An Interview with Falko Timme - the Perfect Linux Guy

Posted by tadelste on Feb 22, 2006 7:12 AM EDT; By Tom Adelstein, Editor-in-Chief
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Falko Timme will be thirty this year. He's possibly one of the most popular mentors for people wanting to become Linux system administrators on the Internet. His step-by-step tutorials have gained a large readership.

He was born in Celle, Germany. He studied industrial engineering in Dresden and Braunschweig and speaks and writes perfect English, even though it's not his first language.

I have interviewed a lot of people over the years. I don't remember an unpleasant one. But this interview with Falko stands out in my mind as the best. I hope you enjoy spending time with him. He's a remarkable person.


LXer: Falko, your tutorials show up on just about every Linux system administration search I do these days. When did you start writing them?

Falko: I started the "Perfect Setup" tutorials in 2003 as part of the 42go ISP-Manager documentation. At projektfarm GmbH in L√ľneburg, we had developed the Linux web server control panel called "42go ISP-Manager", and though we had an installation manual for it, we got lots of support requests from people that had no idea how to install the base system for 42go.

At that point I decided "Ok, let's write a tutorial that covers every single step of the system installation and configuration so that people can simply copy and paste the commands from the tutorial so that 42go runs on these systems out of the box."

First, we put those tutorials (we started with Debian Woody) on and also on my personal web site We noticed that we got a lots of page views from our tutorials. We even had visits from people that weren't interested in 42go at all, so we thought that there's a need for the kind of tutorial we wrote.

We created HowtoForge in 2005 as a source for high-quality tutorials, and it's open for everyone. Anyone can contribute. I don't test every tutorial that gets submitted, but I test my own tutorials to verify that they don't contain errors or that I don't omit small but important details.

LXer: When did you start working with Linux and how did you get started?

Falko: I started in 1998. I wanted to host my small search engine and web sites for friends so I bought a Cobalt RaQ2. That was my first Linux server, and I barely had Linux knowledge then.

It had a nice web frontend that you could use for basic things, but soon I realized that if I want to do more sophisticated things with this server, I had to dive in into the Linux world and get my feet wet on the command line. Many sleepless nights followed...

LXer: I notice you answer questions on a lot of forums. Do you ever sleep? Where can people go to ask you questions?

Falko: Don't worry, Tom. I get enough sleep - and I don't dream of little penguins...

I'm active on the HowtoForge forum, so people can ask me questions there.

LXer: Tell us a little about -what is it exactly and when did you get involved?

Falko: projektfarm is a company in L√ľneburg, Germany that focuses on software for Linux web servers like ISPConfig. We offer ISPConfig which is free, the 42go ISP-Manager, and the 42go SPAM-Filter. We also offer professional Linux services for companies and individuals.

When a company or individual has problems needing support with Linux or if they need help with Linux system administration, then they can contact us. Our job involves providing help and we actually enjoy doing it.

LXer: OK. And you got involved with this company how?

Falko: I met the founder of projektfarm GmbH, Till Brehm, in 2001, and we soon realized that we both had a Cobalt RaQ and weren't satisfied with the control panel. Neither of us saw any alternatives at the time. Some projects were on the market but they were immature.

So we said, " Let's write our own." That's a typical Linux person's response. So we gave birth to the 42go ISP-Manager. I was fully involved with projektfarm at that time.

LXer: I had several Cobalt boxes myself. I thought they were insecure. But now, I have ISPConfig running on my server at home and it's tight and hard. That must have been an objective in your development.

Falko: That's correct. Till wrote to you and explained that.

LXer: He wrote and said "My server was fully patched and got hacked twice because Cobalt had not released all patches available from Red Hat. These experiences lead to the decision that the base linux system of an ISPConfig server should be kept up to date with the packages from the underlying Linux distributon without breaking ISPConfig".

Falko: That allows you can keep your server up to date with the most current patches for SSH, BIND, proftpd, etc.

LXer: I want to change the subject a little. We hear a lot about Linux in Germany. And with your country as the second largest economy in the world, just how is the climate in Germany for Linux?

Falko:It's very friendly, especially on the server market. If you want to rent a dedicated server here, you'll find many people who offer Linux. Other providers offer other operating systems, but in the ISP hosting market other operating systems are vanishing.

Also many communities have switched their computers to Linux. I'm sure you know about Munich. Even the servers of the German Parliament run under Linux. SuSE was a German company until Novell bought them.

Linux is widely accepted on servers here, and if you search for Linux topics on Google, I'm sure you'll find many German web sites, forums, mailing lists and so on that deal with Linux.

LXer: And of course, Howtoforge is one of those sites. OK. Let's get back to your business. You're on the ISPConfig team. Tell us about the project and your role.

Falko: ISPConfig emerged from projektfarm's 42go ISP-Manager. We didn't sell as many copies as we thought we would. The price was moderate, EUR 189,- per copy.

We wanted to sell more and so we analyzed our business. We believe we didn't sell as many as we should have for two reasons:

First. we are good programmers, but we are no marketing gurus. Secondly, the name, 42go ISP-Manager, didn't connect with people. It just didn't stick as a brand.

So, we decided to fork a branch of the 42go ISP-Manager. We chose a new name that people could remember. We chose ISPConfig. We also decided to make it free and put it under a BSD license which, generally speaking, says that you can take it and do whatever you want, which means real freedom for the user.

ISPConfig has all the features of 42go and a lot of new features that you don't find in 42go. It isn't a limited version of 42go. I think it's likely that we stop 42go and merge it with ISPConfig and just continue the ISPConfig development.

We made this software free because we thought it would get the attention it deserved. We changed our business model to sell support and services instead of software.

LXer: That makes so much sense. People have to like what you've done.

Falko: With a large user base, you will find users who also want professional support and want to pay for it. Also, many companies and government units require support contracts. So, we see a market of people who will want and need to pay for support.

This business model works better than the previous one. And as an open source project we offer free support on the ISPConfig forum. We have a growing and active community there.

LXer: And the project itself?

Falko: Right now ISPConfig has a development team of 15 people, most of them concentrate on translations. ISPConfig is available in English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, and Swedish. The core team members are Till and me. Till's focus is mainly the web frontend, mine is more on the backend that automates configuration. The borders between these two areas float.

LXer: Are you active on any other projects? Or is this enough?

Falko: I am involved in other projects. I just released MyDNSConfig (), a web-based control panel for the MyDNS name server. This is now a standalone application. And it will be part of ISPConfig's next iteration.

LXer: On your web site you tell people that they can write you about Linux support issues, then you say you would accept a small contribution. You're personally offering your service for free. How can you do that?

Falko: Basically, I'm trying to help people in the HowtoForge forum. This is a free, growing and very active forum with a very friendly atmosphere where everyone is welcome - newbies as well as Linux experts.

We manage to find solutions for lots of problems there, but sometimes it's hard to guess what causes a problem. If they like, they can then contact me and ask for my support. I will even log in to their systems and fix the problem. But this kind of support can't be free.

LXer:Your tutorials are all on They are also on your web site. Tell us more about HowtoForge.

Falko: When we had our first tutorials on and, we realized that we got lots of page views because of the tutorials. The feedback was also very positive. So Till and I decided to create HowtoForge in April 2005. We put all our existing tutorials on HowtoForge, and we post our new tutorials exclusively on there.

HowtoForge is open to everyone and any one can contribute Linux tutorials. We want to make it a source of high-quality Linux tutorials. I really think there's a need for this because very often when I read Linux tutorials and try to follow them, I do not succeed.

Typical documentation does not describe the exact steps you have to take. I mean I see things like "... then patch the kernel". But how do I patch the kernel? What are the exact steps?

In other situations people forget to mention some small but important details. I think it's the usual case. Even I have problems following existing tutorials. So, I wonder how a newbie or even an experienced system administrator is supposed to do follow the existing documentation and become happy with Linux?

On HowtoForge we publish tutorials that describe every single step. As a reader you can simply copy and paste the commands to your shell, and you're done. This gets the people started, and if they are newbies they can at least play around with a working system in order to understand how it's working instead of pulling out their hair.

If there are questions or problems, people can go to the HowtoForge forum.

LXer: Your tutorials are in English.

Falko: We decided to publish only tutorials written in English on HowtoForge because English is the language that most people dealing with computers understand.

Often, when I search on Google for a solution to some Linux problem, I find pages in Spanish or Portuguese or Polish, etc. and I think "Damn, they seem to have the solution, but I don't understand a single word..." We could have decided to write the tutorials in German, but that would have been unfair for most people.

LXer: Do you have any books planned for the future? If so, what are you going to write?

Falko: I haven't planned any books yet. Maybe a compilation of my best tutorials, but I don't know yet.

LXer: Well, you can write one with me any time you want. And I hope you will let us read more about you in the future. Thank you.

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