October 3, 2005

Community converges on Ohio LinuxFest

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Trade shows such as LinuxWorld Conference & Expo (LWCE) are all about business, and pay very little attention to the community aspect of Linux. Ohio LinuxFest, by contrast, is put on entirely by a loosely knit team of volunteer organizers, with help from sponsors to fund the event. If last Saturday's event was any indication, the community is not only alive and well, it's thriving. More than 700 people attended this third annual event in Columbus.

The LinuxFest opened with a quick address from organizer Greg Boehnlein, then a keynote from Chris Hicks, IBM Americas Linux on Power Executive. Hicks's keynote, "Architecture choices and decision points," touched on the types of loads Linux can handle, and focused (not surprisingly) on Linux running on IBM's Power architecture.

The afternoon keynote was delivered by Novell's Jerry Mayfield, who talked about Linux's past, present, and future -- primarily about Novell's plans for SUSE Linux and the OpenSUSE project. Both Mayfield and Hicks touched on virtualization and Xen during their talks, which probably indicates that you can look for Xen to become increasingly important in Linux.

I enjoyed both keynotes, but I was more interested in the sessions for the conference tracks.

Quality of talks

The LinuxFest had three conference tracks, Userspace, Tech, and Community -- though several of the talks didn't quite fit the track that they were in. It didn't really matter -- most of the attendees were mixing and matching tracks liberally. I bounced among the different tracks, and noticed a lot of the same faces in each talk.

The quality of the talks, overall, was very good. A few speakers were obviously a bit green when it comes to public speaking, but most of the people I talked to found the topics engaging anyway.

Paul Ferris talked about his Batch Login project, a tool that can be used to manage connections to servers across diverse environments. Ferris was a bit limited in demonstrating Batch Login because he didn't have access to the Internet and couldn't connect to other systems. However, there was plenty of time for Q&A with the audience about the tool, and Ferris got some advice from the audience on how to get the word out about the tool.

Paul Ferris describes Batch Login - click to enlarge

In "KDE: Everyday Use and Hidden Gems," Aaron Seigo talked about some of KDE's more interesting features, and features that are coming in KDE 3.5 and KDE 4.0. Seigo's talk was packed with people interested in hearing more about KDE; I'd say at least 350 of the attendees were in Seigo's talk.

Not all of the sessions were lecture-style presentations. Beth Lynn Eicher conducted a Linux User Group workshop, which seemed to go over pretty well. Quite a few attendees seemed eager to learn how they could attract speakers, improve attendance, and generally improve their LUG experience.

One of the standout talks of the show was Kim Brand's "Deploying Open Source Software in Schools." Brand's talk was in the Community track, but it was as much about the business of working with schools as it was about boosting the Linux community. Brand discussed ways to approach schools about Linux, the advantages of using Linux, and common barriers to Linux adoption in schools.

LinuxFest organizers did a good job of cutting speakers off in time to give attendees enough time to get to other talks. The schedule was crowded, with six talks in each track between 10 a.m. and 5:15 p.m., plus a one-hour lunch break at noon and a 15-minute break at 3:00 p.m. With a one-day format like LinuxFest, it's hard to fit in everything. Boehnlein told me they didn't have enough open slots for all the people who wanted to give talks. It's also hard to squeeze some topics into a one-hour format. Seigo and some of the other speakers easily could have spent two hours on their topics.

One suggestion that I'd have for next time -- stagger the lunch breaks for the tracks so that the facilities aren't quite so overrun with people. The food court was flooded with LinuxFest attendees and a few other groups that were having events in the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Kim Brand talks about deploying open source in schools - click to enlarge

Despite that minor glitch, I was very impressed by how smoothly the event was run. The LinuxFest organizers obviously spent a lot of planning time before the show, and you'd never know that the conference organizers planned everything "virtually"; Boehnlein mentioned that most of the people who organized the LinuxFest hadn't seen each other since last year.

Unsung hotbed for Linux

I spent a fair amount of time talking to the sponsors at the show, to find out why they'd chosen to spend money on the show, and whether they were planning to do so again. Sponsor support is crucial to an event like this, and if the sponsors don't feel they're getting their money's worth, they're not likely to pony up for the next event. If the conversations I had with vendors are any indication, the organizers should have no trouble getting sponsors to re-up for next year.

The event drew a lot of Linux enthusiasts from outside of Ohio. I ran into people from Canada, Michigan, Kentucky, and several other states who were more than happy to make a four- or five-hour trip to attend a Linux show. It appears that there's a vacuum when it comes to Linux events in the Midwest, since most Linux shows take place on the coasts.

Alena Callimanis, from IBM, said that the show was a "great venue for people who can't attend LinuxWorld," and that the area was "an unsung hotbed for Linux." Callimanis said that the show had drawn a good mix of the business crowd and hobbyists, and a lot of people who haven't yet committed to Linux. She also noted that it was a very cost-effective way for IBM to reach customers, since the costs of attending the LinuxFest was fairly low compared to LWCE or other big shows.

Indeed, according to LinuxFest organizers, the show was put on at a cost of about $20,000, plus materials that were donated for the show. It's not unheard of for one company to spend more than $20,000 just to attend a major show like LWCE, after factoring in the cost of a booth, transportation, and lodging.

While IBM was looking for customers, other sponsors were trolling for employees. Richard Zack of Pantek, who helped organized the show, said he was hoping to get his company's name out and find a few Linux-savvy people to round out Pantek and help with its growth.

The Novell folks I talked to also seemed positive about the show. In fact, I didn't find one sponsor who wasn't happy with the show -- and everyone I asked, sponsors and attendees, indicated that they were planning to attend next year's LinuxFest.

One thing that I did notice about the show was that few attendees were new to Linux. Ferris organized an "arm band marketing squad" of volunteers that would wear armbands around the LinuxFest to indicate their Linux specialties and answer questions about their areas of expertise. At other shows I've attended, it hasn't been unusual for people to pull aside anyone who looks Linux-knowledgable and pepper them with questions. At the LinuxFest, few of the arm band marketing squad were approached with questions at all.

Some of the LinuxFest organizers: Beth Lynn Eicher, Greg Boehnlein, Michael Meffie, Richard Zach, and Chris Clymer - click to enlarge

The LinuxFest also had an after party organized by Paul "Froggy" Schneider of NOTACON fame. I arrived at the afterparty a bit after 8 p.m., and things were already in swing. It was a good way to wind down after a long day of racing from session to session, and a good opportunity to get to know other Linux enthusiasts.

Final thoughts

About 1,400 people registered for the LinuxFest, and the final attendance tally was 726 -- though no doubt a few people probably slipped in without registering. According to the organizers, this was more than twice as many attendees as the 2004 event, which was twice as big as the first LinuxFest held in 2003.

From my vantage point, the show was an enormous success. The LinuxFest ran like a well-oiled machine, and everyone seemed to have a great time -- even the organizers, who were obviously exhausted by the end of the show. I hope that this event will inspire others, because there are a lot of Linux users who would benefit from attending a show, but might not have the ability to attend shows that are more than a few hours away.

If you missed this year's LinuxFest, there's plenty of time to plan ahead to next year. The 2006 Ohio LinuxFest is scheduled for October 7.

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