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Interview with Zenwalk's Jean-Philippe Guillemin

Tuesday 11th July 2006

Zenwalk is one of the up and coming distributions in the FLOSS world. Jean-Philippe Guillemin, the founder of Zenwalk, takes the time to answer some questions and GNU/Linux in general.

How was the Zenwalk idea conceived?

I started building Zenwalk (originally named Minislack) as a way to learn the inner workings of GNU-Linux. I believe that building an operating system is a great method to understanding it because you're on your own to solve the problems when things do not work as expected.

Another reason for building Zenwalk was that I always found myself repeating the same modifications on my systems after a new installation. Such repeated modifications included recompiling a more optimised and up to date kernel, removing loads of unused software and libraries, customising the desktop, tuning the X window system, improving startup scripts, adding my preferred text editor, adding movie player and codecs and so on.

So this project brought forward an opportunity to share this customisation with friends, as well as being able to reinstall my system in exactly in the same state at any given time.

At first, Minislack was just a customised version of the Slackware system, nothing more. At the time, I thought that it would be possible for me to script everything and just follow Patrick Volkerding's releases to maintain my optimised version.

Then came the users and contributors, and along with them, came the beginnings of the changes that has helped to mould Zenwalk into what it is today. We started replacing more and more parts of the original distribution, with alternatives (i.e. gtk libs), adding new libs (i.e. Gnome libs), adding lots of administration tools, and a new way to manage packages remotely (i.e. netpkg). Users have helped a lot improving Zenwalk, many features of the current version are answers to features requests posted and discussed on the support forum. The result is Zenwalk as is it now, based on Slackware, yet in many ways very different : it is a two years daily development work, done by several Linux lovers to build their ideal Linux OS.

What are the reasons for Zenwalk's success?

I believe that there are three reasons for the success of Zenwalk.

First, Zenwalk has a great support community, composed of people that are both fond of system optimisation, and enjoy sharing their knowledge with users coming from other mainstream GNU-Linux distributions or even Microsoft Windows. Any user that has a hardware detection related problem can post a question on the forum and will be surprised how willing Zenwalk supporters and contributors are to help. Another important thing is that Zenwalk contributors (both developers, packagers) are involved in the user forum. That gives a "family feel" to Zenwalk that is a bit uncommon in Linux distributions support.

Regarding hardware detection the user requirements are very demanding : As the Linux kernel's hardware support is being improved, it happens less and less often that a device is not detected. As a result, users don't always understand why they have to download a proprietary firmware to make their device work. Something that has recently begun to astonish me is that the level of requirement of Linux users for hardware support seems to be higher than for Microsoft Windows users; they would understand the need to download the proprietary driver to install an unsupported device on Windows XP, but they expect Linux to support it on it's own, that's funny, I'm pleased about this.

Second, Zenwalk is designed to be a rational system by providing only one application for a given task. The applications that provide the easiest and fastest way to perform the task are chosen. This also has a positive side effect as Zenwalk can be installed in as little as 15 minutes on modern systems. Developers can also begin working immediately on a project since Zenwalk comes with editors and the most commonly used libraries. Average users can use it efficiently for word processing (Gnome Office) or playing multimedia (all Mplayer codecs are included) without adding anything. If they want to add, for example, Openoffice or Inkscape (a very good SVG authoring tool), it's easily installed with netpkg in just a few minutes if you have a decent DSL connection.

The third reason is that Zenwalk is interesting to use for Linux perfectionists. It comes fine tuned out of the box. Minimal yet full featured, easily customized and very fast.

Why did you use Slackware as the base for Zenwalk?

In my opinion Slackware is the best Linux distribution in the world. It is fast, reliable, secure, up to date, and built with respect for each application's own philosophy. This makes Slackware a real GNU-Linux "Distribution". Slackware contains a collection of applications and GNU tools, compiled and ready to be used with the Linux kernel. I'm thankful to Patrick Volkerding, the Slackware founder and maintainer for letting me use his concept as a base for Zenwalk, Zenwalk wouldn't be possible without his work.

Slackware has one of the most stable user base in the Linux world. Users that have been using Slackware for a while are not easily persuaded to change. Because it is very simple and conforms to the Unix philosophy, Slackware is an operating system that users can really understand, so I am.

Slackware is also known to be very fast and stable, it is impossible to achieve the same level of optimisation that Zenwalk has on a complex distribution. With regard to package management I know many Linux users that are tired of rpm and deb, because these systems are complex and sometimes unstable. That's why I found Slackware to be the only possible choice for my project of building a rational and simple operating system.

Zenwalk is not really designed to be a "Distribution", but rather a GNU-Linux "Operating System". When you install Zenwalk, you know what you are getting. One application for one task. Optimised and ready to use. This is the reason why there is no longer a package chooser in Zenwalk's setup routine. The pre-chosen packages installed during the installation are carefully chosen by Zenwalk developers to provide the user with only the best and most useful packages.

What are the key differences between Slackware proper and Zenwalk?

The main differences between Zenwalk and Slackware are:

First, the most up-to-date kernel version is used by default, currently 2.6.x.

Second, hardware detection and auto-configuration are improved. For example X window configuration is automatic. Hotpluging and coldpluging are based on the latest Linux technology (udev is extensively used for this).

Third, we have developed several system configuration tools: networkconfig, userconfig, serviceconfig and localeconfig. These tools provide the same frontend layout in both console mode and X window. They detect X running and then start in GTK mode, or use Ncurses mode with the same GUI in both cases.

The fourth difference is that Zenwalk is designed on XFCE and GTK applications. KDE is also provided but only as an additional package set, available via download with netpkg. Slackware leans toward KDE, that's a big difference!

Another difference is that Zenwalk provides a network package management tool called netpkg with a simple dependency handling system.

Finally, Zenwalk desktop layout is configured out of the box with a true low-level USB automount system.

How many developers work on the distribution?

The Zenwalk support team is composed of nearly ten people working on packages or development as well as approximately ten testers. For example, Sebastian Jauch is responsible for GTK and Gnome libs as well as several apps such as Gnome Office, Peter Faasse maintains KDE. John Coghill deals with Enlightenment. Michael Verret builds all of our games packages. Filippo Mesirca builds our server packages.

Other contributors handle website and forum administration. Stijn Segers is our forum administrator as well as building application packages. Vincent Kergonna is our webmaster and is also responsible of setting and maintaining mirror's synchronisation with the main software repository and some packages. Stefano Stabellini maintains netpkg dependency database. Artwork is designed by Fred Broders. Of course this is an incomplete listing, so please take a look at the contact page on

I personally do most of system tools development although some contributors recently proposed me their help and are now working with me on these subjects. I also keep the task of final ISO Assembly and everything related to the base system such as the Linux kernel, hardware detection and also the XFCE Desktop.

What is the target group of Zenwalk?

There is no true answer to this question. At first I thought that it was possible to answer this with something like "developers and Internet users". Zenwalk is used by SOHO companies to build file servers, people migrating from Microsoft Windows, developers, artwork designers, mathematical researchers and the list goes on. Everyone searching for a rational operating system can adopt Zenwalk.

What will Zenwalk be in the future?

Zenwalk will stay as it is and will only become more "mature" as a multipurpose Operating System:

Zenwalk "combined" objectives will remain the same : be modern (latest stable software), fast (optimised for performance capabilities), rational (one mainstream application for each task), complete (full development/desktop/multimedia environment) and evolutionary (simple network package management tool).

What do you do when you don't work on Zenwalk?

My time is shared between my family (I'm married and have a 4 year old son, who loves Supertux, by the way), my house (I bought this big old house last year and it's a lot of work to restore it), my job (I work for a firm called Telindus - a group of companies offering ICT Solutions and Services - as security engineer and project manager), and my guitar (I play Jazz and Bossa-nova on a classical nylon Spanish model).

I live in a small town near Nantes but my job often requires to move everywhere in France. I try to do a 10km jogging twice a week, it's the only sport I still practise.

Much of the news has recently surrounded the next incarnation of Windows, Vista. Do you, as with some, perceive it as threat to the uptake in GNU/Linux? And do you believe that there is anything that can be learnt from Vista, or even other versions of Windows, or any other OS?

Microsoft Windows is the result of a marketing programme, not a conceptual idea. It begun as the graphical user interface for MS DOS. Still running on a 16 bits monotasking kernel, it was then hacked to become a family OS with some multimedia capabilities. It was then hacked again to become a file server OS with its GUI (strangely) included in the kernel.

The result is a monster! Two years ago, I wrote a Windows 2000 Security guide for a customer at my job. I can tell you that the security design of Windows 2000 and XP is very powerful, but so complex that very few users or administrators can understand it.

I know few things about Vista, I must admit, I'm not really interested, I have just heard from friends who have tested it that it requires a very powerful machine. I am not sure that enterprises will change all their computers to run Windows Vista (as many enterprises are still using Windows 2000). Windows Vista just might present a chance for GNU/Linux to quickly gain ground on the Desktop.

On most sorts of servers: Linux has already won the battle.

Support for GNU/Linux, both on the software and hardware side, is far from complete. Although the situation has improved, there is still room for improvement, such as printer support and support for games. Is there any way in which you believe GNU/Linux can garner more support?

Supporting thousands of different hardware devices is very difficult. Take for example IBM AIX or Apple MacOS: these operating systems are certified on a very limited number of hardware platforms. This makes it possible for the developers to provide drivers with excellent hardware support.

Supporting all devices available for PC is another story, as long as some hardware manufacturers choose not to contribute to the Linux kernel, not to share their source code or even provide specifications for drivers (especially Wifi manufacturers). Linux hardware support won't be as complete as those of Microsoft Windows, until GNU/Linux has a comparable user base size.

Yet things are improving. Some devices are now better supported on Linux. People easily forget that many Windows drivers are third party software that needs to be downloaded and installed. Linux provides support for most hardware out of the box. Linux hardware support is already so good that Linux users cry when they need to download a driver, for example, nVidia's proprietary drivers.

Windows is clearly the main competition to GNU/Linux, and is still easily dominant in terms of desktop installations. Do you believe that GNU/Linux still has to move forwards technologically, or is it simply a case of needing more awareness and marketing?

Linux, and GNU, were not designed to be a marketing project, but rather as an attempt to build a collection of quality computer programs.

You are right to say that there is not enough desktop GNU/Linux users, and not enough marketing around Linux as a Desktop.

However, the French government has already stated to its administrations its preference of free software over proprietary software, and I believe that enterprises will follow. Applications are not the real problem in my humble opinion, practices of the users and market monopolies are.

Jean-Philippe Guillemin, thank you for your time. Good luck with Zenwalk in the future - I look forward to many more releases.