The HeliOS Project is now.....

The HeliOS Project is now.....
Same mission, same folks...just a different name

Search the Blog of helios and all comments


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

SolusOS and Me

Many of us came to Linux via odd routes.  Some of us decided that we were tired of our software and computing choices being made for us.  Some of us are just adventurous or bored and want to see what other choices might be available to us.

But others take it a step or two further.  We want to take it apart.  We want to know how it works and how to make it work better.  And contrary to what many believe, some of us do not start with a computer or tech background.  

Ikey Doherty, the creator of SolusOS, a Debian-based distribution is one such person.  Ikey came from humble and rocky beginnings.  A "builder" by trade, what we in the US refer to as a Carpenter, Ikey delved into computers and software via a back door of sorts.  How does someone go from physically building structures to building operating systems?

I thought it would be interesting to ask him myself and what I received in return was a remarkable, interesting story of where Ikey has been, what he is doing now and where he wants to go.

Ikey has accomplished some amazing things.  From adding some killer features to his Nautilus fork, Athena to completely re-writing the installer to include features never-seen-before, it's safe to say that SolusOS is going to appear on the Linux Radar heavily with the 1.3 release.

But Ikey faces some real challenges in doing what he does.  While he has journeyman building skills, work  has been hard-hit by the economic downturn in the UK.  While the SolusOS community is growing by the day, donations to Ikey's SolusOS fund remain horribly low.  I donate 50.00 a month to Solus but so far the Solus Community hasn't really stepped up to help support his work.  The way I figure it, if even half of the community donated 10.00 monthly, Ikey could work on SolusOS full time.  While that might only bring him to what is considered minimum wage standards, it would allow him to fully concentrate on what he does best.  Currently he has taken employment at a major electronics retailer for the Christmas season.  Unfortunately, he won't be paid for that work until January.  That sucks.

So, with that being said, let me introduce you to Ikey Doherty and SolusOS.  This will be fun, so go get your beverage of choice and let him tell you the story.

Well, before we start, I should cover who exactly “me” is. My name is Ikey Doherty, and I'm the founder of the SolusOS Linux Distribution. I'm a software developer, but that wasn't always the case


I'm Irish, 23, and I live in the UK. Originally, I was a builder. Moved around a lot when I was younger so I've seen pretty much every part of the UK & Ireland. Go back a couple years the recession caught the country in a vice-grip, so the building trade went bye-bye.

From.. Builder.. to Dev?

Logical move, right? Well, lets go back a little bit first. Whilst in secondary school I had developed quite a passion for computers. Never was I content though. The way I saw it, computers were meant to do what you told them to do. Yet there I was, using systems that never seemed to do what they were even programmed to do. So I just had to know. Why are these systems not working? That kinda meant learning to code.


I was probably around 13 or 14 when this all happened. Took the “brave step” and headed down the library to find some programming books. The only one I could find was a Java book intended for 1.4.2 (which was cutting edge at the time). Within a couple of days, I'd created a window on the screen. I was hooked.

At that particular time in my life, I was unfortunately in foster care. That particular family was rather good to me, and given this country's lack of understanding of matters at the time the situation was unavoidable. So computers became my hobby. However, with no internet connection and only a couple of shoddy books while using Windows, improving my skillset wasn't easy.

Luckily for me, my foster-sisters fiance was (and still is) heavily involved in computers. He hooked me up with a copy of Microsoft Visual Studio. Thus began the demise of Windows in my mind. The more I learned (msvcc, etc,) the more I grew to detest the internal workings of Windows. Using such heavily kludged toolkits spoke volumes for me. This thought became an infection in my mind, spreading to every part of my everyday computer use. I knew why the system was broken. The creators didn't care. It was all about the money. Thus began my migration to Linux.


Well, we had to get here eventually. I'd done my internet research and time and time again, this mysterious creature by the name of Linux reared its head. So I got a copy of Slackware and wiped Windows from my life. Over the next few years, in my spare time, I began to become more accustomed to Linux, going through a plethora of distros every month.

The Hiatus

I hit 17. I'd been living by myself since 16 and some dark moments in my life had conspired to make me rather too curious as to the concept of network security, etc. Without going into too many details, it's safe to say I didn't trust myself with computers any more. My obsession for knowledge was proving to be a dangerous quest. Time to abandon ship :) I spent the next few years tending to my life without once using a computer.

The Return..

Well, who can resist a computer anyway? It wasn't actually planned for me to return to computing. That happened merely by coincidence. I'd been given a computer. A HP Compaq NC4010. For those who don't know what it is, here are the specs:
  • Intel Pentium M 1.6Ghz
  • 434MB RAM
  • 40GB IDE HDD
  • IGP x300 ATi graphics
A beast, is it not? Within a week, Windows XP decided to go bail on me. Given the fact I now used the internet again, this wasn't to be tolerated. So, off the shop, armed with nothing but a half-idea and a £10 note, I bought a Linux Format Magazine. On the cover was a LiveCD, Linux Mint 6 Felicia Community Edition. Goodbye Windows, for the last time (again)

The Linuxing

Needless to say, without having to document every detail here, I'd already acquired considerable skill with Linux systems. However, something was quite different this time around. Linux was going friendly. This wasn't a concept I was familiar with immediately. Finally it dawned on me. People were actually trying to make this hacker-elite system usable by all.

Looking around the menu, I quickly discovered X-Chat. I knew full well it was an IRC client, but my client-of-choice would have been irssi or BitchX. Much to my surprise it autoconnected to the Linux Mint IRC channels (on SpotChat). There I found a rather unique set of individuals who were at the time heavily involved there. The main ones were Husse, Steely and MikeT. I still speak with Steely, and sometimes MikeT, however Husse sadly passed away. All 3 have acted as my mentors through the last few years, and have got me to where I am now in terms of Linux, etc.

Mint Work

After gradually deciding that Open Source “was a good thing”, I decided to retake my hobby of programming. I got involved by speaking to Clem on the IRC channel, and felt like helping out. So I created a variety of small tools (the first of which was mint-make-gui) before Clem decided that perhaps my skills could be applied somewhere. From there on, I helped in many areas of Mint, including the mintbackup tool, mintdesktop “Desktop Settings” tool, etc.

At the time though, Mint based directly from Ubuntu. Being me I noticed almost immediately there was no apparent need to base from Ubuntu, but rather base from Debian. “Cut out the middle man”. I was informed that the Mint project had been trying to do such a thing for several years before hand.

I decided the time was right for LMDE. Within 17 days of this decision I had created live-installer, and the construction process to make the first ISO's. I believe the last ISO I made was revision 47. LMDE was given the green light.


Well, as most know, this was a couple of years ago now. I briefly had to take a leave of absence from Mint due to personal circumstances. Contrary to accusations of being a “gambling alcoholic with debts” (some people just make you wanna smile) I was at the time suffering very badly with stress, and as a result had a heart attack. Upon my eventual return to the project I learned much had changed in a rather short space. LMDE was moving away from my original vision, instead going as a “strolling release” using the Update Pack system.

Understandably, given the changes in what was my current “home project”, I decided it was time to do things my way, and stop pretending like I wanted to do other peoples work.


Ah, the time to be me! SolusOS originally started as my vision of what LMDE should have been. A Debian Stable desktop distro with up to date software. However, with all the things I had worked out I clearly hadn't given much thought to popularity. Almost immediately SolusOS went from nowhere to virtually every tech blog in town. I had to rethink my strategy.

We started out as a humble little Debian derivative, like I said. However, SolusOS breached beyond the capacity of a “hobby distro”. It was time to get professional. SolusOS is based on the stable branch of Debian, which comes with many benefits. The core one is obviously stability. However, in Debian, that comes with a price. An enormous deal of the software is hugely outdated. This, believe it or not, doesn't really matter. What does count is “userland apps”, like Firefox, LibreOffice, etc.

SolusOS is essentially focused on stability with a great user experience. Being the obsessive perfectionist that I am, I decided it couldn't just end there. Its all well and good being able to run on most every machine, but what about all the new machines too? Thus began the SolusOS modifications. We maintain our own kernel builds, and a massive amount of software. At last count the SolusOS Eveline repository totalled 16GB with around 8K packages. Considering that Debian Squeeze's repository contains 31K packages, it could shed some light on the amount of changes from Squeeze SolusOS enjoys.

SolusOS 1 uses the massively popular GNOME 2 desktop, which in turn is responsible for the popularity of SolusOS. With most all GTK using projects shifting over to Gnome Shell or Cinnamon, a lot of folk are unhappy. So you can enjoy up to date stability and the awesomeness of GNOME 2 in SolusOS.

Hey. GNOME2 is dead.

Is it? SolusOS 1 will be using GNOME2 until Squeeze is no longer supported. Which is about 1 and a half years after Wheezy becomes stable (2013). SolusOS has no intentions of switching over to GNOME Shell though :)

We have our own desktop, which was originally based on GNOME 3.4 Fallback Mode. See, the thing with GNOME Shell, despite the fact its totally different to what GNOME 2 users are used to, is that it requires hardware acceleration. Considering that SolusOS is all about choice and freedom, it seems ridiculous to me that we should force users to need fancy graphics cards just to use their desktop.

The Solus Desktop Environment does not take the approach of other GNOME alternatives, like MATE. MATE is essentially a renamed GNOME 2 code-tree with various patches, such as the Ubuntu Ayatana patches (appindicator, notify-osd, etc.). It will always use GTK2, and thus will never progress.

SDE tackles the issue the other way around. We took GNOME 3, and made it work. No need for hardware acceleration, a brand new panel that looks and acts identically to the original GNOME 2 Panel, but with some bragging rights that even GNOME 3's Panel can't make. First off, it has a compatibility layer allowing it to run GNOME 2 Applets. Secondly, it's fully themeable and supports true-transparency. While you let that sink in consider Nautilus. 

GNOME butchered Nautilus with GNOME 3, removing feature after feature until a rather weak and out of place looking file manager remained. I forked Nautilus 3.4 into Athena, which restores the traditional look and builds on it, as well as adding power features, enhanced scripting and retaining all the original Nautilus features (like Split-View and “Create new launcher”)
This is all going to feature in SolusOS 2, which will be released in 2013.

So.. Debian Wheezy?

Kinda. With SolusOS 2, we tried originally (Alpha 5) with a pure Debian Wheezy base, using the same techniques in SolusOS 1. However, it soon became obvious that the SolusOS stability could not be ensured using Wheezy as a base. In SolusOS 1, kernels, graphics drivers and even the Libreoffice suite have been totally borked by upstream “backports” or “security fixes”.

SolusOS is meant to be based on a stable platform, if we cannot promise security then we are lying to ourselves and our users. So we're going for a slightly different approach. SolusOS 2 is going to use a totally different package manager. No more .deb. We'll be using the PiSi package management system as seen in Pardus Linux (before it changed direction)

Waaht? You can't leave Debian!

Oh I never said we were leaving Debian. We're going to do something totally sane. Rebuild the entire Debian Wheezy repository from .deb to the PiSi package system. This ensures a vast package repo, and binary compatibility with Debian Wheezy, allowing anything built for Wheezy to run on SolusOS 2. This also ensures our stability to keep a system the way its always meant to be, with zero risk for the end user. All this with the benefit of extremely easy packaging that the community can involve themselves in, delta upgrades (instead of downloading the whole package, you download what changes) plus a massively integrated core system, through the package managers configuration system.

So change, yeah, we're going to change up the game some, but it will be to the benefit of both myself and the end user. Linux does not have to be difficult. It does not have to reside in the realm of Geekdom. Linux can be, and is, a good replacement for Windows or OSX. My aim is to make it so drop-dead easy, that a child can use it. Our SolusOS respin for the Reglue project will prove that out shortly.

So, what a long strange trip it's been. From home builder and carpenter to becoming the author of a Linux Operating System. There have been stranger career deviations, but I cannot think of many. It simply comes down to one simple statement:

Let your passion set your path.”


Michael Bochean said...

Fantastic piece Ken. We don't often get to see the personal side of the people that make Linux work and this is the first time I've heard of SolusOS. Am downloading the live cd iso now to give it a whirl.

This just goes to show that anyone with the desire can do what they want to do. My congratulations to Ikey for overcoming some pretty gnarly stuff in order to pursue his dream.

SLmanDR said...

Yep, "Follow your bliss". A good recommendation for all. Thanks for the interview, I very much enjoyed reading. I stumbled into SolusOS I think after reading a post in Mint Forum. I was using LMDE but... wanted LMDE wasn't quite it. I'm happy using SolusOS and am looking forward to Ikey's further developments.

Andrew Cater said...

1A good and interesting piece. Each to his own - but repackaging 30,000 .deb packages because you can is less than optimal.

We can aready see this with the Raspberry Pi fork of Debian Wheezy where everything has to be rebuilt for hardware. Wheezy hasn't (yet) been releaased but should be very good and stable once released - and it is in freeze now.

It is a lot of work to keep repackaging stuff, particulary as a small staffed effort - working with Debian as a developer might be more productive in the longer term. If nothing else, it's an inspiration to all that you don't have to be a coding guru to start working with and developing Linux.

Anonymous said...

If you have not used SolusOS,give it a try. I have tried multiple Linux operating systems and this is the one for me. I give Ikey a lot of credit, he has not had it easy, and yet he created the best OS I have ever used.

Anonymous said...

Or, using Linux you can learn to be a coding guru. If Ikey isn't one now, he isn't far from it.

Anonymous said...

Shocked and saddened. Especially by the heart attack part.

Hopefully your health is perfect now, dear brother.


cirrus minor said...

Great Article , and was nice of Ikey to share some of his life experiences with us , Ikey my man you are a gentleman and a scholar , i been looking for an OS to stick on wifeys old thinkpad t40 , i think i have found it.

MVG said...

Im from Colombia, y liked very much the history.
Shows that not only the "elite" of developer come from the university.
All the people with linux can become in a contributir, a developer and a hacker, thats the most exciting for me.

Note: I would like to help to the proyect.

Manolo Vargas said...

This is one of the most awesome histories that I never heard. I really enjoy reading this. Ikey must feel very proud for follow his pasion.

Anonymous said...

Thank you a lot Ikey,
I am glad to know more things about you and your past experiences.

I have been using SoluOS for a week and am extremely content with it. This OS is what I've been looking for years (as a GNU/Linux user since 1998). I had been pretty happy with Ubuntu and Pardus until both have started taking different approaches.

Whilst I'm still testing SoluOs along with Ubuntu 12.04 with gnome-shell 3, it is most likely that I will switch over to SoluOS completely soon. Even though some programs have not been translated into Turkish yet, I would recommend everyone try it. You will love it.

Ömer Özel

Unknown said...

Good article. Ikey is interesting man. I respect such individuals. May be I also could become developer?...
His mind has a right direction: many people like Gnome 2 look and feel. So I was interested SolusOS, searching what distro yet uses this DE. But it need go forwards. Not all is perfect in Enveline (so I had troubles with nvidia 173.x.x. video driver). But I believe, that all may be emended.