Sunday, May 17, 2009

Would you trust a pirate?

Apparently they're now setting up a Pirate Party also in Finland. I guess it's good to have a political force that questions the appropriateness of traditional copyright in the digital world. However, as a knowledge worker I'm not that excited about drastic changes in the protection of immaterial rights.

Anyway, my appreciation for the movement in Finland went down considerably when I saw their spokesman in the news today. When asked about the main goals of the new party he only mentioned freedom of speech and protection of privacy. Did he just forget the massive overhaul of copyright and patent laws that they're primarily after?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Midgard: Where it all began

On Friday we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Midgard project. The celebration took the form of a very nice gala evening with good food and drinks with live music, show and of course some speeches. I was asked to deliver a few words about how it all began for Midgard.

Here's my speech, reconstructed from my draft notes and edited for the web audience:

We were a group of teenagers and young adults doing historical re-enactment and live action role playing games. One evening in early -97 we were sitting in a bus, returning from the woods with all our viking gear on. Bergie said to me: "Hey Yaro", as I was known as Yaroslav at the time. "Hey Yaro", he said, "you're over 18 and you have a drivers license. Would you like to take a dozen teenagers to a trip to Norway and back?" Even back then Bergie was the one with big dreams and the power to inspire people. I had the skills required to make those dreams happen but not yet enough experience to tell that we perhaps should think twice. So I just answered: "Sounds cool, let's do it!" That's pretty much what happened also with Midgard.

The trip to Norway went well for us and was followed by a number of other adventures. One of them was our quest to build a better web site for our group. It was -97 and the web was booming. The de facto web publishing technology was FTP, that people used to push static HTML to a web server. Geocities was a major cool thing as it allowed you to publish your static HTML for free. We however had bigger plans and our own server running in the closet of a friendly internet company. And we were publishing lots of stuff: news, photos, articles, etc. Quite a few people were actively contributing new content to the web site.

Our first serious attempt at better managing the site was based on technologies called SGML and DSSSL. For the technically minded: nowadays you'd use XML and XSLT for similar tasks. We used this system to "cook" our content into nicely formatted HTML that was then served to the world. It worked pretty well, but was hopelessly too complex for almost all of our contributors. This was a time when people were only just discovering the Internet. Most of our contributors were teenagers who were using the net from libraries or schools. Internet connections with modems were only just finding their ways to normal households. Even FTP was often out of the question, so there was little hope of making the heavy SGML tooling work as well as we'd like.

We wanted a system that could be managed entirely through the browser. Not just the content you saw on the web site, but the layout templates and even the functional code used to list pages or to handle the forms for adding or modifying content. The system should allow you to build an entire web site, including all the administration interfaces, without any other tooling than a web browser. Such systems simply didn't exist at the time and in fact they're pretty rare even today.

So we had to build our own system. We looked at a number of potential platforms for something like this, and the LAMP stack seemed like a good fit. Our server already ran Linux and, like pretty much everyone, we used the Apache web server. We hadn't used PHP or MySQL before, but they were getting some good press and were easy enough to get started with. In fact we hadn't done much anything when we started: we hadn't done Apache modules, we hadn't extended (or even written!) PHP, and at the time I had only read about relational databases. As we used to say: "How hard can it be?" We didn't know, and so we just did it.

The result of our efforts was called Midgard. We had used it to power our web site for about a year when Bergie was hired to build a new web site for a Finnish tech company. Midgard seemed like a good fit for that need, and we figured that also other people might find the system useful. Open source was cool and we wanted to join the movement so we decided to publish Midgard as open source. After nights spent researching licensing options, writing press releases, creating the project web site and setting up mailing lists and public CVS access we were finally ready to publish Midgard 1.0 to the world. That happened exactly ten years ago.

The 1.0 release was like the Land Rover it was named for. The magnificent car from -62, that we used on many of our trips, was really cool and when it worked, it did so very well. However every known and then it required some "manual help" to get it started or to keep it going. This was also the case for Midgard 1.0. The first external installation that I know of was done on a Solaris platform and required a few days worth of help and patches delivered over the mailing list before it was up and running. Much of that early feedback and experience was reflected in Midgard 1.1 that was our first release that people were actually managing to install and run without direct assistance. That started the growth of the Midgard community.

Meanwhile I had also been hired by the same company where Bergie worked, and much of our work there resulted in improvements to Midgard. Together with the feedback and early contributions we were getting from the mailing lists this made Midgard 1.2 already a pretty solid piece of software. It was fairly straightforward to install (at the standards of the time), it performed well and it had most of the functionality that you'd need to run a moderately complex web site.

And the results were showing. We were getting increasing traffic on the mailing lists, some companies would start offering Midgard support and the number of Midgard-based sites around the world was growing. One of my earliest concrete rewards for doing open source was a bottle of quality whiskey that some Midgard user from Germany sent me with a note saying: "Thanks for Midgard!" The whiskey is long gone, but I still treasure the memory. A few years later Bergie and a few other friends and Midgard developers went on to start their own company based on Midgard. I was tempted to join them, but at the time my life was taking  a different route and I gradually left Midgard to pursue other things.

Seeing the Midgard project take off and build a life of its own has been a very inspiring process for me. Having your first open source project become so successful is pretty amazing and also quite humbling. Looking at all the things Midgard is today fills me with pride of not what I've done, but of what you, the Midgard community, have accomplished. Thank you for that. Especially I'd like to thank my long time friend and co-conspirator in starting the Midgard project. Bergie, without your dreams and refusal to take  "no" as an answer we wouldn't be here today. Thank you.