Does Linux tell the Gilgamesh story of hacker culture?

stephenson command line

Is the command line still essential?
Was Stephenson right about his Linux

It’s been a while since I read Stephenson’s essay on Linux. It’s one of those pieces that’s so well written, we need to go back to it now & then.

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This quote caught my eye right away.

“…as living in a commune, where much lip service was paid to ideals of peace, love and harmony, had deprived them of normal, socially approved outlets for their control freakdom, it tended to come out in other invariably more sinister ways. Applying this to the case of Apple Computer will be left as an exercise for the reader, and not a very difficult exercise.”

Anyone who has read about Steve Jobs will chuckle at this one.

1. The Hole Hawg of the internet

When Stephenson wrote this it was 1999. Linux adoption was growing at internet startups, where cost was everything, and risks could be taken. Remember this was before the two biggest data center companies even existed, namely Google & Amazon. Without Linux, neither would be here today!

hole hawg power

Linux was and is today more like a Hole Hawg for the internet, powerful, but dangerous in the wrong hands. :)


“The Hole Hawg is like the genie of the ancient fairy tales, who carries out his masters instructions literally and precisely and with unlimited power, often with disasterous unforseen consequences.”

Also: Why I like Etsy’s site performance report

2. Unix as oral history, our Gilgamesh

gilgamesh unix


“Unix, by contrast is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh. What made old epics like Gilgamesh so powerful and so long-lived was that they were living bodies of narrative that many people knew by heart, and told over and over again — making their own personal embellishments whenever it struck their fancy.”

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3. The bizarre Trinity Torvalds, Stallman & Gates


“In trying to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity, Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three & Linux would not exist.”

And indeed we must thank all three of these characters for where the internet stands today. The cloud is possible because of Linux & cheap intel hardware. And the GNU free software to go along with it.

Related: Did MySQL & Mongo have a beautiful baby called Aurora?

4. On the meaning of “Open Source”


“Source files are useless to your computer, and of little interest to most users, but they are of gigantic cultural & political significance, because Microsoft & Apple keep them secret, while Linux makes them public. They are the family Jewels. They are the sort of thing that in Hollywood thrillers is used as a McGuffin: the plutonium bomb core, the top-secret blueprints, the suitcase of bearer bonds, the reel of microfilm.

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5. What about Apple today?


“The ideal OS for me would be one that had a well-designed GUI that was easy to set up and use, but that included terminal windows where I could revert to the command line interface and run GNU software when it made sense.”

Stephenson wrote this before Apple has rebuilt their OS to sit on top of Unix. And that’s where we are today with Mac OS X!

Also: Are we fast approaching cloud-mageddon??

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Are frameworks a shortcut to slow bloated code?

elephant traffic jam

I was reading one of my favorite blogs again, Todd Hoff’s High Scalability. He has an interesting weekly post format called “Quotable Quotes”. I like them because they’re often choice quotes that highlight some larger truth.

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1. Chasing bloody frameworks

One that caught my eye was this one by Sandro Mancuso:

Frameworks are bad? Aren’t these the foundation of reusable code? Can we build for the web without Ruby’s Rails, PHP’s Laravel or Java’s Spring?

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2. Architecture purity or bloat?

Luckily the conversation remained civil. The other side of the isle piped up with practicality. I think Jeff is saying “Hey we gotta get our jobs done.”

Related: Did MySQL & Mongo have a beautiful baby called Aurora?

3. Look Ma No Frameworks

Then Pablo Chacin jumps in with his slideshare deck, rejecting Frameworks as hugely wastful.

Read: When hosting data on Amazon turns bloodsport

4. Beware the ORM

Anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog knows that I’ve railed on against ORM’s for a long time. These are object relational mappers, they are a library on to of a relational database. They allow developers to build software, without mucking around in SQL.

Hibernate is a famous one. I remember back in the late 90’s I was brought on to fix some terrible performance problems. At root the problem was the SQL code. It wasn’t being written by their team & tuned carefully. It was written en mass & horribly by this Hibernate library.

Also: Is the difference between dev & ops a four-letter word?

5. Where’s the oversight?

Perhaps the biggest risk to many startups is that the decision isn’t being made at all. What do I mean by this?

I think this tweet gets to the heart of it. Often the decision to use a framework or not is simply hidden in plain sight, an assumption albeit a large one, that this is how you build software.

But these decisions are so fundamental because once your scaffolding is built, it becomes very hard to disentangle. Rip & replace becomes terribly expensive, and scalability becomes a painful unattainable dream.

Also: 5 things toxic to scalability

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Why you should build a portable cloud

486 linux server

I was recently browsing Ycombinator News. It is always an endless trove of the curious & interesting.

I stumbled onto Karanbir Singh’s post The Portable Cloud. I was curious, what is that?

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This story gave me warm fuzzies… I was excited in a similar way when Linux was first released. This was many years back through the mists of time in 1992. I had recently graduated computer science, and one of my favorite classes was Operating Systems. We worked to build an OS following Andrew Tennenbaum’s book Minix.

After graduation, I heard about the Linux project & got excited. I was hearing whispering online that Linux could really completely replace windows. So I bought all the parts to build a 486 tower, graphics card, motherboard, memory cards & IDE drives. This ran into the thousands of dollars. Hardware wasn’t cheap then! Keyboard & monitor. I even ordered an optical mouse because it felt like you were sitting at a sun workstation, at home!

I remember putting all this together, and loading the first floppy disk into the thing. Did I image the disks properly? Will it really load something?

Up comes the bios and sure enough it’s booting off of the floppy drive. I thought “Wow, mother of god! This is amazing!”

From there I had init running, and soon the very seat of the soul, the Unix OS itself. That felt so darn cool.

After that I’d spend weeks configuring x-windows, but to have a GUI seemed like the mission impossible. And then you’d go about tweaking and rebuilding your kernel for this or that.

Thank you to Karanbir for rekindling this memory. It’s a great one!

For those starting out now as a developer, operations, or cloud site reliability engineer, I would totally recommend following Karanbir’s instructions. Here’s why!

1. Learning by building

My favorite thing about building a server myself, is that there’s something physical going on. You’re plugging in a cable for the disk bus. Bus is no longer just a concept, but a thing you can hold. You’re plugging in memory, you can look at it & say oh this is a chip, it’s different than a disk drive. You can hold the drive and say, oh there’s a miniature little record player in there, with magnetic arm. Cool!

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2. Linux early beginnings

Another thing I remember about those days, was feeling like I was part of something big. I knew operating systems were crucial. And I knew that Windows wasn’t working. I knew it wouldn’t scale to the datacenter anyway.

I realized I wasn’t the only one to think this way. There were many others as excited as me, who were contributing code, and debug reports.

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3. Debugging & problem solving

Building your own server involves a ton of debugging. In those days you had to compile all those support programs, using the GNU C compiler. You’d run make and get a whole slew of errors, and fire up your editor and get to work.

Configuring your windowing system meant figuring out where the right driver was, and also buying a graphics card that was *supported*. You would then tweak the refresh frequencies, resolution, and so forth. There was no auto detection. You could actually fry your monitor, if you set those numbers wrong!

Read: When hosting data on Amazon turns bloodsport

4. Ownership of the stack

These days you hear a lot about “fullstack engineers”. There is no doubt in my mind, that this is the way to become one. Basic systems administration requires you to compile other peoples software & troubleshoot it. All those developer skills that will come in very handy.

They force you to see all the hardware, and how it fits together into a greater performant whole. It also gives you an appreciation for speed. Use one bus such as IDE or another such as SCSI and experience a different performance profile. Because all that software that Unix is paging in and out of memory, it’s doing by reading & writing to disk!

Also: Are SQL Databases Dead?

5. Learn to be a generalist

I’ve argued before that being a generalist allows you to better scale the web. I still think this, and I believe it is this formative experience building servers from individual parts, that taught me whole the larger whole fit together.

This allows me to look at problems today, and jump to causes of performance problems quickly.

Also: Does Volkswagen highlight the bloodsport in benchmarks?

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Are software benchmarks to blame for Volkswagens woes?

volkswagen emissions

With the recent media attention Volkswagen has gotten, a lot of folks are wondering, how could that happen? Aren’t there checks & balances?

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Then I ran across this observation on Todd Hoff’s brilliant blog High Scalability


Is what Volkswagen did really any different that what happens on benchmarks all the time? Cheating and benchmarks go together like a clear conscience and rationalization. Clever subterfuge is part of the software ethos. There are many many (search google) examples. Cars are now software is a slick meme, but that transformation has deep implications. The software culture and the manufacturing culture are radically different.

What exactly does all of this mean?

1. MySQL & Aurora

I was recently chatting with a colleague of mine Bret Miller who runs DeepSQL an adaptive database platform compatible with MySQL. He said:

“We’re actually doing testing against Aurora, but we recently had a couple customers do it independently with more challenging loads.   Didn’t see the performance stated in the marketing stuff. ”

My response was… “Yeah.  Aurora looks to be a win on the HIGH AVAILABILITY front. 

On the scalability front, MySQL has certain limitations in it’s core.  So i’m not surprised that the marketing material was grandiose in it’s promises.  

The best way to improve mysql performance is to tune queries.  As you’re writing your application, and when you want to boost performance.  ”

And so it goes.

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2. Redis & Memcached

Then I stumbled upon Salvatore Sanfilippo. He is the author of the brilliant & phenomenally successful NoSQL database called Redis. Turns out that another famous blogger was making some sweeping statements about Memcached & Redis and Salvatore ended up defending Redis in a blog post titled Clarifications about Redis.

The topic turned to benchmarks. Which lead me to another post titled
Why we don’t have benchmarks.

Heard this before?

Related: Did Airbnb have to fail?

3. Is Mongo webscale?

When Mongo was first releasing it’s benchmarks, the media went wild. And DBAs were scratching their heads. This fabulous video captures the sentiment of the time. :)

Read: Is Amazon too big to fail?

4. Oracle meets David DeWitt

In the 80’s Oracle began to forbid publishing benchmarks. After seeing a research paper by David DeWitt, Larry Ellison amended the End-user-license-agreement to include the DeWitt Clause. Later other database vendors followed.

It’s easy to see why. Benchmarks by their very nature depend on so many factors. It’s inevitable that those factors will be carefully picked by each platform to highlight it’s strengths.

Also: Are SQL databases dead?

5. Product versus disks

It is inevitable that all of this continues. When we reside at the level of the business, we perceive the product & its performance through that lens.

When we dive down to the level of disks, buses, cpus, network latency, multi-tenant clouds and a myriad of other factors, the waters are never so clear.

So remember your mileage may vary and buyer beware are as true today as they ever were.

Also: 5 Things are toxic to scalability

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