On RCOS (or, Open Software at Rensselaer)

2009.11.11 in code, gnome, school, and summer of code


This post has been stewing for a very long time, as is evidenced by it covering a span of three years. With such a long timeframe comes a terribly scattered and disconnected process of storytelling (for me, at least), so keep that in mind while you notice how long your scrollbar currently is... there is no structure here, only late-night babble.

Also, I apologize in advance for making anyone feel bad over the course of the next few paragraphs...

The Problem

A freshman's eye would peg Rensselaer as a paragon of proprietary software, and they certainly wouldn't be wrong. A majority of the academic portion of campus is heavily entrenched in software like Office, MATLAB, Mathematica, and various CAD packages (or Creative Suite, Max/MSP, and Final Cut Studio, on the other side of campus). I wouldn't blame this on the 'tute, though — many of these packages have no free/open source counterpart even remotely in the same tier. The problem centers more around how much the attitude that comes along with such software is also pervasive here.

Going to RPI — for most people (mainly the engineers and artists, who together comprise way more than half of the student body) — is about spending four years learning how to make lots and lots of money using the tools that you have to use in your particularly overspecialized field; nothing more, nothing less. There's been a recent push for multidisciplinary studies, but I feel like this isn't as serious as it could be, yet — destroying entire departments (foreign language, for example) doesn't lead to much faith in this program...

While this heavily money-and-proprietary-software-driven philosophy might be a little off-putting to someone coming from a background filled with free and open source software (or even a science-for-science's sake background), there is hope!; this is what I want to write about, since it's much more interesting than what's broken...

The Real Problem

I should first clarify that I don't have a problem with proprietary software; I use OS X as my primary operating system, I often resort to Mathematica or Final Cut to do things that can't be easily solved otherwise... I'm very much a right-tool-for-the-job person. My problem is with the attitude; the attitude that says that "everything I create should be mine because there's a chance I can make fame or fortune off of it, and why in the world would I want to share that with other people?"... that is the attitude driven by total immersion in a corporate-academic/closed-source world, and that is what I have a problem with, and it's deeply embedded within both the faculty and a significant portion of the student population.

During freshman year, I spent the whole year doing physics and hiding my disapproval for the overarching RPI philosophy by spending lots of time with my few dozen extremely social floormates. Robb and I often chatted about how we felt about the school, and supported each other as much as we could in terms of not following in everyone else's footsteps.

By the beginning of sophomore year, Robb and I had heard rumors from one of our CS professors (Robert Ingalls, who taught our operating systems course) that there was actually a forming contingent of like-minded folk — people who enjoyed writing software in order to share it with the world, people who believed in the world we believed in.

Finding RCOS

This group turned out to be the Rensselaer Center for Open Software (RCOS, as we semi-lovingly call it). Headed by Moorthy (who was also my data structures professor at the time, though I didn't make the connection until mere minutes before we met him to propose our project), RCOS is an interesting beast. It provides funding, support, and — more importantly, at least in my opinion — a home for people interested in working on or learning about free/open software.

In order to participate, you have to bring a project to the table. It could be something small, as you're just getting started with programming, or something grand, far beyond the scope of a single person project, something you just want to peck away at — as long as there's something to be done, and you're willing to share your code and ideas, you're welcome to stay as long as you'd like.

Three times a semester, the group (or individual) hacking away at each project has to get up in front of the rest of the group — which now numbers somewhere around 30 — and show off what they've done, where they've come from, and where they hope to go; these presentations take place at weekly meetings which form the primary social interaction of the group and provide a place for people to bounce ideas off everyone, show off what they've learned, and get support from the rest of the group when they're having an issue.


First semester sophomore year — shortly after we discovered RCOS — Robb, Matt, and I proposed the "Orange Window Manager", a next-generation window manager that we were planning to write, utilizing Robb's knowledge from his time working on Compiz, as well as various technologies not then being used in window managers (primarily, Clutter). We wrote Seed, the JavaScriptCore<->GObject-Introspection bridge which we were planning to use for extensibility within our window manager, instead, mostly after realizing that we didn't have the time nor patience to write a window manager. Hearing about Shell and Mutter and friends at GNOME Summit affected that decision a slight bit as well; we had already accidentally duplicated some of the effort in creating Seed alongside GJS, we weren't interested in continuing down that path.

RCOS ended up funding two semesters of Seed development and also provided a place for us to show off what we were working on to a bunch of people from outside of the GNOME developer community — which is really a great thing, and lets you put a little bit of perspective on what you're working on... both semesters we had other overarching projects in mind, but both semesters Seed was the primary target of our development time, because it was something feasible and something potentially useful to others.

Big Picture

Without something like RCOS, Seed almost certainly would not have been written; I would still be sitting here having never gotten my hands dirty in the GNOME world (some would say we'd be better off that way :-D); and, more importantly for the big picture, dozens of undergrads would never have gotten a taste of community in software, nor of writing code out in the open, nor of thinking of themselves second for once when coming up with ideas.

I believe that this is incredibly important, and — shockingly — something relatively unique to our campus (I realize it happens in other places, but not nearly as many as one would initially hope), and that more campuses should take heed and — if at all possible — try to pull off something similar!

The Man with The Plan

It turns out that this is all made possible by one person: Sean O'Sullivan, who graduated from RPI in '85 and went on to help found MapInfo — far from being a model citizen of the free/open-source world, but the timeframe excuses them, without question.

Mr. O'Sullivan apparently believes in our world too — so much that he donated a significant chunk of money in order to initiate and fund RCOS for a few years, as well as to create a annual semester-long course on developing open source software (which Robb is currently enrolled in, and is having a blast with, from what I hear...).

Reasonable social protocol would dictate that Seed contain some sort of "thank you" to both Mr. O'Sullivan and to Moorthy; unfortunately I never quite feel comfortable inserting any sort of message to that effect anywhere, nor bringing it up this late in the game, so this is my thank you: thank you for the last three semesters, and hopefully three more; thank you for believing in our cause and our world; and thank you for showing even just a few new people something they hadn't seen before, and possibly wouldn't have had their paths not crossed yours.


RPI has an awesome-but-underappreciated program for getting people involved in open software, run by Mukkai Krishnamoorthy and created by Sean O'Sullivan, and it gives me the little bit of hope I have for our community...

Comments (legacy)

Dave Foster

As an '04 graduate, this is great to hear about. I only wish it existed while I was going there.

Tim Horton: On RCOS (or, Open Software at Rensselaer) | Full-Linux.com

[...] to your search Tim Horton: On RCOS (or, Open Software at Rensselaer) is now available in this link…: News [...]

Andres Salomon

Wow, I wish RCOS existed while I was an undergrad at RPI. I ended up just leaving in frustration. :(

Marius Gedminas

Thanks for the tl;dr!