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Cuba crafts extra-communist Linux distro

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Cuba has launched its own Linux variant, dubbed Nova.

The Nova project has been cooking away for the past year, and it was formally unveiled this week at the annual International Conference on Communication and Technologies in Havana. At last year's conference - a Microsoft-bash-fest - open source luminary Richard Stallman convinced attendees to take open source software not only to their heart, but to their computers.

The Cuban government, under the auspices of the Universidad de las Ciencias Informáticas (UCI), created Nova by spinning its own rev on the Gentoo variant of Linux. English speakers will no doubt have fun with that catchy Nova name, which has turned up in urban mythology involves other products in Spanish speaking countries, including a Chevy sedan and some Mexican gasoline.

The country missed the perfect opportunity to call it Fidelix, and if they wanted to be technically correct and give a bow to Stallman - the founder of the Free Software Foundation - they could have called it GNU/Fidelix. A forward thinking Cuban IT industry might have opted for Raulix as well. But open source projects don't seem to be any better at naming products than the marketeering departments at corporations.

Linux and the free and open source applications that run on it would seem to be a natural fit for a communist country, and considering that commercial-grade open source operating systems and applications have been available for decades, it is more than a little surprising that Cuba hasn't long since abandoned Windows on its PCs and servers. But despite trade embargoes, Windows still runs on most of the computers on the island nation, according to a report from Reuters.

That report says that Cuban citizens have only been able to buy PCs for the past year (before then, they had access to them in PC clubs, akin to Internet cafes but apparently without the coffee). And in that time, according to Hector Rodriguez, dean of the School of Free Software, about 20 per cent of the computers shipped in the country are running Linux. The hope is that the advent of Nova will boost the share Linux holds. "I would like to think that in five years our country will have more than 50 percent migrated," Rodriguez told Reuters.

Cuba is also jumpy about the potential security issues that Microsoft's Windows and other operating systems pose - and not the kind of security issues that most of us think as we use our PCs and systems in our day-to-day work and home lives.

"Private software can have black holes and malicious codes that one doesn't know about," Rodriguez said. "That doesn't happen with free software."

The Cuban Nova Linux is not to be confused with the Linux variant of the same name that Palm is developing for PDAs and other mobile devices.

It is not clear where to get Nova or what packages it has. It is also not clear how the Cuban government plans to offer tech support for the product. Presumably, it will be done through free community support. And they appear to need some tech support fast. The UCI Web site, which appears to be running on Nova and which is where you can get Nova (if my reading of Google cached pages is correct), is down as we go to press because it is being barraged by too much traffic.

Maybe Cuba should start an indigenous server business. ®

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