[FreeBSD-Announce] Death announcement for John Birrell

Craig Rodrigues rodrigc at FreeBSD.org
Tue Nov 24 22:04:57 UTC 2009

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of FreeBSD
committer John Birrell <jb at freebsd.org>.

John Birrell  / jb at freebsd.org

John Birrell was a Unix developer since 1988 and a FreeBSD user since version 1.0.5.
He had a Bachelor Degree in Engineering (Electrical, First Class Honours, 1981)
from Monash University in Australia.

Over the years he developed with various commercial Unix variants such as SysVR2/3,
Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, OSF/1 and SCO and several embedded operatings systems
like VxWorks, LynxOS and Microware's OS9.

In the open source world he was once a user of NetBSD and OpenBSD in addition to FreeBSD.
Afterwards, he preferred just to use FreeBSD.

In 20 years of consulting he worked in the automotive, building materials,
pharmaceutical, petrochemical, telecommunications, defence and business systems industries.

John worked on an oil rig in China, for Ford in Australia, and for other customers
in Philippines and other parts of Asia.

While on a business trip visiting his employer Juniper Networks in Sunnyvale, California,
U.S.A., John suffered a stroke, and passed away on November 20, 2009. 


John Birrell was a member of the FreeBSD project, for over 12 years,
and could commit to the FreeBSD source code.  John felt passionately
about FreeBSD, and his contributions to this software project were many and varied:

- port of Sun's DTrace to FreeBSD (2007)
- contributed BSD licensed libdwarf to FreeBSD  (2008)
- contributed initial implementation of FreeBSD on DEC Alpha, from NetBSD (1998)
    -> this was the first 64-bit OS that FreeBSD ran on
- contributed original libc_r pthread implementation to FreeBSD before KSE (1998)
- contributed to port of Sun UltraSPARC-T1 (Niagara) to FreeBSD (2005)

John also participated as a mentor in the Google Summer of Code project.
For Google Summer of Code, John mentored students in various FreeBSD
projects that were funded by Google.  Mentoring new developers and colleagues
was something that John felt very strongly about. 

John also liked to attend BSD conferences.  In May 2009, I attended
the BSDCan conference with John in Ottawa, Canada.  He was in his element,
and had many interesting and animated discussions with other FreeBSD developers,
including people like Randall Stewart.


As part of John's work at Juniper Networks in 2008, John started working
on a project called jbuild.  jbuild is a modification of the
FreeBSD make(1) utility, which adds improved dependency tracking as a first
level feature, by tracking read/write system calls of all invoked utilities,
either by using DTrace, or by using a special kernel module named filemon.

At Juniper, the project is ongoing and will be deployed as part of the
software build at Juniper next year.

Although this work was started in response to needs at Juniper,
John was quite passionate about pushing this work back to FreeBSD, in order
to improve the FreeBSD build.  John observed that in FreeBSD,
a "make universe" which verifies that all code changes work on all
architectures takes so long that very few people actually do it, so
less popular architectures often get broken.  John also observed that
by simplifying a "make universe" and other "buildworld" targets often
rebuilds a lot of things unnecessarily, due to the fact that it is "safer"
to do so, because the dependencies are not tracked as accurately as they could be.  

John has a branch in the FreeBSD svn repo for building all of FreeBSD with jbuild here:


I will update this branch as I have time, but it would be nice if folks in
the FreeBSD community could keep this work alive.

John was keen that distributions like PC-BSD could adopt jbuild.
John wanted to simplify the FreeBSD build, to make it easier
for people to make new distributions based on FreeBSD.

Let me know if you want to learn more about any of this stuff.


John lived alone on a 118 acre rural property in Apollo Bay, Australia, which
is on the southeastern coast of Australia, approximately 4 hours from Melbourne.

His house was not connected to the local grid.....his water supply
was obtained from tanks on his roof which were filled with rainwater.
His electricity was supplied by solar cells.

On one trip to Sunnyvale in 2008, he bought an alcohol distilling device
which he brought back home.  His goal was to try to grow potato and sugar
beets on his property, and distill them into alcohol, so that he
could fuel is car with ethanol instead of gasoline, thus having
a very minimal carbon footprint.

John was also passionate about animal welfare.  He owned a few
cats, and just bought a puppy dog in 2009.  In 2008, when massive fires
swept much of the Australian countryside, he took time
off of Juniper to volunteer with Wildlife Victoria.  
This organization provided assistance to many animals who suffered
during the fires, such as kangaroos, wallabies, and even pets
of people who abandoned their properties when fleeing the fires.

John also liked motorcycles.  He told me stories about how he
motorcycled around Asia many years ago.  He was also hoping
to buy a motorcycle to garage in California, so that he could
drive it whenever he visited Sunnyvale.


I worked very closely with John over the past year.
I was in constant communication with John over IRC chat,
and Skype.  I also Skyped John into many meetings, to keep
him up to date on the pulse of what was going on in Juniper.
Although John was in a remote place, he felt like he was
in the cube next to me.

John was very patient with me and took the time to explain point by point what he
was trying to achieve with jbuild and why it solved legitimate problems
with make(1) based builds.

John also had taste for good "expensive" food and fine wine.
In 2009, as thanks for my help in working on jbuild,
John treated me to a sumptuous and expensive meal at
Sent Sovi Restaurant, in Saratoga, California, U.S.A......a fond memory for me. :)

John was one of the smartest engineers that I have ever worked
with, and was a mentor and friend.


I am going to miss talking to John every day on IRC, hearing interesting stories
about living in rural Australia, and solving new and challenging
technical problems with him.  His passion really pushed me to work very hard on jbuild,
and learn new things.  I will miss him as a colleague, mentor, and friend.

Craig Rodrigues
rodrigc at FreeBSD.org

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