November 23, 2004

The future of LISA, the Large Installation System Administration conference

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

ATLANTA, GA. -- The annual LISA (Large Installation System Administration) conference has a devoted following; you meet people here who have attended five, six, even seven LISAs in a row. The '04 edition wasn't as big as the ones held during and immediately after the dot-boom years, but it's still exciting to gather 1,200 sysadmins and academics in one place so they can share knowledge with one another. The question, though, is whether the current blend of academic-style research paper presentations, practical tutorials, and general-interest keynotes should be continued or whether LISA should focus more in a single direction. And it's a good question, because the conference's demographics have changed noticeably in the last few years.More young faces, fewer grey beards

The first thing that struck me when I arrived at the conference last Wednesday was that the number of over-50 attendees was down and the under-40 crowd was more numerous than at the last LISA I attended, two years ago. The second thing I noticed is that LISA keeps shrinking. In 2002, in Philadelphia, there were about 1,600 people registered, while this year the number was closer to 1,200. The number of exhibitors was also down: Compare the 2002 list with the 2004 list and you can see the difference, even after allowing for the fact that the 2004 list linked to here includes both exhibitors and sponsors, while the 2002 list shows only exhibitors, not sponsors who did not also have a physical presence in the exhibit hall.

Much of this downswing can be attributed to companies cutting back on expenses and employee perqs after the dot-com boom ended. It was common in the late 1990s for sought-after IT employees, like sysadmins, to ask employers to send them to a mininimum number of professional conferences per year as a condition of employment. Now that sysadmins are easier to find, fewer employers send their IT people to conferences. Some sysadmins I spoke with even had trouble getting time off to come here at their own expense. But there is still a hard-core group that comes, no matter who pays their way, because they believe LISA tutorials and technical sessions give them essential information they need to do their jobs.

Usenix board member Jon "maddog" Hall said another reason LISA has shrunk is that vendors no longer maintain as many operating systems as they did five or 10 years ago; that back in the 1980s a company like IBM maintained a number of operating systems and "had 500 engineers working on each one," while nowadays there's a trend toward using nothing Linux and Windows throughout the enterprise. Because of this, there's less to keep up with and less to learn.

Johann Berglund, 29, of Stockholm, Sweden, says he comes to LISA "every second year" because "I don't think things change that much over just one year."

Berglund says this conference gives "the best overall view of sysadminning." He's been to four LISAs now, which makes eight years of coming every other year, and plans to continue this pattern, particularly if LISA -- which is held in different locations every year -- keeps holding every other conference on or near the U.S. east coast, which is easier and less expensive for him to reach than the west coast.

Where should LISA be held?

Should a conference like LISA be held in a resort-type destination city, at a fancy hotel? Or should it be presented "on the cheap" at a college or another low-cost destination? One attendee's opinion: "It should be someplace nice, because a lot of us are here on our employers' tabs and that will make us more likely to talk them out of budget to come. But it shouldn't be someplace so nice that government agencies like the one I work for hesitate to send us because they think it's nothing but an excuse for a free vacation."

At least one Usenix board member suggested holding LISA (and possibly other Usenix-sponsored conferences) in the Mexican city of Monterrey. This is not a resort city, but a business and computing center, and LISA relies at least to some extent on local people to keep attendance up. If the concentration of local tech business is a determining factor, Monterrey is a good place to hold LISA. Mexico City would be another good choice. So would Chicago. Or Los Angeles. Or Boston. But then you get into the question of whether it's better to have this conference in cities that already have plenty of tech conferences or in cities where they're comparatively rare.

The facility quality vs. price equation is another factor. The Atlanta Marriott Marquis is a nice hotel, and it's convenient to be able to stay in the same building where the conference is held for a (comparatively) reasonable $139 per night, but when you add in the $16+ buffet breakfasts and high catering costs for group events, both Usenix budgetkeepers and individual attendees start to wonder if it wouldn't be reasonable to give up a little luxury and convenience in exchange for a lower price.

On the other hand, there aren't all that many places, either campuses or hotels, that can accommodate 1,000+ people, and host a conference for that many, too, or that at least have a reasonably priced place to hold a conference within walking distance.

While LISA has been shrinking since the end of the dot-com era, it has never been a huge conference, nor was it ever intended to be huge. It is by, for, and about high-end systems administrators. It is also possible that with the influx of young blood at LISA 2004, the shrinkage has stopped, and future LISAs will have higher attendance no matter where they are held.

Why people come to LISA

2004 was Joe Moore's first LISA. He came from Cincinnati, Ohio. "I got a lot out of all the tutorials, especially about configuration management," he said. "That's next year's big thing at work."

While some Usenix people have questioned the idea of continuing the traditional LISA mix of hands-on tutorials and academic papers, Joe enjoyed the ability to find both in the same place. There was a "good balance here," he said. And yes, he plans to be back next year.

Nicolas, who flew in from Paris, France, echoed Joe's comment. "Sysadmins come here to learn from scientists," he said, "and this is one of few places that happens." Nicolas has attended four LISAs so far, and plans to attend more in the future.

LISA is not the only Usenix conference

From the shameless plug department: If you're a sysadmin and you're not a member of Usenix or its soon-to-be-an-independent interest group, SAGE (which runs LISA), you should be. Not only do you get to go to groovy, informative conferences, but you get to share your woes with fellow sysadmins, learn about job leads, and generally get a leg up in your professional life. That's well worth the membership cost.

And please, member or not, try to get to LISA 2005 in San Diego next December. I hope to be there myself, and possibly at one or two other Usenix conferences between now and then, and I would love to meet you in person.

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