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Universal Language – The Open Source Column

NASA has ditched Windows on the International Space Station. But why was it ever there in the first place, wonders Simon?

If you’re looking for an underrated and underappreciated movie to check out, then the 1997 blockbuster Contact, starring Jodie Foster, is always worth keeping close at hand. Granted, it over-eggs the emotional side slightly, and the ending could use a bit of trimming to keep ambiguity in place. But it’s a thought-provoking, well-acted and engaging piece of work.

In it, Jodie Foster’s character argues that the universal language, as she embarks on a search for alien life, is mathematics. That we’re all united by the rules of maths, basically, and should little green men ever come around the mountain, it’s going to be the one means of interaction that they have a sporting chance of understanding. Not if some of the maths lessons of old I had to sit through are any marker, but that’s by the by.

It’s well known that NASA is a significant part of the international space station that orbits the Earth. Thanks to the website, I can tell you that at the time this column was being written, six people were in space as my copy of LibreOffice clacked into life. I can also tell you, and I didn’t know this before, that until earlier this year, the laptops that astronauts used aboard the International Space Station were preloaded with Microsoft Windows.

Appreciating that many of the station’s machines have been utilising Linux from day one, I still found myself a little flummoxed by the deployment of a proprietary product with notable stability issues. If those little green men arrived and saw it in action, it surely wouldn’t be mathematics textbooks they should be reaching for.

Maybe it’s just me. I’d imagine two things when it comes to deploying an operating system for something so crucial. Firstly, going the proprietary route is surely a dangerous game. This isn’t an issue of budget per se – deploying a variant of Linux is no cost-free exercise – rather a need to sometimes open problems up to minds outside of those on a consultancy fee or sitting in a plush office.

The other criteria I’d suspect would be important would be to reject the latest iteration of anything, and look for a stable release a generation or so back. Interestingly, Windows on said laptops is being replaced by Debian 6, rather than the more recently released Debian 7.

The reason that’s been given for the migration, incidentally, comes from Keith Chuala, NASA’s manager of Space Operations Computing (SpOC). He told ZDNet that “We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable – one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust, or adapt, we could”.

Quite why the revelation has taken so long is a bit of a head-scratcher. However, if the ethos of something more universal is at the heart of effective communication, it does seem right that software with a knowledge base openly spanning the globe is at the heart of NASA’s work, as opposed to that of work done behind closed doors with commercial gain the main motivator. Had Windows been at the core of everything, Contact would have been a very different film…

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