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Friday, 21 November 2014 00:37

A brilliant mind: SUSE's kernel guru speaks Featured


The man who in every sense sits at the nerve centre of SUSE Linux has no airs about him. At 38, Vojtěch Pavlík is disarmingly frank and often seems a bit embarrassed to talk about his achievements, which are many and varied.

He is every bit a nerd, but can be candid, though precise. As director of SUSE Labs, it would be no exaggeration to call him the company's kernel guru. Both recent innovations that have come from SUSE – patching a live kernel, technology called kGraft, and creating a means for booting openSUSE on machines locked down with secure boot — have been his babies.

But Pavlík is modesty personified. He says simply: "I am not a person who takes things to completion. Others do them for me. I only start a lot of things."

In an almost deadpan voice, he outlines his role: leading a team of 50 experts who handle the core technologies at SUSE – the kernel, toolchain, compiler and now Samba. "The things that are not seen, but are supposed to work perfectly," he explains, adding that he works very closely with the kernel, samba and compiler communities.

Pavlík spoke to iTWire after he had played second fiddle to Matthias Eckerman, senior product manager for SUSE, at a presentation on the live patching technology, at SUSECon 2014 on Wednesday evening.

vojtech pavlik

A nerdy kid at six, living in the then Czechoslovakia (which is now two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia), which was a communist regime, Pavlík remembers the repressive nature of the country, where people could not speak freely. "When I was eight, I got hold of my first computer which was smuggled into the country. My mother was in the telecommunications industry — though at that time it was telephone and teletype and tv/radio broadcasts — and my father was working on electronic filters and modelling. He also lent a hand to reverse engineering the Z-80 Spectrum so that engineers in East Germany could create a clone," he says.

That first PC was an Apple II plus which had a CPM card in it. He used it to learn Pascal 1.0. But this was just one of his interests; though he did not go out and kick a ball around, he had an interest in the life sciences which he continued to study at primary and high school.

Things changed in 1989 with the fall of communism, better known as the Velvet Revolution, during Pavlík's last year at primary school.

Opportunity now presented itself to the maturing programmer. "I started my first software company in 1992, focusing on international keyboard support for MS-DOS," Pavlík says. "Also speech synthesis – I had a product for blind people who spoke Czech. It would detect changes on the screen and read them out."

The speech synthesis engine was running partially on a DSP chip and was developed at the Czech Academy of Sciences, something beyond the resources of a 16-year-old.

Pavlík and long-time friend Martin Mareš then rewrote that from FORTRAN and Pascal into assembly to minimise its memory impact and make it work in parallel to other programs on the computer and added all the other functions that made it a useful tool. It is still being used.

The duo then went on to develop a web search engine for Central and Eastern Europe, based on graph theory with a page ranking algorithm that based the order on the list on how interconnected a page is with the rest of the web. "If that reminds you of an algorithm rather famous now, you are right," says Pavlík.

"At the end of the 90s I left that project to start others and let my friend finish it. It worked very well for a number of years, but the internet in our part of world wasn't yet developed enough to make it grow fast enough so it was recently decomissioned and replaced by the ubiqitious Google."

He lost interest in these endeavours after a while due to the fact that hardware support was lagging behind and the era of graphical interfaces was slowly emerging. Around the time that Windows 95 was released, Pavlík was looking for an operating system with a decent command line interface.

"I felt it was stupid to click on icons," he explains. "Me and my friend looked for something different. We looked at Sinix and Xenix but neither had the right feel. When Linux came around — early versions of Slackware on floppy disks — the source was available and I was hooked." He and Mareš went on to develop their own distribution, UCW Linux, versions 1.0 and 2.0

"We were lucky to get remote access to an "ЕС ЭВМ 1020" computer at the Czech Academy of Sciences, a Russian clone of the IBM 360 that was, intially only over BitNet connected to the still very young *gasp* Internet. TCP/IP based. That was another eye opener. A network that we simply (or perhaps just really wished?) would eventually connect everything."

His love of source code availability came after he got acquainted with TeX, the computer typesetting system created by the legendary Donald Knuth. He was amazed that a man of Knuth's status would provide the source to such a system.

When he spoke of this, Pavlík suddenly grew animated. "I knew we could make big things happen," he said. "Now look what has happened – Linux is slowly taking over the world." And a  big grin spread across his face. Then he reverted to normal mode again and continued his story.

A few years later, Pavlík wanted to play games on Linux. "But the joy-stick support was horrible. So I looked at the kernel source and realised that it would not be that difficult to modify. Once I had created support for my joy-stick and others got wind of it, they asked me to do it for them too, for different brands."

Next on Pavlík's list was keyboard support. Eventually his contributions to the kernel at that time amounted to about 1% of all the code. He says with a small measure of pride, "My code runs all the keyboards that input data into Linux, even the Android keyboards."

Pavlík's career at SUSE began when he was in university, studying bio-physics. "Guys came knocking on my door one day and asked me if I wanted to work for SUSE. The day I signed my contract was 1 April 1999 – but it sure wasn't a joke." The company had heard about him because of his contributions to the kernel.

Along with notable kernel developers like Greg Kroah-Hartman, Andrea Arcangeli and Andi Kleen, his next contribution to the kernel was enabling USB support for Linux, something which earned him an award from the American technology website Slashdot for the project that progressed most in a year. Next he ported Linux to the AMD64, in collaboration with the chip maker. It was done well before a single processor had been manufactured. "When AMD produced its first processor, I went along with a CD which had the image and it worked," he says, with a quiet air of satisfaction.

But despite all these deeds which have given so much to the world at large, Pavlík derives more satisfaction from the fact that his team got the second prize in a robotics competition at university. "There were four of us and this was to do with artificial intelligence," he explains.

"This didn't have any impact on the world, but it taught me a lot, it taught me that making a design simple, not overshooting in terms of what can be done within the available capacity and time, can make a project a success.

"And the second place was won after many consecutive sleepless nights towards the end of competition – a defeat of our strongest opponent, at a time of total physical and mental exhaustion, was indeed a moment I won't forget."

From his house in Prague, Pavlík walks the five kilometres to work. He has given a thought to living in Nuremberg, the SUSE headquarters, which is three hours away, but has preferred to stay where he is. "One of the reasons for the success of the Prague office — where close to 100 people work — is because we are so close to Nuremberg," he says.

Back then, it was like an offshoring situation – in terms of wages, the Czech office staff were pretty cheap. "For SUSE it was like an off-shoring operation. Over time, we in Prague have changed the relationship to a symmetrical one," he says.

Pavlík likes music and even went to music school in his younger days but decided "wisely" that it was better to give it up. He loves horse-riding and hiking. His pet peeve is that he cannot do everything that he wants to do. His pet love? "Working with the people in my team," he says.

"One more free time activity that I enjoy very much is organising annual city-scale puzzle hunts for approximately 500 people at a time," he adds.

Working with coders from other companies as he does, Pavlík says he has to be careful. "I know that we all have a common interest, but I also realise that we are all competitors," he says.

Like many others who are gifted, Pavlík abhors personal publicity and has no Facebook or other social media accounts. He has been forced to open a LinkedIn account – which he never updates. But it is something expected of a person in his role.

A simple man, he is content to live in Prague with his wife, Marketa, and four daughters aged 3, 6 8 and 10. The overall impression he leaves is that of a brilliant mind, one who cares for the content, not the wrapping. Developers like him don't come around too often.

Disclosure: The writer is attending SUSECon in Orlando, Florida, as a guest of SUSE.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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