No More SmoothWall (For Me)

Posted on March 5 2008 in meta, open source, security, smoothwall

Some of you who know me may know my fascination and infatuation for SmoothWall, the open source Linux firewall distro. You may be interested to know that I’ve decided to take my leave of the project after just over 7 years. To explain, I need to tell a story of how I got there in the first place.

In October 2000, I moved house. My Internet access changed from using a Nokia 5146 mobile phone making data calls to Freeserve and BT Internet (0800 dialup for a tenner a month), hooked up to a Windows NT Workstation to share to my fledgling LAN (of two machines), to having a USR Sportster 56K modem and “real” phone line. I needed a better way to share the access than a Windows box, and decided to investigate building a router firewall running Debian Linux. I lasted about two days and was getting narked off that I had to read all my personal email at work. Then I picked up the December 2000 issue of Linux Format, which had a free Linux-based router firewall distro cover mounted on the CD. It was SmoothWall 0.9.5LF.

I installed it and it ran just peachy, getting way further than my fudged Debian install in about 20 minutes. Internet access had I. Once I was online, I did my usual: subscribe to the mailing lists, check out the project a bit more. Turns out they were looking for some help with the web interface the firewall software used, and at the time I considered myself a dab hand with Photoshop and HTML, so I threw my cap over the wall and sent some UI mockups to the list. Soon, I was part of the project team, and not only helping Dan Goscomb build out the web interface, but also doing some meagre Perl hacking on the UI rendering code, and fiddling with serial LCD consoles to get status information from the firewall onto. Eventually I found myself involved in redesigning the project website from scratch. In short, I had become a member of my very first Open Source software project. I soon grew to know members of the team very well — they included dang, dan_c, whaletales, bill, rebecca, and I especially got to know Richard Morrell and Lawrence Manning (aslak).

A year later, and the whole thing had ballooned to the point where a company could be formed around marketing, developing and selling the whole kit and caboodle in a more corporate-friendly fashion. In November 2001, I did some contract work for the company to create the very first iteration of the SmoothWall company website, and by January 2002, I was employee #4 of SmoothWall Ltd.; employees #1-3 were (in no real order) Richard, Lawrence and George. George had come from building up IT businesses, and we were looking for someone with biz clout to manage the company while we did all the fun stuff like hacking on cool code, websites and teams. I lasted there until mid-2004. This was a time when the company seemed to be doing well, building new commercial products on the back of the open source project output, and we had nearly tripled in size. Richard had already left by this point, leaving a trail of customers and open source users who loved what he had helped nurture, and some people angry at being sworn at a bit. While I enjoyed the work, we were still a small company and I needed a bit more money coming in. I decided to resign after I was offered a job with an ISP in Edinburgh which paid better, and let me explore system administration as a career as opposed to web development; I had spent a fair while doing webdev at SmoothWall, but I decided that my skills in that area were fading fast, and that I’d need an extensive amount of time to train myself up on newer webdev technologies.

Meanwhile, I still considered myself part of the open source project, and still did some sysadmin and forum twiddling in that regard. However, as time went on, I spent more and more time in my work — especially since some of it had an on-call element — while concurrently, more and more Express development seemed to be occurring in-house, sometimes taking cues — and I assume code — from the corporate products. Now, this is A Good Thing; a corporate entity backporting features and code from its commercial products into its open source endeavours, but there just seemed to be no way for me to do much outwith the realm of the company.

This went on until around 2007, when the smoothwall.org website was redesigned, shortly after the smoothwall.net site was overhauled. The team page had always listed me, and when we had text describing what we did, it always gave a pretty accurate view of what I had contributed. But this new version relegated me to “Moderator and user support”. What? In September, I tried asking why this had happened in the team-only forum:

Incidentally, why am I now listed as a “moderator and support” in the team listing? I have done sys admin, web design, UI design, and development for this project. I haven’t done forum moderation or any level of support for years, literally years. Why are my rather sizable contributions being demeaned in this manner? Why was I not consulted about this change? Why, frankly, should I give a damn about this project any more?

… and …

The bottom line is, I want to contribute to this project, and I want to be involved in more than just forum/support monkey stuff, which it seems I’ve been lumbered with. If it’s not clear from my earlier post, if this is where I’ve been relegated to, I’ll leave. It’s not a threat, it’s not an attempt at blackmail, coercion or anything like that, it’s just a reality. I don’t think it’s fair that some of the strongest contributors – and I don’t mean myself, but some of the very experienced and knowledgable folk in the community – appear to have been marginalised in favour of ultimate control resting with staff. The general attitude outgoing seems to be that we can only help with peripheral segments of the project. I do apologise if I’ve completely misread this, but that’s how it seems from the outside. [...] The community. It has to be the sacred element of any open source project, and it simply can’t be abused under any circumstances. There is talent here, use it, leverage it, but for $deity’s sake, don’t marginalise or ignore it.

No meaningful reply was given, and nothing was done about my entry. At one point, I was challenged to define what I did on Express 3.0 to justify any expansion on my team entry; I replied with this:

That I didn’t contribute anything directly to 3.0 should have no bearing on my standing. Are you writing off everything I’ve done in total over the last nearly seven years? Are you happy to see me demoted to someone who helps on the forums (not that I had a lot of time for that even at my most active)? With that one statement, you have undermined my entire confidence in this project, however, I will not let this get to me, and I will not turn into some [censored] threatening all sorts of crap in a lame attempt to Get Things Done.

My work on the firewall user interface, which was built upon in 3.0, not re-engineered from scratch, was ignored, as was my other work on the website. Sadly, my repeated efforts to engage without threatening anything did nothing. Nothing changed.

A conference call was announced to try and talk through some of these issues, and while methods (telephone? Skype? Gizmo?) and times were discussed, nothing concrete came out and nothing was arranged.

Equally crazy things were done around this time; the administrator’s manual for Express 3.0 was gated behind a signup form, nominally to generate opt-in statistics on SmoothWall usage and hardware configurations, to better understand the population and how to tailor the HCL to increase hardware compatibility. Regardless of the rationale, well-intentioned or not, who hides the freaking documentation for an open source project behind a sign-up form? Meanwhile, a poll was fielded in the public forums to see if Express users would be interested in paying SmoothWall Ltd. for a “features” subscription, including “like anti-spam, web filtering blocklist and settings backup”. The answer was a resounding “no”. These were typical of what seemed to be increasingly odd business decisions, and bizarre attitudes on how to run an open, transparent FOSS project.

So five days ago, I posted to the internal forum explaining that I was considering leaving the project, and asking for comments: not to seek pleadings for me to stay, or to incite insults to force my hand, but again to generate a rational discussion, highlighting my issues:

I still appear to be listed on the website as a forum moderator, completely ignoring the work I’ve done on SmoothWall in the last 7 years. I’ve asked about this before, and nothing was done. I’m finding increasingly little time to squeeze in other things outside my commitments to things like Linden Lab, LugRadio and so on. I feel like there’s a stand-off-ish position being taken when communicating with those I know in the core community.

So, I’m giving serious consideration to resigning from the open source project; I’ve already revoked my forum adminship (did it a month or two ago, actually). All the development work now seems to be done in-house. There’s nothing for me to do whatsoever as a sysadmin. I’m not a good tester. I’m not going to sit and just moderate a forum given my level of involvement in the past. So it feels like time.

I made it crystal clear that this was not an attack, that this was not my trying to “get at anyone”, these were observations and my reaction to those observations.

Five days later, and nothing has happened. Again. So I feel it’s time to say farewell to SmoothWall. I’ve no doubt I’ll still stay part of the user community, at least peripherally, and I bear no real ill will to anyone involved. I’m just very disappointed in the decisions made to get where we are today, and I feel it’s hypocritical to stay connected to a project I have misgivings about. This also isn’t to say that SmoothWall the distro and product line aren’t good; they are, and I’ll likely continue to recommend SmoothWall Express where appropriate, although I’ll likely be replacing my own SmoothWall border solution with a Cisco 871-K9 to get my IOS nous up.

So long, SmoothWall. It was fun.

20 comments

  • Pingback: Alas poor Neuro we knew him well… : : Dicks Diary

  • http://danielcuthbert.com Daniel

    I think it’s for the best, i was happy i walked away from it in the end.

    Neuro, you know you will find something else to sink your teeth into :)

    D

  • http://neuro.me.uk/ neuro

    Thanks Dan; I already have by working for Linden Lab helping keep Second Life ticking over :)

  • http://www.matt-fletcher.co.uk/ Matt Fletcher

    Sad to see you being ignored like that. In an environment where recognition is the only payment, to get shit on like that isn’t on.

    Smoothwall is a strange project. The business model has always made me a bit uneasy – “yeah it’s FOSS, but you gotta pay” – you kinda feel like you’re not really meant to be using the free versions.

    That said, I haven’t found an obvious replacement. Smoobuntu anyone?

  • http://neuro.me.uk/ neuro

    Ha, it’s funny that I was wondering a few months ago how hard that would be :)

  • http://danielcuthbert.com Daniel

    Smoothwall is a strange project as Lawrence is a very strange man, and I know this from personal experience.

  • http://www.linuxlore.co.uk/ WhaleTales

    Sounds like my misgivings about SmoothWall Ltd. after the demise of Caveonet were valid. I was never actually asked to join SmoothWall Ltd., but then I don’t think I made too much effort to hide the fact that I wouldn’t been keen on trusting George again. I’ve seen SmoothWall advertising jobs, and I think if it had been any other open source company local to me I would have applied – if any are on the lookout I’d be interested ;)

    Just thought I’d give you a surf by blast from the past. I rarely hear SmoothWall mentioned these days, in spite of having a couple of employees on the local LUG list. IPCop gets more references now. A shame to think what it could have been.

  • http://blog.dickmorrell.org Dick

    Dude I really wouldnt worry about it, I hired you because you were better than us – as you should as an employer and I think it terrified others. Your contributions are stuff of legend as I’ve intimated in your blog. It went beyond contributing it was more you ate, lived, breathed smoothwall at times and it didn’t go un-noticed.

    The fact they tried to sack you twice in 2002 and it took me threatening to walk and take my shares and stuff with me should speak volumes mate. He didn’t support you then – no surprise five years later he should demonstrate the same lax and bizarre attitude as Dan says above.

    Very strange man – doesn’t go close, one day the truth might out…

  • Filbert

    Totally agree with the comments posted by others before me. Certain people have always been very, very strange, and this seems to come out in the way the product (and latterly, the business) was run.

    I got out way before you, and kinda regretted it at the time, but am quite glad about that now… I hardly ever hear SmoothWall mentioned any more. IPcop has a much larger (and in my experience, friendlier) user base than SmoothWall.

    Oh well, life goes on… LUGradio is way more deserving of your time than SmoothWall :)

  • http://blog.dickmorrell.org Dick

    Filbert – isn’t it bizarre that the people in these comments represent 95% of the SmoothWall team as was when it was going through dev testing / launch / inception.

    The only person who hasn’t commented is Lawrence who the comments are aimed at.

    All of the people can’t be wrong all of the time – wonder if he’s read them lol. Maybe now he’ll realise crapping on his mates might just have actually alienated himself from every single member of the team who put love and dedication into SmoothWall and without whom he would still be sat in his pit in his underpants playing with pron DVDs and Star Trek gear.

  • Pingback: Wonder if Lawrence’s ears are burning ? : : Dicks Diary

  • Dave Kitchens

    Neuro, we never had a chance to talk directly back then but I can say that I loved the work you did and it is certainly a shame to be discounted like you have been recently. I do not blame you one bit for leaving what should have been a great company.

    BTW, go get M0n0wall… its does everything for free. :-) I left Smoothy and found m0n0wall, never looked back since… Hey! M0n0wall could use a fresh interface! :-)

  • http://www.webbydesign.net Becca

    Neuro

    It has been a while, my friend. I can’t believe that you were treated the way you were. You certainly didn’t deserve to be downgraded to basically “helpdesk software”. You gave many good years to SmoothWall, both the GPL version and the corporate version. I am sorry that they didn’t value your contribution more.

    I hope you will be valued by Linden Labs. You deserve it. You are talented and I learned a lot from you. All my best. And Bill sends his best as well.

    B

  • http://www.QuarkGroup.com.au/ Hilton Travis

    There’s no need to worry about a SmoothWall replacement – as has been mentioned, the word “out there” is IPCop, not SmoothWall. It seems to have lost a lot of the cred it had back in the day. I’m glad I’m no longer involved with it, and Lawrence was a big, big factor in my walking away.

    Another quite food firewall/router project is m0n0wall/pfSense.

    And then there’s Untangle. Untangle is now what SmoothWall should have been. Untangle is great. SmoothWall was, once. Quite some time back.

    I’m glad that you’ve moved on to bigger and better things, Neuro. I hope you can also, like the rest of us, get the bitter aftertaste of SmoothWall and especially SmoothWall Limited out of your mouth – I know a few of us did it by tasting better products and better projects, which can only be good for you and OSS in general.

  • rudy

    Well ……. i don’t know you in person or ever talked to you directly. but i know you’ve given so much to the smoothie. Life oges on man :)

    Somehow they make smoothie even more difficult to get. With all the gates and everything :(

    I wish you all the best man!!!!!

  • Statchew

    Neuro……. short for Neurotic?
    Statchew……. stiff and unyielding.

    I spent 20yrs developing and implementing training courses for
    heavy earthmoving operators in mining and construction.
    In 2000 the company I worked for sold out to a larger company.
    I was the first casualty … turned up for work Monday to be informed
    that my position was being taken over by a snotty nosed brat straight
    from university.. a twit who had never even sat in the saddle of large
    machinery.
    Did I have a big dummy spit? You bet I did?
    Before leaving I downloaded ALL my forms, documents, training
    manuals, etc. etc. Then completely erased the HDD by filling it with
    zeros seventeen times.
    At the time it gave me great satisfaction.
    Some months later, during what had become a regular Friday night
    booze-up at the local pub, I overheard a remark by an old codger,
    which made me realise that I was being totally selfish, thinking only
    of how I had been hurt.
    On the grapevine I had heard that the “brat” was having problems.
    Swallowing what bit of pride I had left, I contacted the company and
    offered to do some casual work for them to assist the youngster in
    his endeavours. That was the turning point in my life. That was when
    I woke up to the fact that there is no “i” in “us”.
    Sure, it was a big comedown from being the boss-cocky, but I now
    do casual work for several companies, and am glad to be able to
    assist the young ones as they move up the ladder.
    Holding a grudge does no-one any good.

    Statchew a semi-retired Australian workplace trainer.

  • http://neuro.me.uk/ neuro

    Hi Statchew,

    Neuro, short for Neuromancer :)

    I didn’t do what you did, and this wasn’t a job; it was a volunteer project nominally separate from the company I worked for from 2001 to 2004. I decided to quit the project for the reasons above in my post, not to hold a grudge (which I don’t), but because there’s no point in hanging around something you’re not enjoying, pure and simple.

  • t.o.

    Was wondering what happen to you. Sorry to hear it too dude. i have finally moved on as well. It started with me on swe2 when I loaded it up and started using it “it was a great firewall/router” ans 2.0 had what 3.0 does not have. I started working on a gui that would make 2.0 look a lot better than ever before. I still use the code that i started in other projects. I also had to do a total over haul on the code to just get it to work with 3.0 so I build a script to do that and for smoothie 2-3 I still have friends (the same ones that I had to convince to use smoothie in the first place) using my gui and they absolutely love them

    I also was very upset about the gates that are up now. i really just don’t understand them for the admin guide I liked the 2.0 version a lot better it had alot more information in it as for the users guide it is just horrible. i now use ipcop “would love for some one to start smoobuntu I know I would use it sinse my whole house is ubuntu anyway infact would be nice to have a DEB for the server ed. to turn it into smoobunbtu… Have a Great smoothwall free day dude.

  • Nigel Fenton

    wow a few names from the past !! i wondered what had happened to you ..i hope all went well

    Nigel

  • Fuksmoothwall

    I ran it for a while, but now i boycott it!