Embedded world Conference 2009 will be held in March 2 – 4, 2009, Nuernberg, Germany
China Friendship award for 10 years of Free-Software/Open-Source development at Lanzhou University
Prof.Nicholas Mc Guire
Distributed & Embedded System Lab (DSLab)
School of Information Science and Engineering
Lanzhou University .P.R.China
After receiving the honor of the friendship award, and much being said about what I have been doing, I would like to remind that a friendship has two sides – in this short note I would like to present the “second side”, the many people I met in China and there contribution to this work. Thus, I allow myself to take on this friendship award for all of DSLab, the many people that havesupported it and the free software community of Lanzhou University in general.
A little more than 10 years ago I got an e-mail from a student of Lanzhou University, Qingguo Zhou, posted to the RTLinux mailinglist and asking some questions about MiniRTL – a small Free Software RTOS distribution that I maintained. At that time I was not even aware of Gansu being a province in China let alone that Lanzhou existed – in fact I was completely ignorant of China as a whole. This was going to change quite wildly over the next years!
The first e-mails were quickly answered, discussion started, and quickly the details of the Mossbauer spectroscope became quite interesting, we decided that this work should be presented at the annual Real Time Linux Workshop, the next one was scheduled for November 2000 in Orlando, Florida, USA – but we underestimated the problems of getting a visa and finally had to give up this first presentation – but this exhibited one property of the students in Lanzhou to me, that was to become very important for my work in
Lanzhou – they don’t easily give up! So one year later, Qingguo Zhou makes it to RTLWS3 in Milano 2001.
From then on things developed rapidly, the first personal meeting made it clear that there are a few students interested in free-software and they are eager to learn – the Nerd Lab idea was born and quickly a room was found where interested students could collaborate – lab1213.lzu.edu.cn – also called the NerdLab was set up. The name stems from the work I was doing in Austria under the name ThinkingNerds.com.
Projects start to emerge, mailing lists set up, the web-page and the NerdLab starts growing and the activities start becoming better organized (I’m a slightly chaotic person my self – so this really helped), and that was maybe the second characteristic that should become important, the ability to organize things. The NerdLab continued work on RTLinux related ideas, clustering ideas (we actually wanted to build a RTLinux cluster, specified some RT-NTP protocols, etc.) – soon we realized that to further strengthen this work we
should get together and build up the core know-how on embedded and real-time Linux – the idea of holding a summer school popped up and we quickly agreed to do so.
In 2004 I travel to Lanzhou for the first time, for the summer school, 3 weeks of intensive works on clusters – of course GNU/Linux based clusters. I did not expect to find 38 students interested in such a specialized topic – but the class is packed full and we start digging into GNU/Linux, Clusters, MPI… At this first summer school I meet a lot of students that I’m still working with today, some of them PhD candidates, some of them working for companies in China (on GNU/Linux and open-source … I hope) and the one that learned most in this summer school turns out to be me – it changes my view of China quite substantially. The students not only work hard, but they are very pragmatic in there solutions, many of the solutions presented are absolutely not what one would expect from a European student – this exposure to different ways of thinking is very enriching to me.
Heading: Free-software / Open-Source in action
After the summer school completed, it was not really a question to me that I would be back for another summer school, we start discussing possibilities of collaborating even more tightly and the idea of moving the NerdLab to a more scientific Distributed and Embedded Systems Lab is born – DSLab is started and we get to work on embedded and real-time Linux systems. Many of the students involved in these projects
have contributed important ideas to our work, and I think this open-minded environment is the most important thing to me personally. Not only the students proof to be open-minded also the administration of Lanzhou University. Most notable without the continuous support and encouragement from Prof. Li Lian I think most of this would not have happened – I sometimes wonder if this development would have ever
been possible at a European university – I doubt it.
DSLab quickly starts moving; we submit some of our ideas to the IBM Power Challenge, first time we don’t make it, but as mentioned students don’t give up easily, they try the next year and this time we go into the finals.
Heading: Team work is the essence to success
This is maybe the starting point were we actually had the confidence that we know what we are doing – a series of publications starts to emerge from DSLab, more and more students join in – from many different disciplines. In this atmosphere of interdisciplinary work on free-software/open-source not only do many ideas get realized but also my understanding of the way things work in China improves (though slowly).
In 2006 the Real Time Linux Workshop came to Lanzhou University, with quite a few foreign experts joining in. This not only was a great motivation for DSLab but hopefully showed to all of Lanzhou University what potential lies in Free-Software and Open-Source. The Free-software community around GNU/Linux is an open-minded and patient (…well most of the time) group of developers that are open to Chinas academic researchers and students joining in. I hope that DSLab and my work there can contribute to China’s creative potential being unleashed in the form of FLOSS contributions.
Heading: The key to the future is communication and discussion
I have met many people in China – quite a few of which I now refer to as friend – what started out with a few e-mails about RTLinux embedded systems, and a Mossbauer spectroscope has moved on to a team at DSLab, supported by SISE, and providing a creative academic environment for ideas to be born and perused. I enjoy ever stay in Lanzhou, in the mean time I have been there more than 20 times and I hope that there will be an opportunity to stay there for a longer time and work intensively with this hard-working (hard-headed) bunch at DSLab and Lanzhou University.
One thing that really struck me here in Lanzhou was the enormous diversity one can find here within the student body. After summer school 2006 had completed Dr. Zhou told me that we had students from almost all provinces in the class room – and that really explained to me why so many different characteristics could be observed – taking the size of China into account, that is not too surprising. The creative potential of Chinese students I would speculate really stems from there diverse backgrounds – diversity at the social, ethnic religious level – all of which forms a person on his way through life.
China faces many challenges, ecological, social and economic – I hope that the work of DSLab has contributed to all these fields and we will continue at DSLab to emphasis students ecological and social responsibilities along the way. Chin’s progress in the past 30 years is very impressive, at the same time events like the earthquake in 2008 show how quickly things can change and how brittle a society can become within seconds. If China can manage to transform the tension, that lie between diversity and unity, into creativity rather than conflict, then truly I can imagine that the 21st century will be shaped to a large extent by China.
Finally I would like to express my thanks to Prof. Li Lian and Dr. Zhou Qingguo, without there continuous support, hard work and theenvironment they provided not much of what I have been part of here would have happened.
When the news arrived at DSLab that I would get the Friendship Award during this important years 60th anniversary of the Peoples Republic founding, for the work on Free Software/Open Source at Lanzhou University, this of course was not only big news, but it also immediately raised the question “how do we explain to then what we are actually doing?” Free-Software/Open-Source who knows what that is about? The prize was to be handed over by Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang at a ceremony in the great hall of the people in Beijing and the next day we were supposed to meet Premier Wen Jiabao. Not many opportunities to meet top officials of a country, needless to say of an important country like China.
So we decided that we should prepare a special gift for the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao allowing him to experience the capabilities of Chinese computer technology paired with Free-Software and the creativity of the smart kids in this country that contributed to the Free-software community. The heavy investments in the education system that have changed the academic landscape completely over the last decades have been gradually adopting quite a bit of free-software and it also has begun contributing back to this world-wide community. This was our chance to give the premier minister first hand insight of what’s going on with free-software in Chinas academic community!
Heading: Loongson Yeelong netbook running a Debian GNU/Linux variant.
DSLab, founded in 2004, focuses on distributed and embedded computer systems, with a strong slant towards the real-time variants. In the past years we have been working on RTLinux/GPL (Austria), L4/Fiasco (Germany) and XtratuM (Spain) as well as modifications and extensions to mainline Linux (Global). This alone already shows how distributed the free-software development community is – and China is becoming a part of it – but there still is work to do!
The RT-Preempt kernel, a real-time extension to the mainline Linux kernel was installed with the latest patches from Wu Zhangjin, a student of DSLab, working on real-time on MIPS. The installation on the Loongson Yeelong netboot that we generously were provided with by Lemotes CTO Zhang Fuxin who has been supporting DSLab a lot in the past, was quickly completed. As this is a real-time kernel extension, some tests had to be done to make sure that the worst-case jitter and latency on the Premiers Netbook would be ok – so some very intensive work had to be completed in only a few days to make sure the system was stable and exhibited good real-time performance. A lot of support from the free-software community, notably from Thomas Gleixner, one of the RT-preempt developers and X86 Linux maintainer, was of great help here. After a few tests we were satisfied with the roughly 62 microseconds jitter that we could measure – a suitable value for a Premier ministers netbook we concluded – after all he would be the first premier in the world with a real-time GNU/Linux system at hand!
Picture of cyclic test on the yeelong netbook:
Heading: Cyclic test running on Wen Jiabaos netbook
Of course its not quite that simple, you can’t just walk into the great hall of the people with a laptop and hand it over to the Chinese premier minister. The Ministry of foreign experts affairs, Mr. Fengyun Lei was contacted and he was very helpful, invited us to hop by and give him the details of what we intended to do – Mr. Fengyun Lei, the Deputy Director of State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, quickly called in one of his IT experts, Mr Yanguang Zhong, director of Information Research Center of International Talent, to give the netboot a look and concluded that this is “A pretty nice system!”. Not too surprising Mr Zhong new GNU/Linux well and was himself a supporter of the free-software operating system – it seems that it all ready is quite wide spread in China – even more of a reason to present such a system to one of the top officers of the country.
We hope that it has reached its final destination – Premier Wen Jiabao and he can enjoy the stability and simplicity of a free-software netbook, while also providing a high-level of security based on well reviewed open-source components. This Loongson system is not simple made-in China, but developed-in China, with the help of the worldwide free-software community. What we can observe here is a transition that is happening now more and more – the transition from mere production to research and development of high-tech products in China. The students of DSLab are only a small piece of this tendency, but we hope that we are a good example of what potential can be found in free and open-source software to enhance the future of technology.
Power consumption: roughly 15 Watt
Heading: Designed and developed in China – Premier Wen Jiabao’s yeelong netbook
This friendship award that I received for the work on Free-software at Lanzhou University is a great boost to our confidence that we are investing our energy and time in work that is meaningful not only to us but to the society we are a part of. Of course this prize is not based only on my work, it is the result of hard work of many students at DSLab, the result of the support that DSLab and I have been receiving from Lanzhou University in the past years, and it is of course also du to the open-source community which provides the technological basis of much of our work. So I allow myself to take this prize in the name of all who have contributed to our successful work.
Heading: The DSLab Free-software team