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Dec
4

Knoppix founder Klaus Knopper speaks

by Richard Ibbotson

We talk to the multitalented open source pioneer Klaus Knopper, who famously once said that computers are stupid, ill-designed and incompatible…

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Klaus Knopper teaches at the Kaiserslautern University of Applied Sciences where he lectures in software engineering and software technology and occasionally gives seminars and talks about open source in various parts of the IT industry. Klaus received his diploma in electrical engineering from the Kaiserslautern University of Technology, which in German is die Technische Universität Kaiserslautern. He co-founded LinuxTag in 1996, a Linux exhibition which has not really seen any competition from anywhere. He has been a self-employed information technology consultant since 1998. As well as all of this he started the Knoppix GNU/Linux distribution. Knoppix is something of a legend as far as system administrators and computer repair technicians are concerned. Most people who know about it have a healthy respect for it. Linux User & Developer was able to catch up with Klaus in the middle of his busy schedule and ask him some questions about himself….

Did you always have an interest in technology when you were younger ?

Your guess is right, I was always interested in technology. As a child, I had a lot of fun taking machines and electronic devices apart in order to understand how they work. And in most cases I was able to reassemble them without major loss of functionality. My main technical fascination in school was visualisation of electromagnetic fields, which I explored by building a tesla transformer that produced high enough voltage in order to take pictures of the air glowing around various object shapes. I studied and did my masters degree in electrical engineering. My initial plan was building solar cars and solar power plants, but somehow my interests during studying were shifted towards computer operating systems. At that time before WWW, having internet access at the university and using nowadays quite ‘ancient’ services like kermit file transfer, nntp and uucp and making contact with UNIX users worldwide was something new and exciting for me. I picked up jobs at the university in UNIX system administration, and co-founded Germany’s first students UNIX-AG, a research and self-teaching group of students with the goal to learn more about UNIX and networks. From this group LinuxTag evolved a few years later.

Any funny stories or other things that happened when you were at the university?
I was known to often state: “I hate computers, they are stupid, ill-designed, incompatible and start failing as soon as you start relying on them.” I can still stand by this statement, since I’m more of a person who uses software for real work and fun, regardless of which hardware it runs on, and I’m in no way a ‘computer freak’. I enjoy times when I am away from computers. Unfortunately, this has become difficult these days.

You were a founding member of the UNIX-AG at the University of Kaiserslautern. Would you like to tell us something about that?
In 1990, it was not common at our university to have internet access as a student, especially not for students of the informatics faculty, strangely. The only computers connected to the internet were UNIX boxes, so naturally, there was a high interest in self-education of this operating system and its possibilities for students who did not have UNIX as part of their regular lectures. With some budget from the German government, we founded a students association with the goal of education in modern computer and internet technologies. The computer department provided rooms for us and our newly bought UNIX computers, and we had a great time learning everything about UNIX and programming under UNIX. A lot of UNIX-related projects including the German chess server were initiated at this time at the university of Kaiserslautern, and we had regular meetings and seminars explaining what we did, which were open to the general public. This probably cost me a few additional semesters of studying time, but from what I learned in the UNIX-AG, I not only had a great hobby, but it also made me ready for my main work field job later as a freelance consultant.

So, what made you interested enough to produce Knoppix?
Knoppix was rather an experiment with later, unexpected popularity, than a product. In 1999, self-contained bootable mini-CDs with a tiny Linux-based rescue system became popular at various computer expos and conferences. I just wanted to understand how booting from CD worked, and after this, create a full-sized CD that contained programs and tools that I frequently used myself, in order to have my own software equipment ready-to-run with me, without the need to also carry around an expensive computer. In 2000, I had the opportunity to give a talk about ‘creating a self-contained, auto-configuring Linux system on an iso9660 file system’ at the Atlanta Linux Showcase. I got a lot of feedback, hints and tips for improvement from the people listening to the talk, so I decided to make the project public in order to get more information about use cases and hardware that I had no access to personally. Due to many requests for inclusion of software, the DVD version was created. Today there is so much cool free software around that I have to carefully select even for DVD-size. Apparently, there would be enough software to fill a double-layer DVD already.

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