Greg Kurtzer: Founder of the CentOS project

Monday , 4, March 2019 Leave a comment

As I’ve mentioned, as we approach our 15th anniversary, I’ve been talking with some of the people who were around in those early days, to get more of the backstory. (See our YouTube channel for the full interview.)

Last week, I spoke with Greg Kurtzer, who founded the Caos Linux project, which turned into the CentOS Project in 2002. I got an eye-opening story of how it all started.

In October of 2000, Greg, who was already an avid Debian GNU/Linux fan, joined an organization (LBNL) that was a Red Hat shop. (This was before Red Hat Enterprise Linux.) And, while generating packages for work, he decided that what was really needed was a community-managed distribution of RPM-based Linux, much like Debian existed for the dpkg crowd.

Now, in the early days of open source and free software, we had communities that were more defined by personalities than by technologies. Granted, that situation still exists today, but if you didn’t endure the flame wars of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it can be a little hard to imagine just how bad it sometimes got.

With Caos Linux, Greg had an opportunity to set a new tone for the project as more welcoming, beginner friendly, and encouraging than was the norm at the time.

When Red Hat Linux became Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and the project could no longer use Red Hat Linux as the build system, they began to work with Rocky McGough who was already doing a rebuild of RHEL for his employer. (There were a number of these projects at the time.) He was changing roles professionally, and wanted the project to continue, and so agreed to merge with the work that Greg was doing. Rocky was, effectively, the first technical lead of CentOS. The name itself was coined by a participant in the UK, who will be mentioned again later.

The process was started by Greg to create a 501c3 non-profit entity - the Caos Foundation - which would host the CentOS Project. There was a framework being created to cover governance, funding, and organizing volunteer effort. Unfortunately, the individual who came up with the name ‘CentOS’ also owned the domain name, and declined to release it to the foundation as promised.

Meanwhile, when a RHEL-rebuild project called White Box Linux was discontinued, it became clear that what the community wanted was a free alternative to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. CentOS moved into that space, based on the work that White Box had done.

As CentOS was starting to gain popularity, word came to the project that Rocky had committed suicide. In addition to being very tragic, this presented certain technical difficulties to the project, since he was the technical lead at the time. In hindsight, it is a shame he didn’t get to see what the project would become in time, as the foresight may have prevented this tragedy.

Greg passed on the technical lead position to the individual in the UK who held the domain name, while Greg continued to manage the project, community, and governance side of things. Donations to the project started to come in to support the infrastructure and other needs of the project. And third-party vendors making a business around the project also began to appear and prosper. The project was growing rapidly, and donations to the project were growing rapidly.

From there, due to a number of situations not really germane to this article, Greg moved on, and the CentOS project, through a number of events, came to where it is today. We’ll explore some of these other transitions in upcoming interviews and articles.

Of particular interest to me during my interview with Greg, were his remarks about setting the tone in a project. Being welcoming, kind, and patient takes so little time, but creates a community that people want to participate in, are proud to be part of and which is sustainable for a long time, due to the ability of new participants to enter and feel ownership. I’ve published a separate, much shorter, video with just those remarks, which I’d encourage you take two minutes to watch, too.

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