Careers: Interviews
Respected Linux Expert, Writer, Author

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Ken Burtch.

 

Ken, well respected for his Linux work, graduated with a Computer Science first class honors degree from Brock University and did his Masters work at Queen's University. He has been using Linux since version 0.97, at a time before Linux was popular. He is the founder of PegaSoft Canada (http://www.pegasoft.ca), an association that promotes
Linux advocacy, education and development in southern Ontario. He has worked with a number of companies including Mackenzie Financial Corporation, one of Canada's largest mutual fund companies. Ken is an active member of the Writers' Circle of Durham Region and his award-winning short story, "Distance,” was recently published in the "Signatures" anthology (ISBN 0973210001).

 

Amongst his latest book credits is “Linux Shell Scripting with Bash.”

 

Discussion:

 

Q: Ken, as a well-respected Linux authority, we thank you for taking time out to do this interview.

 

A: Thanks for inviting me.

 

Q: What triggered your interest in computers?

 

A: A TRS-80 Model I computer was donated to my high school and placed in the school library for everyone to use. I became fascinated with early games like Paddle Pinball. I remember one occasion where the librarian asked me why I couldn’t create something impressive on the computer, like “Donkey Kong”. By the end of the afternoon he saw I had a stick figure dropping letter “O” barrels a letter “P” that could jump the barrels and make its way to the top of the screen.

 

Q: Can you share your most valuable lessons from your Master’s work?

 

A: Professors and universities often have their own agendas. Only you can teach yourself and push yourself to find the heights that you can achieve.

 

One professor asked me if I wanted to be in “academia” or “industry”. I have discovered that they are more the same than different. Both are corrupted by money and ambitions. Both have their jargon that does not mean anything. Don’t sell yourself short and become “institutionalized” by these ignoble institutions. Value yourself and your integrity.

 

Q: Ken, tell us more about PegaSoft?

 

A: I started PegaSoft as an Apple II shareware game company. “Quest for the Hoard” was an early award-winning game with 14 track music and pioneering 3-D stereo sound. We reformed at the beginning of the web era to make the Niagara Falls region’s first full Internet email and news provider. During this time my partners and I discovered Linux and we switched our focus to a Linux support and advocacy group, sharing ideas and promoting Linux projects in southern Ontario. PegaSoft has been actively involved in Linux even before Linux entered the limelight in 1999.

 

Q: What are your top five tips for good Bash script design?

 

A: 1) Be organized because you don’t know the life expectancy of your work.

2) Check for problems before your script does its work.

3) Use source control to manage changes.

4) Use proper quoting so that your script will be adaptable to future problems.

5) Use Bash’s optional error checking features whenever possible.

 

Q: Can you describe the most important aspects of database scripting?

 

A: Database console clients can be accessed like any other shell utility: for many basic operations there is no need to go beyond shell scripting. Since the column information is lost, it is up to the shell script to confirm that the data received is what was asked for. In addition, the database console clients have different conventions for their use, including different ways of reporting errors. It is a good idea to create a template script that can be cut-and-pasted into different projects.

 

Q: What are the key points with system administration and security?

 

A: Linux has many features for secure scripting but scripts only do what you tell them. If you don’t tell them to check for security loopholes and honour security conventions, then they won’t be secure. For example, when I worked for a mutual fund company, the consultants left all their data files with wide-open access so that anyone on the computer could view confidential information. In this case, it was also a violation of a federal law that requires mutual fund companies to restrict access to stock market data. No one would have known about the issue except that a second party reviewed the consultant’s work.

 

Q: Can you share the top pitfalls when Web scripting?

 

A: A developer needs to choose the right tool for a job. Shell scripts are ideal for small web applications because of their flexibility. The downside is that scripts have no native support for web development. To view form variables, the developer has to design the new capability. For large web projects, the developer should use a scripting tool with stronger web support.

 

Q: What special secrets can you provide on TCP/IP network programming?

 

A: Many programmers don’t know that the Bash shell can open network connections. The latest versions of Bash recognize protocol names so that the programmer does not need to list TCP/IP port numbers. Essentially, the programmer says, “Give me a Web connection” and the shell does all the work.

 

Q: What five predictions can you make about Linux?

 

A: Linux is at a critical stage right now. With the release of the new 2.6 kernel, it is poised to make major headway in the enterprise markets.

1) IDG predicts that Linux desktops will surpass the number of Mac desktops this year.

2) Linux desktops should reach a point of being as easy to use as Windows this year.

3) Linux will continue to gain market share in the server market sector.

4) The Linux market will continue to consolidate until there are two or three major vendors.

5) It will be a very good year for companies like IBM that have embraced Linux technology.

 

Q: What predictions can you make about Open Source?

 

A: Open source is not a cure-all solution: it’s best suited to projects where the end-goals are well understood. The open source communities are continuing to rally around Linux in business and FreeBSD in universities where the target is to create an operating system with the power of UNIX with a friendly desktop environment like a Mac or PC. Although there has been a number of exciting open source projects announced, the focus this year will continue to be on the open source operating systems.

 

Q: What five tips can you provide from your Linux book?

 

A: 1) Use “shopt –s –o nounset” to catch spelling errors.

2) Use a DEBUG trap in tracing mode to monitor a misbehaving program.

3) Associative arrays (Perl-style hashes) can be simulated with Bash arrays.

4) For better performance, don’t use find in a pipeline. Use the find switches instead.

5) Use the dialog command to make user-friendly scripts.

 

Q: Regarding your latest book, what makes it different from the others?

 

A: I spent a lot of time researching this project, trying to fill in what was missing in other books on the market. First, some shell books only cover the shell without referencing the underlying operating system. Since the purpose of a shell is to run operating system commands, such books contain little practical information. Second, the book is written by a single author. There is a trend in the IT publishing industry to get multiple authors to collaborate on a single book to get the book published as quickly as possible. I would like to think that my book is consistent and focused, solid material logically constructed with little redundancy. Third, the book is designed with practical examples, answers to common questions and has reference sections so that it will serve as a useful addition to a professional developer’s bookshelf. I hope that this book will be as useful to me as to others that may purchase it.

 

Q: Can you detail your current work and favorite projects?

 

A: I’m currently developing an open source project called the “Business Shell”. This shell is a unique scripting tool and provides an interactive command prompt, a serious scripting language, and integrated database support. Rather than using Perl for one project, PHP for a second, Bash and Python for others, the Business Shell creates a standardized environment for all these activities. The core language, AdaScript, is based on an ISO standard and is compatible with the Linux GCC compiler. The result is a database-enabled tool that is part of an enterprise-wide, open source alternative to J2EE.

 

Q: Do you have any humorous stories to share?

 

A: I always have humorous stories. Back around 1996, PegaSoft co-founder Dan Braun received a Perkin-Elmer minicomputer—about the size of a fridge and the power of an Intel 386—and we installed it in my basement. We get a lot of humidity in the summer, but so much heat was generated by the minicomputer that my basement was completely dry all summer long. However, my electric bill quadrupled so I couldn’t call it a cost-effective solution.

 

Q: Tell us about your short-story writing experiences.

 

A: I began writing poetry in Grade 2 and won a local contest. I was encouraged to write in elementary school by Mrs. Rutherford, who created a book of my poetry illustrated by my classmates. When I transferred to Ridley College, a private school, for Grade 8 and 9, I was fortunate enough to study writing under Terrence Cronyn, the brother of actor Hume Cronyn (the husband of Jessica Tandy).

 

During later high school and university, I started—and left unfinished—two fantasy novels, the longest one still sits on my bookshelf with the characters stuck in the middle of a field in around chapter 13. I co-authored, with Christian columnist Gord Harris, an unpublished book of inspirational stories.

 

Last year, my short story “Distance,” the tale of a man who had an argument with his wife, won second price in a Toronto Sun newspaper contest and was published in the “Signatures” anthology. I am looking forward to doing more writing this year.

 

Q: What are your top recommended resources?

 

A: The trouble with shell scripting resources is that they are scattered in many places and tend to focus on certain aspects of Bash. Even then, much of the book is formed from trial-and-error research. My book attempts to pool all this information in one place. So I can’t give a definitive list of scripting resources to interested people—beyond the Bash manual page, there aren’t any.

 

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

 

A: I have a 486, Pentium II and Pentium III and a DEC Alpha server. For research and type up notes, I carry with me and 1980’s Tandy 102 (reputed to be the last computer Bill Gates programmed). It is smaller than a laptop and has a longer battery life. I live out in the country but I’m fortunate enough to live in the one area in the county with DSL Internet.

 

Q: If you were doing this interview, what two questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

 

A: Q1) There are several scripting languages available for Linux, such as Perl. Why is shell scripting still an important part of Linux development?

A1) In computers, there have always been a wide range of languages available, including scripting languages. In the case of Bash, it is still the one tool that every programmer uses on the job every day. It runs on a wide variety of platforms, conforms to the POSIX standard, and contains the features necessary to orchestrate workflow and report problems. When it comes to these kinds of applications, Perl doesn’t offer any significant advantages over Bash. In addition, Perl breaks with a number of Linux industry standards, cannot (normally) be used at the command line, and has many of the same weaknesses of Bash in terms of scalability and debugging.

 

Q2) Why isn’t shell scripting a part of the curriculum in many universities?

A2) When I was in university, the emphasis on proper programming methodology meant that the courses taught a high-level language (like Pascal, C or Java) and left the students to pick up on the environment in which the development takes place. These high-level languages don’t exist in a vacuum and it’s not possible to do meaningful work without introducing the tools with which to do that work. If universities and colleges are there to help students train for work, then shell scripting should be a significant part of any introductory Linux course since the Linux shell will be an essential part of their daily routine.

 

Q: Ken we appreciate the time you spent in doing this interview—thank you!

 

A: Thank you for inviting me to talk.

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