Management Interview: Ethan Galstad 

Nagios author Ethan Galstad

The Future of Nagios

Ethan Galstad visited Sao Paulo Brazil in April for the Nagios Latin America Conference. In his first visit to the country and Latin America, Ethan gave an exclusive interview to our the Linux Magazine Brazilian edition and told us a bit about the history of Nagios – perhaps one of the most successful stories in open source network software. By Kemel Zaidan

Linux Magazine: Tell us a little bit about yourself – how did you get started as a developer?

Ethan Galstad: I started as a network and systems administrator. I went to the University of Minnesota for computer science, but I also liked hardware and networking. My first job was as a network administrator, but I actually liked developing software, and that's I think why a monitoring solution like Nagios is really a nice fit; it's a combination of systems and networking and development. It's what I like to do.

LM: Why did you start to develop Nagios? When did the idea come to you?

EG: First in 1996. Actually, it was my first job in network administration, and at the place where I was working, we used to have our IT team meetings at a local bar, a pub, and drink and talk. And, at one of our meetings, the servers back at the office crashed, and nobody knew where we were, and so we got into a lot of trouble.

They said, "you can't have the meetings at the bar anymore," so I started thinking, well, I need a solution to monitor them, so I know when they're up or down. That's when the idea first came to me, and I wrote a very early program in 1996. It wasn't until 1999 that I decided … actually, I was looking at starting a company that would offer monitoring services.

LM: You started a company?

EG: I was going to. I wanted to start a company that would offer monitoring services, and the software that was out there didn't do what I wanted it to do, so I thought, well, I will take the idea I had before and try to use that application. I ended up not starting the company, but I'd already written the first version of Nagios and I released it. Honestly, I didn't think more than 10 or 12 people would use it. I didn't think anyone would find it interesting, but it started taking off and becoming very popular, and that's how it got started.

LM: How is development sustained? Is it sponsored by a unique company or do you have your own company with services based on Nagios?

EG: We have our own company, and we offer services based on Nagios. We offer training; we offer consulting and support contracts, as well. We also have a commercial version of Nagios. The Nagios project itself I would say is not sponsored by any one company, not even our company. We sponsor the project's websites and things like advocacy and marketing.

LM: Do other people contribute to Nagios?

EG: They're all over the world; they work in different companies. Some of the contributors – the main ones since Nagios Core – actually work for competing companies.

LM: Why did you open source the code?

EG: A couple of reasons: I thought by open sourcing it, it would improve the code and make it easier and make it better. Also, it was my way of giving back, because I use open source things like Linux, Apache, and MySQL. Those projects are free, and I wanted Nagios to be like that.

LM: What's the difference between the open source version and the commercial version?

EG: The commercial version – Nagios Core – combines the open source free version with other things that people wanted.

They wanted performance graphs, and they wanted autodiscovery. We combined those functionalities, and then we built our own interface to make it all come together and look very nice.

So, the commercial product has more features than the open source one, initially out of the box, and it's easier to set up. But, most Nagios users use the free version, and most Nagios users are very technical.

LM: Is the commercial version itself available in Brazil?

EG: We do have a couple of customers in Brazil. Actually, we have clients in over a hundred countries. A lot of people know Nagios; some people want something that's easier to use or maybe their management wants better reporting.

LM: Do you have any Brazilian developers contributing to the code?

EG: Core committers, no, but there are people in Brazil and in over a hundred countries that contribute to Nagios in some way. M·rcio Pessoa does consulting and training, and he's writing a book, and he also came out with a document – a quick reference guide.

So, there are people that contribute in a number of different ways. I don't always know who is developing a plugin; they're usually all over the world – in Europe, North America, Asia.

LM: How many contributors do you estimate you have?

EG: I would probably say of the very active people in the community – probably 50 or 60 are very active. They don't all work on Nagios Core, but they work on Nagios Core, Nagios plugins, and other projects like the V-Shell. Then, there are other community contributors that are also very active.

LM: How is Nagios better than the other solutions?

EG: I think one of the reasons it's better is that it's been around for a long time. It's proven; people know it's out there, and they know it's reliable. Nagios has hundreds of free add-ons available, and that makes it very attractive for the people who want to use it.

There are thousands of users worldwide, so in Brazil, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of users, which means that, if you have a question about it, you can find somebody that can provide assistance in Portuguese.

When we talk about the advantages of Nagios, you know, you can get help in your language, you can get free add-ons, and that's what they want. Other products have different capabilities.

The open source competitors are not yet there, and the commercial competitors are not there. You know, there are hundreds of applications to choose from and Nagios is probably the most popular open source solution. I think it's because of the huge community and that community is extremely active.

LM: You talked about the community and coming to Brazil. Was there anything that surprised you?

EG: I guess I'm not really surprised; I'm happy that people are using Nagios down here. It's pretty early in the conference to get feedback, but the people that I've talked to are very happy and have some good installations it sounds like, which always makes me very happy that it's working well for those people. I'm also happy because of the Brazilian companies that are using Nagios: Petrobras, Claro, TIM, among others.

LM: The Brazilian Army and the federal government make extensive use of free software.

EG: I think that Europe has a similar situation – in France a few years ago, they passed laws that they have to look at open source solutions.

LM: There is a bill here in Congress that open source has preference on projects, but I don't think Microsoft is going to allow it (laughing).

EG: Yeah, that's usually what happens. It sounds good but it comes down to who has the most resources, and companies like Microsoft and HP and IBM, they have a lot of resources because they make a lot of money. They employ a lot of people, and they can do a lot of advertising, whereas a lot of smaller companies and open source projects don't have those resources.

But it's interesting; the difference with open source is that it has gotten into organizations because somebody just installed the program at work and then they told a friend or co-worker about it: "I'm using Nagios," or "I'm using MRTG or Linux."

So, then we find out that inside HP or IBM, they use Nagios. It may be that the HP and IBM marketing people don't want anybody to know, but they use it.

LM: Those companies probably have their own monitoring solutions.

EG: Oh, yes. HP – they have several products, and they have free training for their products. HP and Microsoft have their own monitoring solutions. HP and IBM, they're two of the companies in what's called the big four, and they have very expensive solutions. A lot of people move from those solutions to Nagios.

Sometimes they can't do it because sometimes it's political in an organization and somebody – the CEO or CIO – knows the person that sold them the commercial license so they keep renewing it.

But the IT guys, they don't like the solution; it doesn't work; it's very expensive. They keep paying for it, but they don't use it. So, they'll just install Nagios and use it but not really tell anyone.

LM: What about the future of Nagios? How do you imagine it?

EG: There are a number of new open source projects for Nagios that we work on in our company that I think will make it easier for people to use and support Nagios.

As Nagios grows, more and more people are finding out about it and some of those people aren't experts in Linux. More of them might be Windows users but they want to use Nagios, and we want them to be productive and start using it.

As the project grows, we can put more resources toward funding open source projects than we can do now and toward things like helping the community share their ideas and share their contributions through the Nagios Exchange website.

We are looking at more and more development around Nagios with a new interface and new configuration utilities that will make it easier to use.

You know, more and more people use Nagios all the time.

I don't know if you heard, but there were 400 new things added to the Nagios Exchange website just in the past year. Those are just the things people added; there are a lot of things people developed that are not on Nagios Exchange. Every week there's something new – new additions to the project.

LM: Would you like to say something to the Brazilian open source community?

EG: I'm excited to see and hear that, in Brazil, Nagios and open source solutions are used so widely. It's exciting for me to hear that, because when I started working on Nagios at home, there would be people talking through email but I would never see them.

I've never been to South America or Latin America, I've never been to Brazil, so it's been nice for me to get a chance to meet people.

Particularly, one of the things we don't have in Nagios is multiple languages, and one the things we'd like to be able to provide to people is Portuguese documentation or books. Or maybe somebody wants to contribute and help translate the PHP interface for Nagios into Portuguese. That would help people.

That's what we don't have access to internally, so it is sometimes easier for us to find somebody and say, "Do you want to get involved?"

LM: Do you use the GNU localization system? Gettext?

EG: There are actually two interfaces; one is for the CGI, which does not have gettext. We could add that, but what we're doing is focusing on the PHP market, and we added gettext there. Our developers already know that.

LM: Because, if you have that, I think it would be easier to translate.

EG: With any open source project, first you have to make sure it works, then you can say, "OK, let's move everything to a file and use gettext." But, definitely, things like documentation are very important. For a product that does not have a localized interface, the documentation is even more critical.