Cory Doctorow keynotes LISA ’06


Author: Brian Jones

The 20th Large Installation System Administration (LISA) conference continued Wednesday with the LISA award ceremony, a keynote by none other than Cory Doctorow, noted sci-fi author, former Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) employee, and consumer privacy advocate, and a slew of technical sessions.

Of specific interest to systems administrators (the audience LISA seeks to attract) was that Tobias Oetiker and Dave Rand won the SAGE Outstanding Achievement award for their work on MRTG and RRDTool.

Following the awards, Doctorow took to the podium to talk about the Internet, our disappearing privacy, eroding rights, and what we can do about it. Doctorow is a compelling speaker, and most of what is covered in the LISA ’06 talk can be found in the video of his keynote at ToorCon 8.

Afterward there was a question and answer session, which allowed the audience to dig a bit deeper into some of the main points of the talk, and it actually provided more readily useful information with regards to what actions can be taken by the community besides simply sending money to organizations such as the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and EFF.

For example, there is a mailing list run by the EFF which sends out announcements to subscribers when Congress decides to tack some bit of legislation onto a bill at the last moment that runs counter to the notion of digital rights. According to Doctorow, this list has been instrumental in creating what amounts to an impromptu phone campaign against the legislation. Scripts are also provided by the EFF to give users an idea of just what to say when they call.

Technical sessions

After the keynote, it was off to the technical sessions, which covered everything you could possibly ask for, and then some. A series of papers about email were presented, which encompassed a thorough discussion about privileged messaging, the current state of email security, and a fascinating look at the forensic data gleaned from a distributed two-stage Web-based spam attack. I know several mail administrators that were at LISA this year, and not a single one of them missed these talks, and all of the admins I spoke to came away impressed.

Also during the morning sessions, Elizabeth Zwicky gave a very entertaining talk about how to teach problem solving to junior administrators and users. This talk was unique in that it intertwined concepts and statistics from the world of education with systems management and administration philosophies to help systems people understand how they can teach people, and what they can expect to accomplish based on the level of user they’re dealing with.

Zwicky covered several interesting concepts. For example, Zwicky says that one of the single most important hurdles to teaching a person something is to instill in them a belief that they can, in fact, learn it. This was backed up by references to various studies to back up the claim, and the argument was very convincing.

After lunch, Tom Limoncelli of Google gave a talk about how things work at Google, and what he’s learned after his first year there. The talk focused mainly on site reliability issues, failover, load balancing, how to choose the right method to route around issues, how Google distributes services, and some of the choices they’ve made to insure a good user experience.

Limoncelli is an excellent speaker; he’s very personable, and covers concepts using the language of systems people. This would explain the sort of “second keynote” nature of this talk, in which there was scarcely an empty seat in the largest room in the house.

The Q&A session that followed was slightly less useful, since audience members, ever curious about the guts of Google, asked several questions which Limoncelli was unable to answer due to corporate policy. As always, Limoncelli invited people to ask questions offline at the end, and as usual, Limoncelli was nearly invisible in the crowd of attendees who took him up on the offer.

Thursday falls flat

After the exciting talks given on Wednesday, Thursday seemed to fall a little flat. I attended several talks, and spoke to a number of attendees, and was unable to find a highlight for the day. Unfortunately, the consensus among all the attendees I spoke to was that all of the talks on Thursday were lacking in some way.

A talk called “Everything You Know About Monitoring Is Wrong” failed to make it clear that this was, in fact, the case. The “Identity 2.0” talk I attended confused more than it conveyed, and the “QA and the System Administrator” session was only mildly interesting.

After Thursday’s talks, the final night’s events included the LISA reception party, which was a carnival-themed event that included a buffet dinner, carnival games, and a raffle in which the grand prize was the entire Monty Python collection on DVD. Following the LISA reception was the Google recruiting Birds of a Feather (BoF) session, where there was more beer, desserts, coffee, and another raffle in which the grand prize was a MacBook Pro. Google’s BoF was well-attended — indeed, I didn’t speak to any attendees who weren’t at Google’s BoF Thursday night.

LISA ’06 wraps up today, with more technical sessions and a closing session at 4:00 p.m. If you missed LISA ’06, or just can’t get enough LISA, there’s plenty of time to sign up for next year’s conference. LISA ’07 will be held November 11 through 16 in Dallas, Texas.