community?

Joe Kaplenk: The Linux community is tending to go in two directions. There is the Free Software Foundation or the GNU/Linux group that is devoted to the purity of the GNU GPL license. These people are very fanatical about keeping Linux in the direction that it started in. This is represented commercially by the Debian GNU/Linux distribution.

However, the other direction is that many companies such as IBM are getting involved. They are finding that they can make a lot of money on Linux services. Let's remember that Bill Gates got his start because IBM didn't want to develop an operating system for the PC. They figured the money was in the hardware. This same mentality is still there. The operating system can sell the hardware. If IBM can sell more boxes by using Linux then they will. IBM is adding their apps to run on Linux. They are pushing Linux because they know the market is going to Linux and they can sell their apps and services on Linux and make money that way. In IBM's world Linux is one more product to support and make money.

I don't see IBM creating their own distribution unless it is for some specialized application such as Point of Sale Equipment (POS) used in stores or for ATM machines. These have special requirements and even in this case they would probably contract with someone else.

There are several manufacturers putting their own front ends on Linux or developing their own version of Linux. But if the libraries and kernel can continue to be compatible then I think Linux will be okay. There may be forks, but the good ideas will be brought back in.

I do see the GNU/Linux folks getting frustrated at some of the directions and I would expect that this will give more impetus to the HURD kernel development. This is the GNU operating system that Richard M Stallman was working on before Linux got fired up. If the Linux community doesn't have a place for them then they may move on to their own kernel and distribution separate from the other Linux distributions. Fortunately FSF has felt very strong about their apps being able to run on as many operating systems as possible, so this shouldn't be too painful to the Linux community.

OLinux: In your opinion, what improvements and support are needed to make Linux a wide world platform for end users?

Joe Kaplenk: Usability is constantly emphasized in the Linux/business community and I agree with this. When I can sit my mother-in-law down at the computer and she can use Linux as easily as Windows then we'll be there. When she realizes that the box doesn't have to be rebooted for silly things that Windows does then it will be a solid sale. Most users don't care about the operating system. They want to use it. Windows has a lot of ease of use and wide usability built-in. Linux is getting close. I try to use Linux whenever I can and am moving things over. I have two windows boxes and a laptop running Windows. My Windows needs have decreased and except for arhived stuff, I don't use my other two Windows boxes. My laptop runs Windows only because I use AOL for my dialup on the road and for some other apps.

OLinux: What was the last book release? Is there any new publication under way?

Joe Kaplenk: My last solo book with the Linux Network Administrator's Interactive Workbook. My last team effort was the IBM Redbook series on Linux which was recently published by Prentice-Hall. This is a four-book series.

There are no publications currently underway. I have been gathering my thoughts and hope to publish a UNIX system administration book based on my research. I plan to merge my first two books and incorporate several very unique concepts that I feel can make teaching and learning system admin much easier. I have a contract offer from Prentice-Hall that I am evaluating. Once I sign the contract the writing will take up most of my spare time.

Joe Kaplenk: Three years ago my goal was a book a year. In two years I had two book published solo and four books as part of a team. I'm basically on track or ahead of schedule.

OLinux: What were your most successful book? How many copies where sold? Did it have many translations to other countries?

Joe Kaplenk: I don't have numbers on the Redbooks, but the UNIX System Administrator's Interactive Workbook was the best seller for the solo books. It has sold at least 20,000 copies. But the numbers are usually up to nine months behind. The networking book was intentionally limited in content to allow the user to just build a network and so didn't sell as well.

There are no translations into other languages as far as I know.

OLinux: How do evaluate the sharp fall os stocks as VA Linux yesterday? Is it possible to make money as a linux company? How do address this problem?

Joe Kaplenk: It was inevitable because new tech stocks in general have been the darlings of the stock market. Linux fits this role perfectly. I also suspect that something was going on that was unanticipated by this process. As I interpret this situation people were doing after-hours bids for the VA Linux stock before it sold. When investors and brokers saw the prices that people were willing to pay, I suspect they made the opening price ridiculously high. As a result many people made quick fortunes. Since the stocks were way overpriced they quickly dropped.

I think the investors in the stock market IPOs have learned their lesson. The IPOs will not be the rockets they once were. Though there are occasional blips.

The biggest money to be made in Linux is in services and training. We will very quickly see this happening. Hardware does not make as much money and neither does the software. Though advanced software such as backup software does sell as well on Linux as on other platforms.

OLinux: What kind of relation do you have with Linux community? Do you currently work for any linux orgs?

Joe Kaplenk: I don't have any formal relations with the Linux community other than being a member of several of the local Linux groups. I am also a member of Uniforum. My time has been so busy with my writing, research, teaching and working that I have avoided additional time commitments. I get over 100 emails a day that I have to deal with also.

I don't work for any Linux orgs, but I do occasionally get assignments that originate from Red Hat.

OLinux: Leave a message to our users.

Joe Kaplenk: Linux is going mainstream. This is an irreversible process. If you want to succeed career-wise and financially you need to understand the obstacles and have some wide experiences with several operating systems. You also need to get down and dirty and play in the sandbox. This means tearing apart the boxes and the software and becoming involved (or should I say intimate?) with them.

Just like the early revolution with PCs and DOS this will move by very quickly. Ten years down the road it might be something else. It won't be MS and Windows and maybe not Linux. So take advantage of it while you can. Keep yourself open to new ideas so that you can again be there when it comes around.

My email is and I am always open to other ideas. Educators that are working on the same issues in training system admins as I am are especially encouraged to contact me.

Copyright © 2000, Fernando Ribeiro Corrêa.
Copying license
Published in Issue 60 of Linux Gazette, December 2000

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