Interview with Marcel Gagne, President of Salmar Consulting, Inc.

Marcel Gagné is President of Salmar Consulting, Inc., a company that specializes in UNIX/Linux systems and network integration. Over the years, as a systems and network administrator, he has worked with many flavors of UNIX (including Linux), installed and configured numerous networks, Internet security firewalls, and Web servers for many large and small clients.

He writes the “Cooking with Linux” column for Linux Journal, the online series, “Sysadmin’s Corner,” and is a regular columnist for other publications such as UNIX Review and Sys Admin Magazine. In addition, Marcel is a pilot, as well as an editor and published author of science fiction and fantasy short stories. Last, but certainly not least, he’s the author of the acclaimed book Linux System Administration – A User’s Guide. For more in-depth information about Marcel Gagné visit his homepage.

Free Thinker at Large, what exactly does that mean to you?

This one goes back quite a while, really. In fact, I’ve been using the “Free Thinker at Large” tagline on emails for many years now. In started out as a bit of an inside joke, as in “Free thinker on the loose! Better watch out!” or “Careful what you say because I will think for myself” — variations on that theme. A free thinker, however, is what I believe every person should be. When I started writing in a big way, I just prefixed my tagline with “Writer and” — what you wind up with, “Writer and Free Thinker at Large” is what I am and my philosophy wrapped up in one neat handle.

Out of all of your writing ideas how do you decide which ones to develop further?

As you imply, lack of ideas have never been the problem. I have more ideas and subjects than I will ever have time to write about. Deciding what becomes an article and what gets put off for another day depends on many things. From time to time, I will have been asked to write about a certain topic and that does tend to narrow the field a bit. For the vast majority of what I write, the decision starts and ends with me. If it is strictly a sysadmin topic, I tend to pick things that I can discuss over the course of a few articles — I think it is interesting to get somewhat in depth with a topic. In my “Cooking with Linux” series on Linux Journal, I try to come up with a small handful of packages or programs that fit the issue’s theme for that month. Mostly I try to make it fun as well as providing useful information. In the end it is still my decision. I should probably point out that I try absolutely everything I write about before hand. I have to have been there myself (successfully) or I won’t write about it.

What was it like writing Linux System Administration – A User’s Guide?

Aside from it having been an amazing amount of work (insert appropriate smiley here), it was fantastic! When I started writing the book, I had been writing articles in the field for some time. Nevertheless, it was a real kick to move from a short, magazine format to a book. Anytime I’ve covered something in an article, I tried to explain things in a way that I wished someone had explained it to me. Writing “Linux System Administration: A User’s Guide” gave me the opportunity to create the book I would have wanted to have and to present information in a way that respected the reader’s intelligence. I’m not a “RTFM” guy. Forcing people to learn by intimidation is not my way. System administration is no more magic than anything else — I’ve always believed that people want to learn this stuff and that the person who has been put in charge of the system isn’t stupid. Consequently, I’m always inviting people to try things out for themselves. With the book, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to reach people in a new and exciting way.

Linux is exciting because it has opened up so many possibilities in such a short period of time. These days, I’m hard at work writing my second book and I look forward to sharing that excitement with a whole new audience.

If you could start writing “Linux System Administration – A User’s Guide” all over again, would you make any major changes?

As I mentioned in the book, Linux (as with all dynamic things) is a moving target. I don’t know that I would make any _major_ changes, but Linux has evolved since I wrote the book and some new things have been added or have become popular. If I were starting today, I would certainly look at some of those things and they might become part of the book.

That said, I wrote “Linux System Administration – A User’s Guide” with the intention of concentrating on concepts, on things that won’t change with the fashion of the day, and being as release agnostic as possible. I wanted the information I provided to be something that outlived the book’s publication date. I also wanted it to be useful to people regardless of what distribution they were running, whether it was Red Hat, SuSE, Slackware, Debian, or whatever.

What’s your take on the adoption of Linux in the enterprise? Do you think it will give a boost to security?

Linux in the enterprise can only be a good thing. I know that the arguments will continue until for some time, but I personally don’t believe in security through obscurity. Keeping a glaring security hole a secret by not publishing the code or informing the public doesn’t change the fact that a glaring security hole exists. Yes, I know the argument… if you open the code then all the bad boys and girls out there will be busy looking for exploits. On the other hand, if you open the source, all the good boys and girls will be out there looking to make sure that these problems happen as rarely as possible, and are dealt with as quickly as possible when they do happen.

When it comes to system administration and particularly security, there can be a lot of stress involved at times. Do you find yourself in tough situations and what do you do to handle them?

System administration, by its nature, is stressful. BOFH stories aside, a great deal of expectation falls on the shoulders of the person in charge of making sure everything works. As a sysadmin, if anything goes wrong, it is your fault. That holds true for me as well. In all cases, I try to maintain a sense of humour. If you can keep your head while everyone around you is panicking, that air of calmness will spread somewhat. Confidence instills confidence. If you are at your wits end, don’t be afraid to ask for help. We’re all in this together.

And remember, the best way to avoid stress is to avoid the stressful situations in the first place. Get to know your systems and your network. Stay on top of it. Knowledge is power. Learn all that you can, script what can be scripted and schedule everything imaginable with cron jobs (where possible). If it isn’t broken, people won’t be complaining and you can build up that reputation “as a miracle worker” (as Scotty might say).

What’s the most careless act in system administration you’ve ever seen?

(insert sound of laughter here) I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve been in offices where people have their passwords stuck to their monitors because it’s easier than remembering. As bad as that is, I think this next one probably rates as the worst. A company (that shall remain nameless) spent a small fortune on a high capacity, enterprise backup solution. That doesn’t sound so bad except that they just assumed (presumably because it was so expensive) that the configuration and hence, the backups, should not be verified or tested. After three months of running this solution, the inevitable happened. I leave the rest to your imagination.

What direction do you think the Linux community will take in 2003? What direction would you like to see Linux go?

What is most interesting about the Linux community is that there really is a “Linux community”. I believe that the community will continue to do what it has always done — code, develop, and work to extend the capabilities of the Linux operating system so that the question of whether Linux will ever dominate the OS world won’t be a question, but accepted fact.

As for Linux itself, I believe that in 2003, Linux will make serious inroads onto the desktop, both at home and in the office. The average, non-techie user will be running Linux; your brother and sister, your parents, your grandparents… Those of us who are the “Linux experts” had better prepare ourselves because we are going to hear a lot about it “outside the community”.

What advice would you give to new Linux users?

Don’t be afraid. Explore. Play. Linux can be as easy or as challenging as you like. It all depends on what you would like to do with your system — Linux has brought fun back to the personal computer and provides nearly boundless possibilities. So take some time to learn. Way back when in the early days of the personal computer, when we all ran DOS, there were no “stupid” users. Back then, everyone worked with a command line and many learned simple programs or wrote simple scripts (.BAT files). There aren’t any stupid users now; it’s just that year by year, the Windows OS has taken away the opportunity for the average user to stretch their knowledge (unless you are willing to invest in expensive tools). The advent of a nice, graphical interface was a very good thing, but along with it, many things were taken away (the command line, a free and easy programming tool, the joy of experimenting, etc).