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Portrait: Dr. Alain Empain pioneers open source growth in Belgium

By K. G. Schneider on June 19, 2007 (10:01:00 PM)

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Twice a week, Dr. Alain Empain drives his car away from his solar-paneled home in the Belgian countryside, then parks and boards a train that an hour and 10 minutes later will take him to a bus, which half an hour later will take him a small village called Meise and to his job as a botanist with Belgium's National Botanic Garden, where since the early 1990s he has been a persistent pioneer of open source software.

Portrait series Empain has spent the last several decades, as he puts it, "mixing biology and the nascent ... informatics world." Empain first connected a few computers to a Unix minicomputer in 1986; he was experimenting with Linux by 1993; soon after that had the first Linux server in the Belgian federal government, and by 1998 had switched not only servers but desktops at the National Botanic Garden to Linux. Along the way, Empain also fostered the use of Linux desktops by developing automatic installation procedures and encouraging the use of friendly Linux middleware for essential tools for botanists, such as microscopic cameras.

Yet it is not so much what he has done, but how. Empain -- a botanist whose specialty is bryology (the study of mosses, liverworts, and hornworts) -- has taken a distinctly horticultural approach to open source advocacy, building and tending not simply a garden of servers, but pollinating an appreciation for open source, and hybridizing new applications as needed.

Empain first engaged with computing in 1971, with punched cards and outputs from an IBM 360 "to handle my final work [on my dissertation] ... about water pollution and aquatic bryophytes." After spending a week laboriously computing a simple correlation matrix, he concluded that he needed to learn FORTRAN and stay hands-on with computers throughout his doctoral studies.

In 1977, Empain celebrated earning his Ph.D. in bryology from the University of Liege by purchasing "one of the very new single board microcomputers, a KIM-1 with 1KB of RAM." He had to build his own power supply and I/O and every program had to be entered as hex machine code.

Like many early computer users, Empain joined a computer club, where they taught themselves everything from writing device drivers to debugging video cards. He notes that "it was natural to share and exchange our information" -- a prelude to his open source advocacy.

Empain began working at the National Botanic Garden in 1981, which back then was "an untouched desert from the informatics point-of-view"; none of the work was automated. Empain saw this situation as a great opportunity to "design and organize the whole informatics infrastructure ... without ties from the past ... based on obsolete paradigms."

Working as a tropical bryologist but also as the de facto systems head, over the next five years Empain slowly introduced computers to the National Botanic Garden, "to show how useful it was to evolve." He was patient and flexible -- he conceded to one scientist who preferred reentering many pages of data rather than reading from a floppy disk -- but persistent.

In 1991, Empain decided to upgrade the organization's Unix minicomputer to a PC with a cheaper SCSI hard disk and SCO Unix. Though he was excited by the possibilities of Unix, "at the same time I was very sad to see the big Unix implementers (IBM, HP) building a destructive war" oriented around commercial interests. Empain became a member of the board of directors of the Belgium UNIX systems Users Group, "an association of academics and big companies handling the nascent internet in Belgium," and later became active in the Linux users group in Liege. His activities in both groups took a back seat to his responsibilities at the Garden, where he maintained a growing network with 10 Unix servers, databases, Web/email servers, many desktop computers, a help desk, and more, but he occasionally became more active, such as in his recent campaign to declare a Linux "Freedom Day," which took place in Liege in Empain 2004.

"My goal was always to demonstrate that a minimalist approach can be efficient and cheaper," Empain explains.

In 1993, when Unixware released Unix V release 4.3, Empain bought one of the first copies available in Europe. He paid a little over ,000, but bluntly told the importer that "the only future for Unix [is if it is] sold at a 'Borland' price ($99)." Sure enough, in late 1993, Empain bought his first Linux CD (Yggdrasil, kernel 0.99x) for under 0. Just months later, in January 1994, Empain carried the CD with him to Gainesville, Fla., for a Computers in Agriculture Congress, "to ... convince some colleagues to give it a try."

Empain's Johnny Appleseed instincts have led to many such "teachable moments." At an international conference of African plant taxonomies held in 2000 at the National Botanic Garden, Empain organized a computer room for attendants using Linux machines with StarOffice. "I [hid] the fact that they were dual-boot, just in case.... After some hesitation, the people were editing and printing their Word/Excel/PowerPoint files without any [special] learning, contradicting [Microsoft's] 'Get the facts' campaign."

Some of the more enduring efforts by Empain have to do with leveraging Linux clusters to crunch through processor-hungry bioinformatic computations. To enable researching similarities between the human and bovine genomes, in 2003 Empain used the Sun Grid Engine to build an "ad-hoc 'supercomputer'" from a cluster of all their Linux servers. A six-month-old machine problem was resolved in roughly one week. "Nothing really new," says Empain, "but a first in my university."

Empain has also worked on projects that at first appear to be on a much smaller scale, such as an open source software interface for a 70-euro microscope camera that can do the same work as a 6,000-euro camera that works only under Windows. Open source advocate Mario Miyojim notes that through this project, Empain is "making things easier for microscopic documentation.... [This work] should make a mighty splash in the scientific community" -- particularly in Europe, where hardware prices are higher than they are in the United States.

Similarly, Empain oversaw "the design of a driver and database interface to automate plastic labels engravings for trees and greenhouse plant" for a laser engraver. "The machine was provided with a proprietary device driver working only with Windows and Adobe software. I reverse-engineered the process to provide direct access from a database query to the automatic label engraving."

As valuable as these "mighty splashes" are for the scientific community at large, locally, the webcam and the engraver projects also educate about the practical value of open source software. That lesson has made it easy for OpenOffice.org to become the de-facto desktop standard at the National Botanic Garden, as are Firefox and Thunderbird.

For Empain, a commitment to open source is also an extension of his commitment to science and the public good. "Open source is basically the freedom to share and to enhance our common corpus of knowledge. Being a scientist, it is deeply engraved in my mind: we are living on the shoulders of giants, and anything we can add is only possible owing to their work and the publication for free usage of their results."

Empain clearly finds satisfaction in his work at the National Botanic Garden, and his advice to others is simple: "Just learn, discuss, observe, experiment ... and persevere." But -- and perhaps this is part of his success with open source -- he also enjoys a full life at his country home, with his family, his music, and of course, his garden.

Once upon a time, Empain's backyard was a forgotten cow pasture. Now, after 30 years of his attention, it is not only home to a bounty of fruits, herbs, and vegetables, but is also a "wild place" with trees, streams, ponds, shady areas, butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, hedgehogs, birds of many kinds, "and even sometimes our nice blue kingfisher or the big heron." His garden suggests Empain's work in championing open source: he saw ground to cultivate, and he then patiently, lovingly worked the land.

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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