Paul Vixie: Open source the only way forward

"Eventually," says Internet pioneer Paul Vixie, "even Microsoft will have to embrace open source."

The giant from Redmond's shared source initiative doesn't go far enough, says Vixie, in New Zealand to deliver talks and workshops at the Auckland Uniforum conference.

"What's the point of code you can only look at, but not touch?"

He says that unlike open source, there is no incentive for anyone to freely work with Microsoft. You can't derive anything from the code without Microsoft's permission. As a frequent open source contributor, Vixie thinks it's the only way forward for software.

"We've got a million monkeys banging away on typewriters. Eventually, they will write Shakespeare's sonnets."

However, Vixie also believes some open source personalities haven't grasped that "open" cuts both ways: it's not just a matter of publishing the source; you also have to be receptive to input from other developers, even if it isn't always useful or appropriate.

"I'm happy to receive patches for software I've written, and try to find the time to explain to the submitter if the patch isn't right. Education and encouragement is crucial."

Vixie says greater openness was the reason Linux leapfrogged BSD/Unix, despite the latter having a twenty-year headstart. "Openness means being inclusive."

To Internet and Unix users, Vixie is well-known for his work on the Internet infrastructure and operating system tools. He has written several RFCs (Requests For Comments), and is considered the main author and technical architect of the Berkeley Internet Name Domain (BIND) version 8 software, which runs all the DNS root servers.

While Vixie has earned some renown by having served on the board of commercial companies, including Internet backbone operator Metromedia Fiber Network, and by having founded PAIX, the first Internet exchange, his interest in working for the public good is undiminished.

Although no longer active in the not-for-profit Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS), home of the Realtime Blackhole List (RBL) which is used by many organizations as a defense against unsolicited mass email, Vixie remains firmly in the anti-spam camp.

Vixie says that while outfits like MAPS and RBL filled a need by making the public aware of the extent of the spam problem as well as providing a tool to prevent email abuse, it was mainly a behavior-modification solution that can only go so far. Spammers show no sign of letting up with their abuse. The biggest problem currently isn't open mail relays but open proxies, which are being abused to pump out vast amounts of unsolicited bulk email, flooding the inboxes of millions of users around the world, he says.

Vixie believes a technology-based solution will have to be devised, one which turns the current policy of "anything is permitted that's not expressly prohibited" around. No longer will Internet mail servers indiscriminately accept mail from anyone and anywhere.

Instead, a combination of server certificates and micro-payments for email postage will remove the anonymity spammers have, and their ability to shift the cost of spamming to other Internet users. The challenge with this scheme is to ensure that the certificate authorities aren't hijacked by commercial interests in a similar manner to web browsers -- while anyone can set up a certificate authority, getting the likes of Microsoft and Netscape to incorporate your certificates into their browsers is prohibitively expensive.

Vixie is involved in a bid to run the .org TLD as a non-profit public trust. The proposal has been heard by ICANN, and a decision is expected in about a month.

According to Vixie, selling domain names was never a good business. Citing falling registrations for .org, he says that "Verisign's stock is in the doldrums, and none of the other operators are making much money. Giving .org to a commercial operator is like applying a band-aid to a chest wound: the operator dies a little slower, that's all."

The .org public trust would reinvest any profit into the internet infrastructure worldwide. Vixie is keen to see ideas like free registration for charities and religious organizations come true, as well as a free certificate authority for .org holders.

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