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[P]
Dawn of the GNU Cooperative

By lucas in Technology
Tue Nov 14, 2000 at 04:22:46 PM EST
Tags: Hardware (all tags)
Hardware

Without being too formal, I'd like to announce to the Community that we've taken several steps forward in the forming of the first GNU Cooperative. Josh Oakes and I (Lucas Wagner) are still in the process of sketching out ideas for retroconverting an existing retail operation, Spindletop, in Cambridge, Mass. The Cooperative will be small, flexible, and focused on handling the hardware (and hardware-related) needs of free software end-users.

In this article, I briefly describe the methodology behind why a Cooperative is needed, the strengths and weaknesses of a Cooperative, and what its effects might be on the free software community.


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comments (24)
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If there were some sort of GNU Cooperative that catered to your needs as a free software end-user, what would it have to do? What services could it provide. What attitudes should it take?

What has interested me for a long time is creating a decent, reasonably priced, quality-oriented (e.g., non-distributor-built-whitebox) Linux hardware platform for Linux end-users, catering to the people who know free software best and really like it: you and me... I see this as most relevant to improving open source software acceptance, since most people begin hacking around with free software at home.

Such ideas right now are ignored by larger corporations right now because they are unprofitable. You won't find a Linux box in CompUSA or Microcenter anytime soon. Margins on server boxes are 400%. Margins on your average PCs are about 25% - 30% at best, cost at worst. In our case, we're planning to use a standard and fair margin of 10 - 15%. Meaning, if the Cooperative buys something at around $34 each, it sells for $3.40 - $5.10 extra, in turn, going directly into expenses. Money after expenses is donated to the FSF and Debian.

I spoke with a friend who works at Compaq as to how they could support PCs; she confided that Compaq is always on the brink of dumping its entire PC line, since it only represents less than 5% of the entire revenue Compaq takes in.

This being said, the goal is to create something that is *not* scalable to the entire body of computer users. It would not be feasible (at this time) to expect something like this. Fortunately, I don't expect that people will drop everything and switch to Debian from proprietary software in the next few years; evangelization should also not be our focus. Instead, let us continue to build something brick-by-brick that is remarkably efficient, clean, and flexible to take care of our own needs as free software users.

Yet defining "our needs" is difficult. Since Linux and *BSD users are largely ignored, there's not a whole lot of information about who uses free software. This is one of the reasons I'm posting this to you, my peers - I'm curious. On one hand, being ignored is good; there are merits to being left alone by the larger companies. Poorly built hardware is not dumped onto the market as with Windows machines - there still seems a certain element of quality to Linux solutions that exist. And, using old equipment is great -- we don't have to figure out which elements don't work, as most of their idiosyncracies have been documented.

Yet on the other hand, there is a real need to support Linux users who want a full solution that uses newer technology as opposed to older stuff.

My general understanding is that it is not going to be Red Hat or any other VC-backed company moving in this direction. They cannot afford to run lean and they are struggling just to keep it moving on the enterprise end; it has to start from the ground up.

The basis of my idea is to treat system building like an open source software project. Use a legal entity (e.g., a "cooperative") with low overhead to "slide" certain, agreed-upon goods to end-users using relatively low margins. The entity would take care of the accounting work and handle negotiating for the cooperative.

Everyone involved must be an end-user in some sense; it's not a cooperative otherwise.

Members would find an open standard (open design) of a few current configurations that work well together and have a high degree of price/performance. There will probably be a few factions who want to use particular hardware -- these can all be listed.

IMHO, it is important to use name-brand, well supported parts. The problem with today's current listings of "what appears to be compatible" with free software is that some of it is outdated, it's confusing for people to narrow down choices.

If implemented properly, people can use the list like a shopping list, ordering parts from vendors.

Why focus on only a few sets of hardware? If the group is able to focus on a particular set of hardware, the "cooperative" will be able to purchase them in small bulk batches and sell them at significantly reduced margins to members. Members can upgrade their boxen as they see fit. If too many sets of hardware are supported, the cooperative cannot function -- it would become a standard retail operation because the cooperative would have to offset losses in products that aren't selling well.

My idea is that hardware can be purchased assembled or raw (OEM, plainboxed), depending on what the user needs. It would not be in retail packaging.

Hardware should be, for example:

a.) Non-proprietary. If it doesn't work 100% with free software, it shouldn't be included.

b.) Non-dirty. As an example, this means using more expensive, better- built, "clean" motherboards without built-in sound and video.

c.) Upgradeable (to a certain extent). The user should be able to update it (i.e., not have to throw the box away in 1 year to buy another one) in a non-proprietary way.

My idea is that people would not have to "pay" to be a member, rather they would contribute into the product by voting and participating in message groups. They would have a stake in it simply because, if they want to upgrade their boxen, they want to make certain that good hardware is used. I'm also thinking along the lines of Debian right now: stability should be a key element.

The person who runs the cooperative is more of a "monitor" who makes sure that operations are functioning well. He also assembles boxen for people who want to pay a certain percentage for assembly. When jobs become available that the "monitor" can't do, he keeps costs down by bringing in users from the community as consultants... or trading services for hardware.

Strengths:

a. Collective bargaining strength. We could even bargain with Linux Service Providers (LSPs) for things like discounted technical support.

b. Support of a platform that is used and agreed upon by many people; support is more widespread and more business will be lost by vendors who do not support drivers for free software.

c. Self-sustaining. Should paid consultants be needed by the Cooperative, the money remains within the Community as individuals are hired within it.

d. Lower Prices. Significantly lower cost of hardware purchases, particularly for individuals. Corporations who want to implement end-user-based Linux solutions (e.g., non-server) would also benefit.

e. Flexibility. Ability to help people on an individual basis to cover their hardware needs.

Weaknesses:

a. Users must know how to install equipment; it is not for everyone.

b. Telephone support would be limited. There would be no "distribution-base" support. However, this would be less of a factor if we can create listings of "HOWTOs" (e.g., installing a new motherboard into the Blackbird) with diagrams.

c. User apathy would hurt the system; the users (and especially the "committee" should be interested and familiar with products out on the market.

d. The model doesn't scale well. On the other hand, the amount of Linux end-users in comparison to Windows users is very small. Equity- based venture capital (VC) would be a definite no-no, as it would break the system.

e. International concerns. Since free software is used by everyone, a Cooperative should not simply be applicable to North Americans. There must be a way for a Cooperative to handle international issues (such as power conversion, shipping, etc.) just as large companies do.

I'd like to get some feedback about this idea -- think about it, hack with it. Is it viable? What are your needs as a user? What services can make it more useful?

I'd also like to hear from people who would be interested in becoming involved.

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Dawn of the GNU Cooperative | 48 comments (39 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
Sign me up, maybe (3.75 / 8) (#8)
by reshippie on Tue Nov 14, 2000 at 03:04:14 PM EST

Sounds like a great idea. I'm just curious as to how much of the practicality of it you have worked out.

If I read this right, the Co-Op would buy the parts, assemble full boxes, and sell parts and those boxes. Now, who works for the Co-Op? You didn't really explain this, and I'm not terribly knowledgeable.

Would there be a regular staff of employees, like a traditional company?
Would it be totally volunteer bases, like OSS?
Would people be on a list, and called when they were needed?

I am very excited by this idea, particularly since I live near Cambridge, MA.

Best of luck, and I hope to be working with you.

Those who don't know me, probably shouldn't trust me. Those who do DEFINITELY shouldn't trust me. :-)

Re: Sign me up, maybe (4.50 / 4) (#12)
by lucas on Tue Nov 14, 2000 at 04:03:30 PM EST

>If I read this right, the Co-Op would buy the parts,
>assemble full boxes, and sell parts and those boxes.

Yes, that's right.

>Would there be a regular staff of employees, like a
>traditional company?

To keep costs down, the operations segment would be handled by a minimum number (maybe 2 - 3) of paid people. They would handle ordering, accounting, assembly, shipping, etc. Local volunteers can help anytime, of course... or if people just want to stop by and learn how to do something, I don't mind teaching them.

As far as what is purchased and the direction of the Cooperative, this is handled by the collective body of members/volunteers. I think it would be great to have a system of voting so that the Cooperative as a whole can know the Will of its members and it wouldn't be left to guess. If I can post a voting issue, describe the background, the pros, and the cons of it and have people vote, it would make tailoring the Cooperative to them much easier.

This would take a volunteer (or volunteers) with the time to work with me in setting up a decent website based on some sort of community-oriented open-source software (like Scoop). I would love to ditch the current site.

As far as beyond that, for instance, if we need help that requires more or less consulting work, the people who would get preference would be the members, themselves. We can do something where jobs are posted and members bid on them.

> Would it be totally volunteer bases, like OSS?

Fully. The idea is to be flexible, to be compact (e.g., efficient), and to use the collective talent of the members who want to help out.

My main concern is that I don't want it to become bloated and stray from the people for this very reason. It must have volunteers that actually care about its condition. To show that I am serious about this, I (with the help of a lawyer) converted Spindletop from a C-Corporation to an LLC. The legal statutes governing LLCs forbid venture capital and give it a termination date (it may exist for 30 years). It also allows us to catch certain tax breaks and run "lean". You will not find Spindletop selling out or being purchased by a large corporation because it cannot be done legally. This was my intention.

[ Parent ]
Software vs. Hardware (3.50 / 4) (#13)
by reshippie on Tue Nov 14, 2000 at 05:17:20 PM EST

One of the things about OSS, is that people can work on it at any time. You can download the source, and work all night, then get up in the morning and go to work/school. I see that as one of the best attributes, people can do the work whenever they want.

If they are to be building physical machines, they would either have to have the parts shipped to their homes (Requiring a great deal of trust), or they would have to go someplace to work.

If they go to the headquarters, then it would either have to be open all night, or have most of the work done on the weekends.

I'm not trying to rain on you parade, actually, I want to help you iron out the details so I can be a part of this.

This doesn't quite read right, but I can't figure out any other way to express it. I hope my intentions outshine my ineptness at the English Language.

Those who don't know me, probably shouldn't trust me. Those who do DEFINITELY shouldn't trust me. :-)
[ Parent ]

Trust? (3.00 / 1) (#20)
by THEWeirdo on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 02:38:52 AM EST

> If they are to be building physical machines, they would either have to have the parts shipped to their homes (Requiring a great deal of trust), or they would have to go someplace to work.

Who needs to trust who, and why? If, say, 100 40GB HDs are ordered, are sent to, say, lucas' house, and a few simply vanish, people are gonna know some thing's up. If they're sent to the co-op's head-quarters or whatever, and they disappear because lucas steals them, you're no better off--worse off, in fact, as you don't know who stole them.

Or do you mean if the builder puts in hardware other than what was supposed to go in? In that case, the system could always be inspected by co-volunteers at the co-op's head-quarters or whatever, before shipment.

Please clarify.
  - THEWeirdo

"Better paranoid than sorry" -- Me
[ Parent ]

Paid volunteers? (3.00 / 1) (#19)
by THEWeirdo on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 02:28:38 AM EST

> To keep costs down, the operations segment would be handled by a minimum number (maybe 2 - 3) of paid people.

...and...

>> Would it be totally volunteer bases, like OSS?
> Fully.

...don't mix.
  - THEWeirdo

"Better paranoid than sorry" -- Me
[ Parent ]

Re: Paid volunteers? (4.00 / 2) (#24)
by dlc on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 06:46:13 AM EST

> To keep costs down, the operations segment would be handled by a minimum number (maybe 2 - 3) of paid people.

...and...

> > Would it be totally volunteer bases, like OSS?

> Fully.

...don't mix.

That's not true. That's how the FSF operates. There are a few paid employees, but the (vast) majority of the work is volunteer-based, to the point where the paid employees are statistically meaningless (in the context of paid word vs. volunteer work).


(darren)
[ Parent ]

Eh? (2.50 / 2) (#26)
by THEWeirdo on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 08:35:58 AM EST

>> Would it be totally volunteer bases, like OSS?

> Fully.

Basically, "fully, totally, volunteer." To me, that means "no body is paid."

'k', maybe it is a bit nit-pickin'... But still!
  - THEWeirdo

"Better paranoid than sorry" -- Me
[ Parent ]

Re: Volunteers and Paid-Staff (4.00 / 3) (#30)
by lucas on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 10:05:57 AM EST

Yeah, it's like dlc said.

I would make it entirely volunteer, but, just like the FSF, there are certain things you need to pay people for. People will volunteer to come and build Blackbird cubes or volunteer for the fun things, but not for the daily maintenance.

As an example, a chief reason why organizations or business go under is neglected (or bad) accounting. Paid people don't want to do it, much less a volunteer. But it has to be done.

At the FSF, Bradley Kuhn filters (and perhaps answers) some of RMS's e-mail. He works on volunteer stuff for the FSF (such as maintaining the jobs webpage), but for the bulk amount of e-mail RMS gets, he is paid a stipend to filter it and redirect the interesting stuff to RMS... because what volunteer wants to be relegated to an e-mail filter?

[ Parent ]
Truce (3.66 / 3) (#33)
by THEWeirdo on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 11:28:13 AM EST

I was just pointing out that you made two statements that conflict. I wasn't saying that you shouldn't have paid workers. Just that having them would conflict with "fully, totally volunteer".

I'm sorry I started this whole thing. :-)
  - THEWeirdo

"Better paranoid than sorry" -- Me
[ Parent ]

A really good idea... (2.60 / 5) (#14)
by Zeram on Tue Nov 14, 2000 at 05:19:17 PM EST

I think this is an execlent idea! Sort of for the people by the people. I really would like to see this get off the ground, and would be very willing to help once the details are schetched out better. To that end here is what I would like to see:

A decent choice in hardware (a wide range of parts to pick from)

The ability to completely customize the systems (or to have pre-arranged packages for people more interested in software than hardware)

some sort of bylaws to keep the endevor from being comerical.

Um, beyond that I can't think of anything (but my brain is fried)
<----^---->
Like Anime? In the Philly metro area? Welcome to the machine...
DHL (1.80 / 5) (#15)
by goosedaemon on Tue Nov 14, 2000 at 07:27:38 PM EST

www.dhl.org They only serve organizations or companies or something ... I can't get it for myself, GNUcoop (whee, new acronym ) might be able to. But as a testament to their l33titude, I ordered something expediated, was told it would be here in 3-4 days ... and LO, it was.


GnuInc (2.00 / 1) (#42)
by guppie on Thu Nov 16, 2000 at 03:18:02 AM EST

As for acronyms, I propose GnuInc, for GnuInc Is Not a Cooperative.

But perhaps it's too close to "GNU Inc", although anobody remotely familiar with Free Software will know there can't be a GNU Incorporated, it might confuse a few soles.

What? The land of the free? Whoever told you that is your enemy.
-Zack de la Rocha
[ Parent ]
Harwdare nit-picking (3.80 / 5) (#16)
by kagaku_ninja on Tue Nov 14, 2000 at 08:16:54 PM EST

a.) Non-proprietary. If it doesn't work 100% with free software, it shouldn't be included.

b.) Non-dirty. As an example, this means using more expensive, better- built, "clean" motherboards without built-in sound and video.


This is entirely subjective. To my SGI friends, all PCs are "dirty" due to poorly designed memory busses, I/O systems, etc. Likewise, the modern motherboard has quite a lot of value built-in. Try and find a motherboard that does not have: IDE controller, floppy controller, L2 cache. These things used to require additional hardware, now they are basically free. Many boards also provide: SCSI, ethernet, sound, video.

There is nothing wrong with built-in video or sound. It may not be up to the standards of the latest super 3D accelerator, but is good enough for most users. You can usually upgrade if this matters. As long as it works, and the companies involved provide the necessary info to open source developers...

c.) Upgradeable (to a certain extent). The user should be able to update it (i.e., not have to throw the box away in 1 year to buy another one) in a non-proprietary way.

Again, this is a cost issue. If I can get all the hardware features I need at half the cost, because it is built in, why is this a problem?

Re: Hardware nit-picking (4.50 / 4) (#17)
by lucas on Tue Nov 14, 2000 at 11:38:28 PM EST

Motherboards with built-in equipment tend to be built more poorly than those which are "clean". It's not the fact that things are built-in, per se, it's the quality (e.g., failure-rate, DOA rate) I'm concerned about.

Now, there are Intel server boards which have built-in video (they go for around $400 wholesale), dual procs, and SCSI. Obviously, they are built much better than no-name boards placed in whiteboxes that cost $70 wholesale. Perhaps there can be found some built-in motherboards that *are* quality-oriented -- you'll still end up paying nearly as much as if you went with a clean, name-brand mobo, a SB 128 PCI, and a decent video card.

Granted, I'm always open to be convinced of a better way.

"Dirty" mobos are also placed in with the idea that you will see your "inflexible" PC to as outdated and purchase another computer from them. I think it would be very disadvantageous to convey this image.

You're right, though -- undoubtedly, compared to any sort of RISC platform, PC hardware has been and will always be clumsy. Quite honestly, I would love to pitch IRQs, BIOSes, and have some sort of firmware ROM monitor to break out to (I'm thinking of my vintage 1993 NeXTstation). In terms of a Cooperative, if we can offer inexpensive, alternative platform motherboards for people to hack with (and document for others), I'm all for that.

[ Parent ]
BIOSes (3.66 / 3) (#21)
by THEWeirdo on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 03:07:28 AM EST

> Quite honestly, I would love to pitch IRQs, BIOSes, and have some sort of firmware ROM monitor to break out to (I'm thinking of my vintage 1993 NeXTstation). [sic]

This got me thinking. (No, really!) Maybe the co-op could pre-flash BIOSes with a version of OpenBIOS or TIARA, once those progress to reasonably usable statuses. Just a thought.
  - THEWeirdo

"Better paranoid than sorry" -- Me
[ Parent ]

Why not use RISC? (4.50 / 4) (#23)
by dlc on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 06:26:29 AM EST

You're right, though -- undoubtedly, compared to any sort of RISC platform, PC hardware has been and will always be clumsy.

I didn't see where you mentioned "Intel-only" in your description. If the Cooperative would be providing top-quality, Linux-compatible hardware solutions, is there any reason why RISC-based configurations could not also be offered/sopeced?

Linux runs on a lot of platforms, and, to a large extent, is no longer x86-specific. If Joe Enduser needs a high end Linux box for home use, why shouldn't the Cooperative be able to tell him, "We have the specs for a sweet PowerPC-based box. Look, you can get the case in Grape..."

In other words, as far as the Cooperative is focused on Linux running on standard hardware, and not Linux on x86, non-x86-based systems should be considered first-class options.


(darren)
[ Parent ]

Why not? Proprietary (4.00 / 3) (#37)
by naasking on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 04:29:12 PM EST

AFAIK, all current PowerPC hardware is proprietary(Apple or IBM made). That goes against one of the founding principles of the Cooperative.

Now there is a free PowerPC based motherboard in the works(coming out of IBM) but it's still being tested and worked on. Don't know what the current status is though. It's called the POP, the "PowerPC Open Platform". From their FAQ: 'POP stands for "PowerPC™ Open Platform." It's a PowerPC-based, ATX form-factor motherboard, designed by IBM. It is designed to assist developers who are interested in offering PowerPC based Linux systems for the thin server or appliance market.'

The POP site is here. You can get schematics, Block diagrams and a bill of materials.


[ Parent ]
Not Anymore (4.00 / 2) (#41)
by qbwiz on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 10:34:21 PM EST

The POP project has pretty much gone under. Their Northbridge supplier canceled, and there aren't any good replacements. IBM hasn't been helping too much either, lately, as when they do give information, its really late.

[ Parent ]
Too bad... (3.00 / 1) (#45)
by naasking on Sun Nov 19, 2000 at 08:19:58 PM EST

I was really looking forward to it. *sigh*


[ Parent ]
Information is key (4.28 / 7) (#18)
by mcelrath on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 12:28:33 AM EST

The subject says it all. I have assembled 2 systems recently (one alpha, one athalon) by spending lots and lots of time looking around the web to figure out what works with linux, what is compatible with what, what has drivers, etc. I've been lucky, partly due to my diligence, that everything worked together when it arrived. Vendors sending me crappy hardware (non-ECC ram when I ordered ECC, region 5 DVD-ROM (??)) is another story.

Providing this information would be the most valuable service you could provide to we hackers. Look at Net Express for an idea of what I'm talking about. And catalog the little things like cases, keyboards, and mice. No one pays attention to these things, but I'd pay triple for a good keyboard! The hardest component to find for my last system was actually the case! Nobody has decent info on the web about cases! Also correlating hardware with relevant linux drivers, and only selling hardware which has open source drivers. *cough*nVidia*cough* There's nothing worse than having drivers that crash (and take down the kernel!), and not being able to fix it, or even formulate a coherent bug report because you can't look at the code. And doing Good Things like only selling region free DVD-ROM's.

It's tempting, as a linux user, to see flashy new hardware come out and wonder if it works with Linux. Or wonder if you have the balls to write a driver. Cataloging hardware you don't sell, and whether it works with linux (along the lines of linhardware or even better, Neoseeker) is also a great benefit. Neoseeker has the great feature that they allow posting of ratings, comments, reviews, and most especially, links to the manufacturer and relevant drivers. Of course, this would be a great way to figure out what you maybe should sell. ;) A well maintained website along the lines of Neoseeker + discussion + linux driver database could take care of 80% of your business. Of course, you would loose 50% or more of your business due to people going from your site to find the cheapest price, and you'd have to accept that.

The second greatest service you could provide is a single, affordable source for this stuff. Using my method of buying hardware often results in shoddy vendors with crummy return policies, and parts ordered from 4 or 5 different vendors, all for one machine. Things don't arrive at the same time, and with so many vendors involved there's a high probability at least one order will be screwed up. Have a reasonable return policy, and have responsive people in case something goes wrong (and realize...something will go wrong eventually).

You say you want to avoid evangelism, but this is crucial. You must be able to explain why that motherboard without the sound or video built in is better. ("non-dirty") Why they should buy a 3dfx card when Nvidia's are faster ("non-proprietary"). Why they should buy a more expensive region-free DVD drive when they only want to watch DVD's they buy in the US. (assuming linux DVD playing comes along...and livid/oms/xmovie are looking pretty good)

Lastly, a cooperative is not a company. A cooperative is a community, with financial and time commitments from its members. Most of them have membership fees, many of them require you to work a few hours a month (like the food co-op down the street from me). A cooperative should probably be registered as a not-for-profit company. It should have bylaws. But most important of all, your users and customers must feel as though they are part of a community. They should be invited, enticed, even required to come back to your site and report their experience with hardware. Otherwise you will be just another vendor, with a fancy web database with nothing in it.

Good luck to you. If you make it, I'll buy my next computer from you.

--Bob
1^2=1; (-1)^2=1; 1^2=(-1)^2; 1=-1; 2=0; 1=0.

International Shipping (2.60 / 5) (#22)
by vrai on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 03:16:11 AM EST

This sounds cool - however shipping computer hardware from the states to Britain (and I'm assuming the rest of the EU) can be *very* expensive (and dangerous to the hardaware, I'm sure many shipping firms see 'Do Not Bend' as some kind of challenge).

Perhaps an EU based wing of the cooperative could be set up - amongst other things it could help with translations and the problem that in the EU we seem to have more types of power socket than countries :(

UK Pricing? (3.00 / 1) (#31)
by Burb on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 10:33:56 AM EST

Free software or not, I wonder if this would be a way to buy hardward cheaply in the UK? Due to export costs and, I suspect, lots of local markup, PC hardware has for many years been more expensive here than the USA - the rule of thumb has often been to replace the $ with £. Obviously this depends on the exchange rate, but even with £1=£1.40 that's 40% markup that someone's making somewhere.

Same comments may apply elswhere in EU or indeed the world.

Just a ramble, feel free to ignore.

[ Parent ]

Volunteers (2.33 / 3) (#25)
by Hitmanharvey on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 07:05:19 AM EST

If you need any volunteers for a UK/EU wing, I would be available. I'm currently based in Nottingham, but moving to Cambridge soon. Matt

Hardware? Maybe. Services? Yes! (4.00 / 8) (#27)
by Pseudonymous Coward on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 09:19:32 AM EST

If there were some sort of GNU Cooperative that catered to your needs as a free software end-user, what would it have to do? What services could it provide.

I think there are two markets that are being seriously underserved in the retail space at this point: Low-end server hardware, and Dirt Cheap Colo.

It would be wonderful to see 1U or 2U form factor rackable hardware well under the $1,000 mark for home network use as, say, IPmasq/NAT boxen, routers, load balancers, and low volume SMTP/POP servers. You don't need much hardware or performance at all to fulfil those tasks, and yet the cheapest VA box, the 2U 2130, clocks in at $1,400 with way too much hardware for the job. A K6-2/300, sixteen or so meg of memory, a couple of gig of disk, a decent network interface and a really good rackable chassis would suffice.

At that rate, there aren't a lot of good hardware solutions for building cheap, small X terminals or NC-like devices. A small, reasonably attractive chassis, acceptably quick and stable video, and bootable CD would be good attributes for such a thing. It would appear that this kind of hardware shows up from time to time as ill-marketed "appliances" and is then shortly repurposed by the hardware hacking sort. Since the folks who typically build and market this stuff have a vested interest in keeping the device from being particularly useful or popular -- it's usually loss leader sales on some kind of services scam -- that generally leads to a sudden paucity of available units.

Likewise, there isn't a decent colocation solution for those of us who just want a fast, stable place to house small server for low-volume FTP or HTTP, a MUD or telnettable BBS, off-site storage, or DNS.

Come to think of it, other than The Public DNS, which seems to have lots of serious problems, cheap or free DNS seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

I doubt very much that a profitable organization could exist filling these niches, but a cooperative nonprofit concern might have a chance at it.

Rackmounting.... (3.00 / 1) (#38)
by spankenstein on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 04:47:54 PM EST

While I will agree wholeheartedly that having boxes ina rack on rails with toolless cases rocks... It's expensive. Rackmount cases are usually very crappily designed for any computer that would go in them. Cooling is bad, overall arrangement is bad and most are pretty cheap and unfinished looking.



[ Parent ]
Thank You! (3.50 / 4) (#28)
by joshO on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 09:31:40 AM EST

I want to thank the kuro5hin community for all of your feedback and great ideas. Keep it comin'! I, Josh Oakes, am a member of Spindletop and I can't even begin to express how much discussion like this helps Lucas and I really work out the bumps of this cooperative. Feel free to email either one of us if you have further inquiries, ideas, comments, criticisms, etc. Josh O.
http://www.spindletp.com
Some comments on co-op structures, scaling etc (4.62 / 8) (#29)
by tallus on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 09:33:10 AM EST

My idea is that people would not have to "pay" to be a member, rather they would contribute into the product by voting and participating in message groups. They would have a stake in it simply because, if they want to upgrade their boxen, they want to make certain that good hardware is used. I'm also thinking along the lines of Debian right now: stability should be a key element.
While I am not impugning your motives in suggesting this, it is difficult to see how this could fit in with established legal structures for co-ops - what you are actually suggesting is more like a membership society not a co-op. However you should note that the 'membership' (actually purchase of a single share) is nornally only a nominal amount e.g $1 - co-ops are run on a one member, one vote basis in contrast to limited companies which one on a one share one vote basis. Membership Economic Participation is the 3rd co-operative principle
Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operatives. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operatives They usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing the co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operatives; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
from:The Seven Co-operative Principles (The 1st and 2nd are Voluntary and Open membership and Democratic Member Control).

The person who runs the cooperative is more of a "monitor" who makes sure that operations are functioning well. He also assembles boxen for people who want to pay a certain percentage for assembly...
The running of a co-op (as an entity) is the buisness of the members or thier elected representatives. The running of the day to day buisness could be done by employees of that co-op. A better model might be to set up a parallel workers co-op that this work is contracted out to - this would have other advantages as well - you might well find that other non-related co-ops wish to buy ready assembled boxes from the co-op - those co-ops could join the main co-op to get advantages of cheaper prices and the charges for assembling the boxes made buy the workers co-op would help ensure they were a viable business - but even if they didn't want to join the workers co-op could take on this, and other unrelated work to ensure the viability of the whole scheme without losing purchasing advantages.

d. The model doesn't scale well. On the other hand, the amount of Linux end-users in comparison to Windows users is very small. Equity- based venture capital (VC) would be a definite no-no, as it would break the system.
On the point of scaling it should be noted that some co-ops are amoung the biggest businesses of thier kind (for many year the CWS in the UK, was and quite possibly still is, the largest retail outlet). Also there is a co-operative alternative to issuing shares that ensures control remains with the co-op while allowing them to raise capital - it is called loanstock (you buy loanstocks which give the original sum + a fixed interest rate after a fixed period) - which members ans supporters, other co-ops etc could buy.

e. International concerns. Since free software is used by everyone, a Cooperative should not simply be applicable to North Americans. There must be a way for a Cooperative to handle international issues (such as power conversion, shipping, etc.) just as large companies do.
The best way would probably be to set up a series of national/ergional/local co-ops that would handle any localisation issues, and distribute to thier individual members, then form a secondary co-op ( a cop-op of co-operatives) to deal with purchasing. Thus the secondary would go to e.g. FooComponents and order X,000 units on behalf of all its member co-ops (and thier members) to leverage the best possible price and organise delivery to its member co-ops, who would in turn distribute them to its individula members - which would help minimize distribution costs (1 big shipment then local post rather than lots of individual packages).

Finally...ordinary buisnesses may not be to keen on sharing info but Co-operation amoung Co-operators is the norm (and the 6th co-operative principle.) If you haven't already done so you should contact the NCBA (the National Co-operative Buisness Association) <a href="http://www.ncba.org>www.ncba.org who will be able to give you advice etc on setting up as a co-op or point you in the right direction. They are also campaigning for a .co-op tld.
All the best
Tallus(paul@2bet.co.uk)...a fellow co-operator.

Re: Some comments on co-op structures, scaling etc (4.50 / 4) (#32)
by lucas on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 11:23:56 AM EST

While US laws regarding the matter are different than those of the UK, I can see what you're saying here.

However, you seem to be assuming that a GNU Cooperative would be large and be something along the lines of a cooperative that purchases food or some other commodity. Again, we're talking about a very SMALL group of people compared to something along these lines; small and informal.

I originally picked the word "cooperative" because, at least to me, it entails something to do with tangible goods and entails a voice in the process of acquiring those goods.

Were I able to get away with it, I would call it a "thing". ;-)

I am not going to call Spindletop, officially, "The GNU Cooperative" and splatter it all over because it would be infringing on the FSF. If we messed up something, it would look bad on the entire GNU project. Rather, it is Spindletop which can be envisioned as using a cooperative style of business tailored along the lines and expectations of the supporters of free and/or open-source software.

The legal organization of Spindletop is an LLC, not a corporation. In the states, this legal status allows you to be able to skip doing things like being federally mandated to keep track of minutes, holding a Board of Directors meeting, and other American governmental formalities. These are what hurt organizations because no volunteer wants to handle this. If paid people must handle filling out, this takes away from their other duties... which necessitates hiring more people (or lawyers), which means raising the prices... assuming they even understand it.

Now, if we do stuff like have voting online and have message bases to discuss issues and use the work of volunteers for practically everything except for the most painful stuff (e.g., accounting), the collective body of members will understand the issues, contribute, and pretty much know what is going on.

If people kill each other over formalities, shares, and who gets what, then this is the easiest way to kill the spirit of the project. The OSS or cooperative philosophy that is trying to be implemented here requires some virtuous, fair people to work together with others. In my view, the last thing we need are legalities above what is necessary and property conditions, as these turn into dogmatism.

[ Parent ]
Re: Some comments on co-op structures, scaling etc (4.00 / 1) (#44)
by tallus on Thu Nov 16, 2000 at 12:20:02 PM EST

However, you seem to be assuming that a GNU Cooperative would be large and be something along the lines of a cooperative that purchases food or some other commodity. Again, we're talking about a very SMALL group of people compared to something along these lines; small and informal
Well not necesarily large - the (housing) co-op I am involved with has a membership limit of 25 to keep our meetings informal and plebty of worker co-ops have <5 members, but this is by the by.

If people kill each other over formalities, shares, and who gets what, then this is the easiest way to kill the spirit of the project. The OSS or cooperative philosophy that is trying to be implemented here requires some virtuous, fair people to work together with others. In my view, the last thing we need are legalities above what is necessary and property conditions, as these turn into dogmatism.
While I agree with what you are saying here I would like to sound a slight note of caution (not of criticism). From my understanding of it there are two separate but inter-related parts to the project - creating an open hardware standard , for which the OSS model is entirely appropriate - and selling/distributing the hardware for which I believe the copoerative model is the most appropriate.

What I want to deal with is the second part. In 18 years of dealing with co-ops and voluntary bodies (albeit in the unrelated field of housing -I live in a housing co-op and work with Free Software as a SysAdmin.) I have seen co-ops succeed where attempts to do things by informal structures have pretty cosistently failed, and the reasons for this have often had a lot to do with the things you are talking about.

An aversion to bureaucracy is only natural but sometimes bureaucracy is necessary. Where informal have failed is is often because they have been able at first to avoid formalities but sooner or later situations have arisen that have caused them to fail wwhile comparable co-ops have sbeen able to survive becuase the co-ops have the benifit of formal structures that ensure fairness and participation.

Co-operative legal structures do for buisness models what the GPL does for software - they provide a framework where people can participate equally and ensure no-ones going to get ripped off- and the means to back it up (in a similar way that the GPL ensures that software STAYS free).

What ever model you choose you should be aware that while you may be able to do things informally that doesn't mean you can aviod the things that caused people to develop formal structures in the first place and co-ops are a good way to use other peoples experience of this - after all nobody would suggest creating a new licence with every piece of software and the ones that have been created seem to have more to do with protecting corporate interests than anything else.

Whatever model you chose good luck but think carefully about it,

Tallus

[ Parent ]

What is it you're going to *do*, again? (4.33 / 6) (#34)
by terran on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 02:13:52 PM EST

As others have mentioned, the description you have given above does not seem to be a good match with the traditional definition of a cooperative:
  • A cooperative obtains capital from its members. You have said that you do not expect members to pay anything.
  • In a cooperative, any funds left over which are not set aside for growth are returned to the members. You have said that any "surplus" funds will be charitably donated.
  • etc.
These differences are not inherently bad, but they mean you are not planning a cooperative in the traditional sense, and thus it is not entirely clear to me how you intend to operate. Perhaps you can clarify some points:
  • If you're not going to get operating capital from your members, where will it come from? It seems you're implying that you already have available some amount of capital that you're essentially donating. Is this correct?

  • How will you obtain data to determine which parts work well? Will you buy parts and have paid staff members test them, buy parts and have volunteers test them, or rely upon volunteers reporting information on parts that they bought with their own money?

    If you're going to have people report on things that they buy themselves, how is this tied to the retail business of selling parts? It seems that it would be an essentially independent endeavor, which could go on quite well in the complete absense of any business dealing with hardware at all.

    If you're planning on using either of the first two approaches, do you have enough capital available to buy and test a substantial number of parts before you start selling things? If you don't have enough capital to do tests first, or if you're planning on using the third approach, how will you select your initial inventory?

  • It seemse you're hoping to get higher volumes by buying a relatively small number of different parts, focusing on a few of each type of component that have performed well with Linux, right? Even so, have you done the math and concluded that you really can undersell the mail-order components distributors? You compare your margins to those on assembled systems, but everything else you've said indicates that you're selling components, not assembled systems.

    If you were selling, say, shoes, you could legitimately sell "shoes" that people assemble themselves, for less money (possibly also providing them the use of specialized shoe-assembling equipment (leather sewing machines, etc.) at your location). You'd be appealing to those people who are willing to do more work themselves to save money. There's no existing market in retail shoe parts, so comparing yourselves to the finished-shoe market is reasonable.

    However, there very much is an existing market in retail computer parts. I can already have parts shipped to my door, and assemble them myself. No special tools are required, either. Therefore, it seems much more reasonable that you should compare yourselves to the existing parts market instead of the existing finished system market.

    You could argue that the product you're selling is more like a finished system than parts, because you're also providing information on which parts will work well. However, what's to stop me from getting that information off of your web page and then buying the parts from someone else? The information about which parts work well isn't value added to your product unless you keep it secret from non-customers, which I'm guessing won't fit well in a moral sense with what you're trying to do.

    Can you compete with the companies selling components? I'm not trying to suggest you can't, but I don't have enough information to be able to tell one way or the other, and a decisive statement that you've looked at the numbers and you believe you can, perhaps with some brief information about the volumes required to do it, would be reassuring.

Please feel free to smack me if I'm missing anything obvious. It's possible that the answers to all of these questions would have been apparent had I slept more, drank more coffee, etc.

A software cooperative (2.00 / 1) (#35)
by er333 on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 04:10:26 PM EST

Check out Beluga Software for an example of a software cooperative.

Re: What is it you're going to *do* again? (3.75 / 4) (#36)
by lucas on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 04:28:37 PM EST

This was a good comment; I'll try to post a decently-lengthed answer.

>As others have mentioned, the description you have given
>above does not seem to be a good match with the
>traditional definition of a cooperative:

Right, because it's not a traditional cooperative; it's modeled after the open/free software ideology. Read the posting I did about it earlier. If you can invent a word for it, I'll use it.

You have to understand that we're talking about implementing an idea here, with a regular rate of progression and a small amount of people. This isn't a dot-com operation, and I'm not out to sell people. Rather, I'm asking for your ideas and input.

>It seems you're implying that you already have available
>some amount of capital that you're essentially donating.
>Is this correct?

Yes. That is correct.

>"surplus" funds

No, again, it's not this extreme. Donating, yes, all of it? No.

>How will you obtain data to determine which parts work
>well? Will you buy parts and have paid staff members
>test them, buy parts and have volunteers test them, or
>rely upon volunteers reporting information on parts that
>they bought with their own money?

I think a hybrid of all of these - if you create a community of people who are critiquing hardware very closely as it appeals to free or open-source software, there will be some good discussion going.

Yea, before we sell it, obviously, we will have to hack with it and try to break it.

We can also support Open Hardware. I think TheWeirdo backed that up earlier -- it was a good suggestion, particularly for people or organizations who need the exposure.

>Even so, have you done the math and concluded that you
>really can undersell the mail-order components
>distributors?

The issue is to redesign the concept of how a business can be integrated into and work with a community (i.e., including the people within it). Can it be somewhat like an open-source project? There will always be people that will undercut for even less than Spindletop can *buy* it for.

Windows boxpushing will always be there and will always find a way to undercut -- but they also can go out of business in a month. There is no trust between you and them; they are just a retailer and they had the best price. They put some cheap stuff in their boxes and you bought it and will dump it in a year or so.

On the other hand, if we can focus on taking care of people individually and create a community and a company that are designed to work together, then maybe we won't keep getting screwed. Maybe, just maybe, we can organize enough to make a dent in hardware manufacturers -- that they should support free software in more than talk. Maybe, just maybe, we can release stuff that the major retailers don't think is "market viable". Maybe, just maybe, we can offer cheap alternative motherboards for people to hack with (and perhaps someday ditch PC hardware).

In order to do something like this, we have to start from the ground up. No VC, no false hype. Bring it to the community, test the ideas, see what transpires.

You have to remember that I'm a hacker more than anything else; my idea was a result of tinkering with the dominant paradigm and trying to create something new. The ideas aren't perfect or final, but I was able to get people to think about other possibilities besides "oppressed people vs. opulent, dot-com, tyrannical corporations"... and that was my intention... to sit back, listen, and hack some more.



Virtual distributor (2.33 / 3) (#39)
by jim.fr on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 05:15:44 PM EST

To avoid fixed costs, be completely virtual :

- Manage a catalog by selecting parts the way you described.
- Negociate rates.
- Gather orders.
- Let manufacturers ship directly to the customer. No inventory, no lag, no logistics !

Problem is that competitive edge over high-volume distributors is absent from this model. A site cataloging Free Software friendly hardware would have about the same effect.


Start small : build brand ! (2.33 / 3) (#40)
by jim.fr on Wed Nov 15, 2000 at 05:20:14 PM EST

Why not start small and skip the distribution altogether. The first step in this project is to build a brand. The brand can be associate with a "designed for Wi^H^HFree Software" seal that represents compliance with the set of specifications that you propose.

Once the brand takes root, the Web site can be used to market the products through the "virtual distributor" model.

Once that works, then you may consider doing the logistics yourself. But it's a long shot : the Michael Dell era is over.


Spindletop co-op plans (3.00 / 2) (#43)
by adric on Thu Nov 16, 2000 at 06:08:29 AM EST

This looks like a really Good Thing. Do let us know when we can help. Logistically, I'd be up for helping in the Atlanta, GA and Southeast US region.

my comments:
  • Seriously look into one of those little logos. A retail employee recently found a NIC which proudly listed Linux compatibility, and this was neat, but a recognizable Open Hardware or (less strict) Designed for Free Software logo program would help out immensely
  • I want to add my support to the idea of making parts available for OSS-friendly NCs, NICs, netterms and the like (eg BookPCs). These machines will be shortly taking over the market and it is difficult to find parts that are free-software useful. This needs a remedy, and it sounds like an area where your group could shine.
  • No more wintel crap!. Find a way to make Alpha, CHRP, POP or whatever RISC workstations and the masses will throw themselves at your feet. Okay just thousands of geeks, but still a Good Thing. See the faltering PIOS project for some tantalizng ideas about what such a box could do.
  • Parts to make old hardware useful. If only just low capacity harddrives 0.5,1-2 GB in some form that is resellable (refurbed or something). The thing that keeps most old 486s (pentium 100s now) and Macs from getting back to work is finding a drive small and cheap enough.
  • Make some noise. If you can't embarrass Nvid^H^H^H^H vendors into giving us what we want, at least make damn sure we know who not to buy from. Have a black list on the front page for special offenders.

G'luck in your struggle, and keep us updated!



Security first (2.00 / 1) (#46)
by yuri on Tue Nov 21, 2000 at 09:28:55 PM EST

From your comment about preferring stability over most else, might I suggest that such a cooperative should honor security first with stabilty second. Sell boxen set up for specific tasks with security and stability in mind.

Order now:

Secure p3 600 debian for standard web server ~$1000 with x megs ram and x disk space. Customization extra.

If you made the cooperative available as a consulting/suggesting outfit via weblists for members you could easily turn a tidy profit which could be fed back into member discounts for great boxen.

Build a couple of standard set-up's for small companies (read owner=webmaster) with a basic configuration and I'm sure a lot of small businesses would consider hosting their own sites via cable/dsl.

You could then 'convert' these folk into free software zealots.

stability vs. security (none / 0) (#49)
by sopwath on Tue Mar 06, 2001 at 09:29:25 PM EST

What good is security if the damn thing doesn't work? Last time I checked, ultimate security does come from not having the system on at all, but then you get some major function following form problems.

Security should be an issue to those who need it. Basic security features are built into most operating systems. (some more than others) I'm guessing most who would patronize this service do, in fact, care a lot about security of thier data. Most security issues stem from software problems not hardware.


sopwath

Graduation, Sleep, Life: Pick Two
[ Parent ]
Best of Luck (none / 0) (#47)
by joespack on Thu Feb 22, 2001 at 04:29:41 AM EST

Sounds like a really neat idea and I would like to see how things work out. It's a great way to learn about businesses so please keep everyone informed about the progress. joespack

Just curious... (none / 0) (#48)
by tr1n1ty on Fri Feb 23, 2001 at 06:02:58 AM EST

Why did this resurface to the homepage? The post is dated Tue Nov 14th, 2000 at 04:22:46 PM EST.

Dawn of the GNU Cooperative | 48 comments (39 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
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