Interview with a SCALE attendee

At lunch on Friday at SCALE, I struck up a conversation with an attendee.   It was illuminating, and as a result I asked Steve Garcia from CSU Bakersfield how he came to be at SCALE.  This interview was the result.

Steve, what's your educational background?

I have a Bachelor's in Physics from about 30 years ago.  I took a couple of programming courses (FORTRAN and Pascal, all with punch cards) in college, but that was about it.  I spent the next 20 years in the oil patch (slang for the oil business - Orv), using PDP 11/34 minicomputers, then moving on to VAX and then Sun workstations.

How did you get involved with computers? 

I bought my first PC in 1982, and spent a fair amount of spare time playing with it.  I bought my first modem in 1987, and I decided that *communications* was the future of computers.

Around 1991 I joined the local PC user group in order to take over their BBS system.  This was the heyday of Fidonet, that board was my uplink to Fido, and the sysop wanted to quit.  So of course I had to do something to maintain my fix.

Around 1994 I discovered OS/2, and converted the BBS over to run on it (well, DOS sessions on top of OS/2.)  I continued to use OS/2 as my primary system, probably until 2002 -- I never did run Windows as a primary system.  I've had to administer Windows networks at one time or another, but never on my own machines.

How did you get involved with using Open Source software?

Somewhere around 1996 or 7, I tried my first Linux system.  Red Hat 4.something, I think.  I was still dialup then, so it was boxed software. Too big to be downloading.  I thought it was interesting, but it was still a little too crude for me to use as a desktop.  I stuck with OS/2.

In 1998, the oilpatch was going through some hard times, and I found myself in a Dotcom startup as a programmer/system administrator.  I had taught myself C for a project at work, and I'd been using Solaris on my workstation at work, so neither Unix nor C were a complete mystery to me. The startup was using both Linux and Solaris in the server room, as well as a few other Unix flavors.  Some time after I started we got a bunch of HP 9000 PA-RISC systems, so I found myself administering HPUX as well.

Most of us on the technical side were running Linux as our workstations. Part of the rite of passage was setting up your own system.  :)  In addition we had up to 60 or 70 Linux servers, a couple of dozen Solaris servers, and maybe 20 HPUX machines.  Even on the proprietary Unix machines, most of the installed software was Open Source.  It was a couple of years of intensive immersion in the Open Source world.

In 2001 the bottom fell out of the Dotcom world, and I found myself on my own.  I spent the unemployment time building my programming and administrations skills.  Go O'Reilly!

It was at this time that I shut down my last OS/2 machine at home, although a well log digitizing company that I was running continued to use OS/2 as its basis until 2004.  I discovered Gentoo Linux about this time and mostly retired all my Red Hat machines as well.

In 2003 I started as a lecturer/system administrator for the Computer Science department at Cal State Bakersfield.

We had three computer labs, two running Windows 2000 and one running a mix of Digital Unix (on Alpha) and Solaris (on Sparc.)  Our primary server was an Alpha, and the new server waiting in the wings was a Sun Sparc running Solaris 8, which we switched to very shortly thereafter.  A few years later we got a small grant to purchase a small Dell server so we could experiment with Linux, to see if it would be suitable for our next gen primary server.  I was pretty confident, but my department chair wanted to run a battery of tests to make sure it would do what he wanted it to do.

He concluded that Linux was much better behaved (in the things he cared about) than Solaris.

About this time we moved into a new building built and optimized for the Math and Computer Science departments.  Finally a real server room! Along with this came a grant to furnish the computers, and we now had 5 computer labs to fill.  I took this opportunity to convert all the classroom labs I could to run Ubuntu.  Using VMware Player, we have Windows VMs on each machine, but students primarily use the base Ubuntu OS.  One lab, the Digital Electronics lab, runs all Windows systems since the hardware/software combo requires Windows.  It turned out not to work in emulation, so we had to go back to native Windows in that case.  The rest are all Ubuntu, including the advanced Unix lab which is running all Sun workstations.

At the same time, we were able to get a new primary server, a Dell 6950 with tons of memory and storage.  I put Debian Etch on it, and we've been very happy with it.

Our program is set up so that most classes involve students logging on to the server and doing their programming assignments directly on the server.

The Ubuntu workstations in the labs have proven to be very easy to maintain.  My satisfaction with the last couple of versions of Ubuntu has been dropping, so the next refresh might be something else, I'm not sure what.  My personal machines are still running Gentoo, mostly.  I won't be switching the labs to Gentoo, however!

Steve Garcia
Operating Systems Analyst -- Computer Science

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