Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Fifteen years ago, Lawrence Manning, a co-founder of Smoothwall, sat in his front room putting the final touches on a prototype for a special kind of software.
This week, we spent some time catching up with Lawrence as he reflects on the 15 year progression of Smoothwall from a Open Source Linux project to the UK's number one web filter.
SW: Where did the name Smoothwall come from?
LM: We had a couple of ideas for names. Since we were trying to popularize this through the Linux user groups, one of our ideas was to call it LUGWall. I’m glad we didn’t choose that! “SoHo” was a popular buzzword at the time, so we also had SoHo-Connect. And one of the other rejected names was WebbedWall, which I kind of like. The idea was also to have a “family” of projects one day, so we wanted a name that could be adapted. SmoothMail (email solution), and SmoothLinux which was going to be a desktop distribution based on Smoothwall ideas. Needless to say, nothing came of those ideas. There were rumours that the “Wall” part was named in honour of Larry Wall, the original author of the Perl programming language: the main language used in the project. I’m still not certain how much truth there is in this, but it’s a nice touch if it is true. Anyway, we went through a bunch of names and liked Smoothwall the best.
SW: What prompted you to start the first Open Source Smoothwall?
LM: The need for something to do! Not working at the time, I had energy to spend. And also the, maybe arrogant, belief that I could do something “better. There were alternatives around, not many, but some. Every one that we looked at was difficult to use, difficult to set up. The combination of those things was a pretty good driver.
SW: Why did you chose Open Source instead of Proprietary?
LM: Open Source is “free marketing”. I’m far from a believer that Open Source is the only way to make good software, but it is a great way to get people interested in what you are doing. In the early days of the project, I wrote all the code. But the fact it was Open Source (though it wasn’t run like a typical Open Source project) meant that people felt encouraged to tinker with it, and that led to ideas, and eventually code being contributed. This would not have happened if we’d kept the code closed; the interest just wouldn’t have been there.
SW: Why Linux?
LM: Well, there weren’t really any alternatives. I guess compared to the BSDs the driver support was better, but more than that, it was familiar. And we liked it of course. It was, and remains, the best platform for this kind of product, evidenced by the fact that everyone uses it in everything.
SW: What does it feel like to have invented a product that is responsible for 150 jobs?
LM: Obviously I’m very proud with what we have accomplished. What is especially gratifying, beyond the fact that we’ve created a company with, I believe it is right to say, a good ethical record, but also that it’s main business is keeping people safe.
SW: Did you imagine when you stated that Smoothwall would be where it is today?
LM: Nope! I honestly believed this thing would go on for about six months, and then I’d be forced back to Windows development work, with Smoothwall just being another little project to add to the list of little I’d worked on over the years.
SW: What's your favorite Star Trek character, or episode and why?
LM: 7 of 9? Actually it is Scotty. Series wise, The Original Series still stands the test of time. Within that series, I have too many favourite episodes to list. The newer stuff is good too of course, but you can’t beat TOS. Oh, and “Into Darkness” sucks!
SW: How did you meet George and Daniel?
George: I first met him at a motorway service station, near Exeter I think, to discuss commercial angles around Smoothwall. I was quite apprehensive because prior to it he’d sent me a big list of technical questions about Smoothwall, many of which I had no idea how to answer!
Daniel: Well, George headhunted him. Prior to actually meeting him I’d downloaded his DansGuardian software, which is basically what we wanted Daniel for, and played around with it, and of course had loads of questions. We got on great from the beginning, though I do remember being appalled with his first crack at a Guardian user interface!
SW: What's your best Smoothwall memory?
LM: There are many, of course. From a development point of view, I don’t believe I have ever been as productive as I was in the 3 months after the company was founded. In those 3 months I wrote the first versions of our VPN add-on (which is roughly what is sold today), a simple web filter module, and other things. Working only from one sentence requirements, on your own, having to design UIs yourself, having to actually get the thing to do what it has to do and having to test it all, is both intimidating and extremely rewarding.
I remember writing the first version of a early add-on module called SmoothHost in this way, in an afternoon. Over the years we probably made a million pounds in revenue from that afternoon’s work. That kind of pure creative, seat of the pants way of working, I have to admit, I miss immensely.
Outside of the working environment, we’ve had some great company weekends. My favorite is probably the trip to Coniston in the Lake District. I think it was 2007. The company was still “innocent” then. It was a superb weekend.