15 years

Fifteen years ago today, March 29, 1999, I showed up at Sun’s MPK29 building for my first day of work as a student intern. I was off-cycle from the normal summer interns, since I wasn’t enrolled Spring semester but was going to finish my last two credits (English & Math) during the Summer Session at Berkeley. A friend from school convinced his manager at Sun to give me a chance, and after interviewing me, they offered to bring me on board for 3 months full-time, then dropping down to half-time when classes started.

I joined the Release Engineering team as a tools developer and backup RE in what was then the Power Client Desktop Software organization (to differentiate it from the Thin Client group) in the Workstation Products Group of Sun’s hardware arm. The organization delivered the X Window System, OpenWindows, and CDE into Solaris, and was in the midst of two big projects for the Solaris 7 8/99 & 11/99 releases: a project called “SolarEZ” to make the CDE desktop more usable and to add support for syncing CDE calendar & mail apps with Palm Pilot PDAs; and the project to merge the features from X11R6.1 through X11R6.4 (including Xinerama, Display Power Management, Xprint, and LBX) into Sun’s proprietary X11 fork, which was still based on the X11R6.0 release.

I started out with some simple bug fixes to learn the various build systems, before starting to try to write the scripts they wanted to simplify the builds. My first bug was to find out why every time they did a full build of Sun’s X gate they printed a copy of the specs. (To save trees, they’d implemented a temporary workaround of setting the default printer queue on the build machines to one not connected to a printer, but then they had to go delete all the queued jobs every few days to free disk space.) After a couple days of digging, and learning far too much about Imake for my own good, I found the cause was a merge error in the Imake configuration specs. The TroffCmd setting for how to convert troff documents to PostScript had been resynced to the upstream setting of psroff, but the flags were still the ones for Sun’s troff. These flags to Sun’s troff generated a PostScript file on disk, while they made psroff send the PostScript to the printer - switching TroffCmd back to Solaris troff solved the issue, so I filed Sun bug 4227466 and made my first commit to the Solaris X11 code base.

Six months later, at the end of my internship, diploma in hand, Sun offered to convert my position to a regular full-time employee, and I signed on. (This is why I always get my anniversary recognition in September, since they don’t count the internship.) Six months after that, the X11R6.4 project was finishing up and several of the X11 engineers decided to move on, making an opening for me to switch to the X11 engineering team as a developer. Like many junior developers joining new teams, I started out doing a lot of bug fixes, and some RFE’s, such as integrating Xvfb & Xnest into Solaris 9.

A couple years in, Sun’s attempts to reach agreement amongst all of the CDE co-owners to open source CDE had failed, resulting only in the not-really-open-source release of OpenMotif, so Sun chose to move on once again, to the GNOME Desktop. This required us to provide a lot of infrastructure in the X server and libraries that GNOME clients needed, and I got to take on some more challenging projects such as trying to port the Render extension from XFree86 to Xsun, assisting on the STSF font rendering project, adding wheel mouse support to Xsun, and working to ensure Xsun had the underlying support needed by GNOME’s accessibility projects. Unfortunately, the results of some of those projects were not that good, but we learned a lot about how hard it was to retrofit Xsun with the newly reinvigorated X11 development work and how maintaining our own fork of all the shared code was simply slowing us down.

Then one fateful day in 2004, our manager was on vacation, so I got a call from the director of the Solaris x86 platform team, who had been meeting with video card vendors to decide what graphics to include in Sun’s upcoming AMD64 workstations. The one consistent answer they’d gotten was that the time and cost to produce Solaris drivers went up and the feature set went down if they had to port to Xsun as well, instead of being able to reuse the XFree86 driver code they were already shipping for Linux. He asked what it would take to ship XFree86 on Solaris instead, and we discussed the options, then I talked with the other X engineers, and soon I was the lead of a project to replace the Solaris X server.

This was right at the time XFree86 was starting to come apart while the old X.Org industry consortium was trying to move X11 to an open development model, resulting in the formation of the X.Org Foundation. We chose to just go straight to Xorg, not XFree86, and not to fork as we’d done with Xsun, but instead to just apply any necessary changes as patches, and try to limit those to not changing core areas, so it was easier to keep up with new releases.

Thus, right at the end of the Solaris 10 development cycle we integrated the Xorg 6.8 X server for x86 platforms, and even made it the default for that release. We had no SPARC drivers ported yet, just all the upstream x86 drivers, so only provided Xsun in the SPARC release. The SPARC port, along with a 64-bit build for x64 systems, came in later Solaris 10 update releases. This worked out much better than our attempts to retrofit Xsun ever did.

Along with the Solaris 10 release, Sun announced that Solaris was going to be open sourced, and eventually as much of the OS source as we could release would be. But for the Solaris 10 release we only had time to add the Xorg server and the few libraries we needed for the new extensions. Most of the libraries and clients were still using the code from Sun’s old X11R6 fork, and we needed to figure out which changes we could publish and/or contribute back upstream. We weren’t ready to do this yet on the opening day of OpenSolaris.org, but I put together a plan for us to do so going forward, combing the tasks of migrating from our fork to a patched upstream code base, and the work of excising proprietary bits so it could be released as fully open source.

Due to my work with the X.Org open source community, my participation in the existing Solaris communities on Usenet and Yahoo Groups, and interest in X from the initial OpenSolaris participants, I was pulled into the larger OpenSolaris effort, culminating in serving 2 years on the OpenSolaris Governing Board. When the OpenSolaris distro effort (“Project Indiana”) kicked off, I got involved in it to figure out how to integrate the X11 packages to it. Between driving the source tree changes and the distro integration work for X, I became the Tech Lead for the Solaris X Window System for the Solaris 11 release.

Of course, the best laid plans are always beset by changes in the surrounding world, and these were no different. While we finished the migration to a pure open-source X code base in November 2009, it was shortly followed by the closing of Oracle’s acquisition of Sun, which eventually led to the shutdown of the OpenSolaris project. Since the X11 code is still open source and mostly external sources, it is still published on solaris-x11.java.net, alongside other open source code included in Solaris. So when Solaris 11 was released in November 2011, while the core OS code was closed again, it included the open source X11 code with the culmination of our efforts.

Solaris 11 also included a few bug fixes I’d found via experimenting with the Parfait static analysis tool created by Sun Labs. Since shortly after starting in the X11 group, I’d been handling the security bugs in X. Having tools to help find those seemed like a good idea, and that was reinforced when we used Coverity to find a privilege escalation bug in Xorg. When the Sun Labs team came to demo parfait to us, I decided to try it out, and found and fixed a number of bugs in X with it (though not in security sensitive areas, just places that could cause memory leaks or crashes in code not running with raised privileges).

After the Oracle acquisition, part of adopting Oracle’s security assurance policies was using static analysis on our code base. With my experience in using static analyzers on X, I helped create the overall Solaris plan for using static analysis tools on our entire code base. This plan was accepted and I was asked to take on the role of leading our security assurance efforts across Solaris.

Another part of integrating Sun into Oracle was migrating all the bugs from Sun’s bug database into Oracle’s, so we could have a unified system, allowing our Engineered Systems teams to work together more productively, tracking bugs from the hardware through the OS up to the database & application level in a single system. Valerie Fenwick & Scott Rotondo had managed the Solaris bug tracking for years, and I’d worked with them, representing both the X11 and larger Desktop software teams. When Scott decided to move to the Oracle Database Security team, Valerie asked me to replace him, just as the effort to migrate the bugs was beginning. That turned into 2 years of planning, mapping, updating tools and processes, coordinating changes across the organization, traveling to multiple sites to train our engineers on the Oracle tools, and lots of communication to prepare our teams for the changes.

As we looked to the finish line of that work, planning was beginning for the Solaris 12 release. All of the above experiences led to me being named as the Technical Lead for the Solaris 12 release as a whole, covering the entire OS, coordinating and working with the tech leads for the individual consolidations. We’re two years into that now, and while I can’t really say much more yet than the official roadmap, I think we’ve got some solid plans in place for the OS.

So here it is now 15 years after starting at Sun, 14 after joining the X11 team. I still do a little work on X in my spare time (especially around the area of X security bugs), and officially am still in the X11 group, but most of my day is spent on the rest of Solaris now, between planning Solaris 12, managing our bug tracking, and ensuring our software is secure.

In those 15 years, I’ve learned a lot, accomplished a bit, and made a lot of friends. I’ve also:

  • filed 2572 bugs & enhancement requests in the Sun/Oracle bug database, and fixed or closed 2155, assuming I got the bug queries correct.
  • worked under 3 CEO’s (Scott, Jonathan, Larry), and 4 managers, but more VP’s and Directors than I can count thanks to Sun’s love of regular reorgs.
  • been part of the Workstation Products Group, the Webtop Applications group, the Software Globalization group, the User Experience Engineering group, the x64 Platform group, the Solaris Open Source group, and a few I’ve forgotten, again thanks to Sun’s love of regular reorgs.
  • been seen by my co-workers in a suit exactly 4 times (my initial job interview, and funerals for 3 colleagues we’ve lost over the years).

Where will I be in 15 more years? Hard to guess, but I bet it involves making sure everything is ready for Y2038, so I can retire in peace when that arrives.

For now, I offer my heartfelt thanks to everyone whose help made the last 15 years possible - none of it was done alone, and I couldn't have got here without a lot of you.

Comments:

Hello

"Fifteen years ago today, March 29, 1994"
1994 added to 15 is 2009, not 2014, is this a mistake?

Posted by guest on March 30, 2014 at 03:47 AM PDT #

Time must be really flying... that's 20 years!

Posted by Andrew Clayton on March 30, 2014 at 07:49 AM PDT #

Oops, the right date was 1999 - can't believe how many times I must have overlooked that typo in editing this post, but I've fixed it now.

Posted by alanc on March 30, 2014 at 08:53 AM PDT #

Congrats!

Posted by guest on March 30, 2014 at 10:33 AM PDT #

Nice writeup Alan! So that March 29th was a good day for the Sun and X11 communities! I appreciate your comments and the advice you're giving in all those mailing list. Congratulations!

Posted by Volker A. Brandt on March 30, 2014 at 11:40 PM PDT #

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Engineer working on Oracle Solaris and with the X.Org open source community.

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