LinuxUK Interview with Alan Cox

Republished from my old site.

I found this interview with kernel hacker Alan Cox in 1999 whilst sorting through some of the cruft in my home directory. It was was from the now defunct LinuxUK site and as the interview is no longer available there I have put a copy up here.

This edition of Interview is with one of the main contributers to the development of the Linux Kernel. He is a man who spends countless hours hacking away at the Kernel making it as near perfect as he can. It is for sure that Alan is one of those people who is a ‘true developer’; in it for the experience and not the money…a trait that so many Linux developers are part of.

This interview was conducted over email…and the promptness of Alan’s reply was to me surprising due to the fact that he gets so much mail; must have been near the top :- )

Wannabe kernel hackers…here is your inspiration…

1. When did you first get into hacking the Kernel?

I’d always wanted a Unix system but even Minix was out of my price range. I’d spent some time adding unixlike stuff to the Amiga I had but wasnt bold enough to write an entire new OS. When Linux 0.11 & 386BSD were announced I ordered a 386 box. I couldn’t afford an FPU which 386BSD needed at the time so I installed Linux (off two floppy disks at the time). 0.95 appeared and the university computer society bought a 386 box and I fixed a couple of things. Linus ignored one patch and rejected the other. A while later we were one of the early users of the Linux TCP/IP code, and after Ross Biro quit as the maintainer Fred van Kempen took over, and  started doing a big rewrite not fixing the old code. I started maintaining  the old code (by virtue of the fact the compsoc machine crashed every 3 hours and we needed to fix it) and Linus started using that. Fred’s rewrite never made it into the kernel.

alan-puters.jpg (24499 bytes)2: What current hardware/software do you use for hacking?

A pile of old 486 boxes for testing and for stable servers and the like. A Cyrix MediaGX box as console and soundblaster test box (its quite neat that the MediaGX soundblaster cloning is so good its a reliable way to test soundblaster code) and a Cyrix MII as a compile engine and test box – it also runs the web server so I get to find bugs faster.

3. How much time on average a day do you spend hacking?

That varies – normally 8-9 hours a day but sometimes something is almost working, and you’ve nearly pinned down the bug and then its 6am.

4. How do you see the future of Linux developing – the Server or Desktop. or both?

I think both – server and “appliance” first then desktop. It may also find a place in the ‘non computer user’ environment as things like a dedicated mail/web terminal before the PC desktop. Its very easy to configure and you can ship 20 million units of it with no license costs.

5. How does the collaberation between yourself and Linus work in terms of organising which work is done in which area of the Kernel?

The big picture is entirely Linus. Im directly reponsible for some of the little pictures (right now sound and video) and involved in co-ordinating a pile of apparently random things for merging into the main tree. Sometimes I don’t agree with his big picture but since the debates are always technical issues it can always be solved by actual code. “No way” normally means “I cannot conceive of a way to do this or a good reason”. If you have both you can then come back to the debate.

6. What are the primary resources you use when working? Which books/websites etc…

I actually try and avoid books nowdays, .pdf files take less space up and most people provide them downloable. Sometimes documentation on paper is nice but thats normally stuff you need to dig deep into like device manuals – the actual paper sitting around me right now is a 3c527 programming manual, a book about designing macintosh cards and a magento optical disk product manual.

7. If Microsoft offered you a job, what would be your words of reply?

Microsoft did , I said no.

8. Do you actively participate in UK based Linux user groups/conferences/activities?

Not generally – I was at the manchester event last year and at the netproject conference (although not as a speaker).

9. Linux UK has recieved a lot of Email from Linux users in the UK wanting to get into hacking the Linux Kernel. What pointers and advice would you give them?

The Linux Documentation Project ( has a very good work in progress on the Linux Kernel by Dave Rusling that is well worth a read. The best way to get involved in kernel hacking is probably working on bug fixes or device drivers. Just pick something that annoys you and mend it. In many ways the places that need the most work are documentation and user applications – especially friendly configuration tools. There is a lot of scope. Just pick something that looks interesting and play with it.

10. What does your wife think of all the time you spend on hacking the Kernel?

Read the diary pages –

alan-cooking.jpg (22959 bytes)We do in general have a social life as well as a computing one.

11. What other interests and ambitions do you have?

Anything thats new and different. I tried gardening briefly but it consists mostly of weeding which isnt terribly varied. I’ve been having fun trying to figure chinese, mexican and indian cookery. I’ve not killed anyone yet and the chinese is passable but I have plenty of experiments to do.

12. There has been lots of discussion on you writing a book. What are your most recent thoughts on this?

I’m still not sure. I’ve done magazine articles before but a book is a much much bigger undertaking.

Last modified: 21 July 2012