I got a nice surprise in my inbox recently from Kent Brewster, one of my compatriots at YDN, when he saw the plea on my home page for a copy of my long-lost presentation at 1999 OSCON, Sex and Linux at Salon, which I did along with Jeffrey Radice, my partner. I knew it would turn up somewhere, but I feel a little silly now because it was sitting on the servers I used to run and I never tried Salon’s local site search. Oh well. I didn’t even remember the presentation being web-based, but it pleases my 34-year-old self that my 27-year-old self made that choice instead of PowerPoint.
So, why “Sex and Linux at Salon?” What did sex have to do with Linux? Some background, and it all starts to make sense. From 1996-98, I worked at CNN.com and CNNSI.com in Atlanta. Feeling the call of the west coast, but wanting something a little different than a run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley job, I responded to a job posting on Salon’s site for someone to lead the technology operation, emphasizing (if I remember correctly) that I was the perfect candidate for them: a wayward English major who had dropped his Shakespeare studies in favor of Unix and web development. (I later learned that this wasn’t so unique!) They called me back and I flew out to San Francisco and immediately fell in love with everyone at Salon. I made immediate plans to move and arrived in the summer of 1998. Once the new-to-SF buzz wore off, though, I found a technology operation in utter disarray. The servers were super-flaky NT boxes, there were no good backups, etc. At CNN, I had worked with what I’m certain was the best web operations team in the world at the time, so I decided to take some of the principles I learned there and crafted a plan to stabilize everything at Salon. I was a Unix guy anyway (Solaris mostly), so I knew the NT servers were not long for my world. All I needed was a little time.
To put it mildly, the summer/fall of 1998 was not a quiet one for a left-leaning San Francisco web site with a strong political point-of-view. As I was putting my technology plan together in my first weeks on the job, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was heating up, and Rep. Henry Hyde, head of the House Judiciary Committee, was leading the charge towards impeachment. The Starr Report was released. Salon had been in the fray from the beginning, offering (I think) a voice of relative reason in all the craziness. It was a great time to be at a place like Salon in San Francisco, and that summer and fall were some of the most memorable days of my professional life. I had no idea, though, about the tsunami that was about to hit Salon.
Salon really inserted itself in the fray when founder and editor-in-chief David Talbot decided to run old black-and-white photos of Rep. Henry Hyde with a woman sitting playfully in his lap — a woman with whom he had had an affair some thirty years earlier. I remember when the photos were unveiled in the office before we ran them. This was undoubtedly below-the-belt journalism, but those were below-the-belt times. When the photos and the story were published, we ran a story with our justification, “Why we ran the Henry Hyde story.” When I hear about the Clinton impeachment process, these words still echo through my mind:
Aren’t we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics. When a pack of sanctimonious thugs beats you and your country upside the head with a tire-iron, you can withdraw to the sideline and meditate, or you can grab it out of their hands and fight back.
Anyway, to get back to the relationship between sex and Linux. . . . when we ran the Henry Hyde story, historical events overtook my thoughtful technology plan and I was stuck rebooting NT servers all day to keep the site up. Salon was denounced on the Senate floor — I rebooted the servers. The Salon story led all the network nightly newscasts (back when they still mattered a little) — I rebooted the servers again. Death threats, bomb threats, black faxes (my first experience with those) — more server reboots. A representative’s sexual indiscretions 30 years earlier led me to one conclusion: Linux. That’s where the “sex and Linux” connection became clear. We accelerated our migration plans after that day.
It seems a bit strange now that something like our little NT-to-Linux migration garnered so much coverage, but it did: Slashdot, Webmonkey, News.com, and PC World (in which I was somehow interviewed in a story about Xeon servers. Hmmm.) This coverage was largely driven by a press release that I authored along with our marketing department, with the bold title: Salon Adopts Linux as its Enterprise Internet Server Platform. That was really a fancy way of saying that a very small group of people stayed up for a few weeks straight dealing with all sorts of unforseen issues, but we ultimately completed the migration. We ran into lots of stupid issues, the case-insensitivity of the NT filesystem versus the case-sensitive Linux filesystem being one of them. We used a Windows tool on the NT box to make a tarball of our content (which was all flat files, no database backend at that point) and when we untarred it on the Linux box, the filenames were all funky: logo.jpg was LoGO.Jpg and things like that. Nothing that a simple Perl script using lc to rename all the files wouldn’t fix.
The coolest thing about our migration is that due to our constrained funds (Salon never seemed to be rolling in cash, at least for technology, while I was there and we were relatively frugal anway), we didn’t have a bank of new Linux boxes to migrate to, so we literally wiped NT off the boxes one-by-one and rolled out Linux on them until there were no more NT boxes. We never missed them, not even for a second. I don’t think I’ve done anything serious with an NT box since.