[Freedombox-discuss] 'No sysadmin' is the key to Freedom Box

John Gilmore gnu at toad.com
Fri Mar 4 11:14:47 UTC 2011

I'm glad that people are thinking about ways to build distributed
meshlike store-and-forward networks with replacement connectivity
after a politician tries to "turn off" the Internet because the public
will has become inconvenient for that politician.  But...

Let's not put the cart before the horse.  The first stage in this
project should be to build a rock-solid reliable implementation of
what already works.  Cleaned up around the edges so that an ordinary
human being can "sysadmin" it, running on super cheap dead simple mass
market hardware.  The essential insight of the freedom box is that you
don't NEED an air-conditioned server room full of expensive stuff to
run Internet services -- all you need is a $100 box and perhaps a $100
disk drive for it.  It's the "hundred dollar server" rather than the
"hundred dollar laptop".  But today you need to learn too much, and
waste too much of your time, to run such a server -- even if the
hardware and software was free.

This means we need to design and build a box that takes NO sysadmin.
If it doesn't work, you power cycle it and see if it comes back in a
few seconds.  If that doesn't work, you bang it on the concrete a few
times and plug it back in.  If that doesn't work, you replace it.

One community that's building Linux-based boxes that work like that is
the home-gateway market (DSL or cable to Ethernet and WiFi boxes).
WRT54G, etc.  So we know it can be done, at least with some kind of
backup tech support available to call for repairs.  We're 80% of
the way there today; that's a great start.

AFTER we get our version of those boxes working, then add the idiot
proof web server, blog server, email server, xchat server, DNS server,
VOIP server, etc.  Again, all these things already work in data
centers, they just need to run without sysadmin.  We're halfway
there already - that leaves "only 90%" of the work to be done.

Only after that stuff is up and solid in ten thousand homes, should we
be trying to ship sysadmin-free encrypted peer to peer facebook and
twitter.  Because we don't even yet have those applications written
for experts today.  We're 1% of the way there.  Let somebody else
pound that into working shape first.

Ditto for peer-to-peer WiFi networking with your neighbors, backup
UUCP store-and-forward Deep Space Network links, etc.  Get it working
in some nice expert test labs first -- they deploy it in some
production geek centers for a few years -- don't bog down the freedom
box project with it yet.  Evolve from simple to complex.

Even if you ran an extra Ethernet cable over the back fence (or down
the hall) to your neighbor, which is a simpler configuration and one
that I recommend that we support in preference to crummy crowded WiFi,
we STILL don't have software that knows how and when to use it to
provide backup connectivity without sysadmin.  Build that!  Give the
hardware guys a reason to put a 2nd or 3rd separate Ethernet interface
onto their $100 box.  In urban areas, an extra 100-ft Ethernet cable
is all that most people will need to "mesh" with their neighbors.
It'd run 100x as fast as WiFi, and the hardware tells you when it
gets plugged in, so it doesn't need a configuration interface.  Linux
can route and NAT the packets just fine, it just doesn't know WHEN to.
We're 10% of the way there.

The Freedom Box project will succeed or fail on whether it works
"without sysadmin".  If only trained sysadmins can figure out how to
be free, the society won't be free.  It's like the early days of the
telephone, when they couldn't figure how to scale up the system
without having every third person be a trained "Operator".  Make the
system operate itself.  That's where the biggest amount of technical
work needs to go.  And not just in software -- though that's a very
good start -- but in hardware and in user experience design.  When
millions can buy it and plug it in without training, then millions
can be freed from central servers and central surveillance.  Not before.

	John Gilmore

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