May 9, 2006

FreedomHEC firms up

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The FreedomHEC conference is approaching rapidly. The "shadow" conference, which follows Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC), is set to take place on May 26 and 27 in Seattle, Washington, at the Pogo Linux headquarters.

FreedomHEC was proposed by former Linux Journal editor Don Marti in March as a forum to help teach Windows hardware developers how easy it is to write drivers for Linux, so that more devices will be compatible with Linux and other free operating systems. As Marti said in March, when the conference was announced, "the goal of FreedomHEC is to bring together kernel developers and the PC hardware people who aren't yet doing Linux and wouldn't travel for a Linux event."

Marti has a history of organizing events for the free software cause. He organized "Free Dmitry" events to help Dmitry Sklyarov after Sklyarov was arrested for writing software that circumvented copy protection in Adobe's eBook format, and started the "Burn all GIFs" day in response to attempts by Unisys to cash in on LZW patents.

Plans for the show

FreedomHEC is going to follow an "unconference" format, and Marti says that the final schedule will come together the first day of the conference. The conference will open for a meet and greet at 9 a.m., then put the schedule on the whiteboard and then start the first session at 10 a.m. According to the conference wiki, "the final schedule is up to you and the other participants. Bring your questions and suggested topics."

In keeping with the informal nature of the conference, Marti says that audience participation is encouraged. "We expect there will be a lot of Q&A sessions. If you're in the middle of writing a driver for a new device, please don't be shy about bringing your code and questions."

A tentative list of "who's who" on the FreedomHEC wiki includes an impressive list of attendees, including a number of kernel developers and free software luminaries.

Kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman is scheduled to give a hands-on presentation that will teach attendees how to write a kernel driver for a device. James Bottomley, SCSI subsystem maintainer for the kernel, has proposed a talk on "Why Linux can help make Windows sales (and vice versa)."

It's encouraging to note that at least a few major hardware vendors are interested in participating as well. Pogo Linux CEO Tim Lee says that Pogo partners Supermicro and AMCC are sending engineers to the conference.

The schedule is still loose, but looks like it will be an interesting mix of hands-on education about the technical, procedural, and community aspects of kernel development.

Pogo's interest

Pogo Linux sells Linux workstations, servers, storage solutions, and turnkey cluster packages, so it has a strong interest in seeing that new hardware devices are well-supported under Linux. Lee says that the new hardware is supported much faster now under Linux than when Pogo was launched seven years ago -- but there's still room for improvement.

Many companies ship proprietary drivers for Linux, but Lee says that's a problem because they are usually keyed to a handful of distributions -- usually Red Hat Enterprise Linux and/or SUSE -- so those using fast-moving distributions such as Fedora Core or Ubuntu are left without support. "Not everyone uses Red Hat or SUSE, lots of people use Ubuntu or Fedora ... [which] change every day, a new release every few months ... by the time they [hardware manufacturers] support Fedora Core 5, Fedora Core 6 is already out."

Lee says the two biggest barriers to getting manufacturers to provide source code and specifications are competitive concerns and quality control. "Open source has started to change that mindset, but they're still stubborn.... [They're worried that] if they open up too much, number one, competitors may take advantage. Number two, that inferior drivers may be developed by the community."

Though working with the community may not assuage fears about competition, Lee says it will help alleviate fears about the quality of code. He also says that manufacturers need to see that helping the community develop drivers for products means "more sales for them.... Drivers come first, which ensures more compatibility, which ensures more customers."

Future of FreedomHEC

With any luck, FreedomHEC may become a regular conference. Marti says that the organizers would like to make FreedomHEC "part of a regular 'Seattle hardware conference season' so that hardware vendors can do one trip to talk about both Linux support and the Microsoft OSes."

Marti says that the venue capacity is 60 people, and that the organizers expect that the show will be near capacity. If you haven't registered yet, you can do so by signing up on the FreedomHEC wiki. Attendance is free for those who pre-register and for WinHEC attendees.

Can't make it to the show? Marti says that they are planning to record the talks, so the videos should be available online.

"If you're on the fence about whether or not to come to FreedomHEC," Marti says, "keep in mind that we want your company to make billions of dollars selling hardware that works right out of the box on Linux desktops, servers, and embedded devices, and we want you to get the credit for it."

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