In memory of Ian Murdock

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The late Ian Murdock.

By now anyone with an internet connection probably now knows that the man Ian Ashley Murdock passed away a few days before the turn of the current year, on the 28th of December, in what are still mysterious conditions.

I had previously held off writing his obituary with the hope that maybe as days passed the cause of his death might somehow become apparent but a man’s great achievements cannot be diminished by the way he exited this world; I believe.

So who the heck was Ian and why should you as a Zimbabwe technophile care?

It is true that Ian’s name does not rate much in the 21st century Kardashian and Justin Bieber world. While the digital world has contributed people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg whose names constantly find their way into mainstream news, there are a lot of “behind the scenes” people who often escape mention even though they have made great contributions to the computing world and often times the world in general. Dennis Ritchie and Ian Murdock find themselves on that list.

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While the aforementioned well-known tech-celebrities often find themselves on the marketing side of things, the tools they use and products they sell are often the labor of other people.

Anyone who has taken programming lessons, for example, has heard of the “cult book” named The C programming Language that was penned by Kennigan and Ritchie who together created the all important C language and the “Hello World” concept upon which the computing world sits today.

Ian made a lot of contributions to the computing world but none is perhaps as important and far reaching as his being the founder of the Debian project.

In an entertaining read on his blog Ian recounts how in the winter of 1992 he met Linux. Like many people today, myself included, he was in it for selfish reasons: he just wanted a way to access a Unix Like Operating system on his computer. He paints the idyllic world of computing back then.

The lure of a UNIX-like operating system for PCs, no matter how imperfect, that was free and could evolve at the speed its community wanted it to evolve was too much for many MINIX users to resist, and they began flocking in droves to Torvalds’ new OS, which in the fall of 1991 would be dubbed “Linux.”

The world of Linux was a free hippie world and required dedication. One had to go through the laborious process of downloading the Linux Operating System on about 30 floppy disks, build the system from scratch and install it on their desired computer.

One would also have to hunt for and build the required GNU tool-chains and compile the desired utilities as well. A very frustrating and trying experience. Soon other people found the value of creating distros or distributions. These were disk images of Linux that combined the kernel with useful GNU utilities.

One of those people was Ian. In 1993 he announced the Debian project. A Linux distribution he named using a portmanteau from his then girlfriend’s -now ex-wife’s name- (Debra Lynn) and his own first name Ian.

The first release (Debian 0.01) was released in August the same year. A bunch of geeks, a lot of whom had never met face to face, managed to collaborate and create a fully functional Operating System. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today Debian is one of the most used Operating System. While it’s not exactly a household name in the Desktop world it is a pretty popular choice when it comes to servers. The distro is well known for its security and obstinate insistence that everything be open source. Most cloud vendors include it in their cloud offerings.

Not only is Debian a popular Operating System it has “fathered” an entire family tree of distros including the Ubuntu and Linux Mint distros. The former might even owe its success to Ian’s and his fellow Debian developers’ perfectionist obsession.

Ubuntu was launched partly due to Debian’s erratic release schedule  and became especially famous after the infamous Debian Sarge debacle. People couldn’t really complain when they were getting a free Operating System.

Ubuntu has very strong Debian roots and both distros share a lot of software packages. Ubuntu is especially popular when it comes to the clouds where it often claims the top spot.

Between the Red Hat and Debian family there is the majority of Linux. Without Ian we would not have a greater part of what is Linux or most probably we would have a very different Linux.

Next time you visit Google.co.zw, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix (recently made available to Zimbabweans)nd Hulu (something you should probably not be doing 😉 via VPN or some DNS service or accessing many of the gazillion popular online services you are almost certainly coming in contact with one of Ian’s creations-Debian or one of its “grandkids.”

With this in mind, it is only fair to spare a moment for a man who made extraordinary contributions to the advancement of man’s cause.

To Ian: We might never have met you in person, but we are thankful for the many ways in which you enriched our lives even from across the oceans.

You can download the Debian OS from a South African mirror by following this link. You can also use the local repository here to keep your Debian OS up to date. You can also download Ubuntu and other software from this mirror.

RIP Ian.

Image from: arstechnica.com

4 Comments

  1. El Kapitan says:

    I remember searching for Linux on Yahoo in the 90’s and Debian was one of the top results. At 120mb it was also the most suitable distribution to install on my 1GB hd,too bad there was no broadband connection just dialup.That was the one of the reasons I delayed getting a taste of open source software till years later when I started going to college… Kids nowadays have it so good

  2. Anthony says:

    Point of correction Ubuntu doesn’t just have strong roots in Debian it arguably is much more

    I like. Ubuntu’s relationship to Debian like that of fedora’s to red hat/centos. Something of the bleeding edge product that moves forward quickly while Debian is the slower measured approach of those packages that have been stabilised upstream

    Remember that every 6 months Ubuntu is basically cloned from the Debian testing repository at that time and then bugs nailed down and product released

    1. Wzrd1 says:

      Ubuntu fixes also find their way back to the Debian repositories, which enriches the Debian community.

      As for cloud offerings and commercial use, less go with Debian than with RedHat or Ubuntu, largely due to long term support offerings. Businesses intensely dislike major changes, such as an OS version upgrade.

  3. Tapiwa ✔ says:

    Ubintu also owes its existance to Debian financially: Mark Shuttleworth (billionaire founder of Canonical) made his billions on Thawte Consulting: running on Debian and leveraging his experience as a Debian package maintainer.

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