May 1, 2006

Laid back at Linuxfest Northwest

Author: Bruce Byfield

A heavy spring rain was not enough to dampen spirits at Linuxfest Northwest this year. Despite the rain, an estimated 700-800 people converged on Bellingham Technical College in the Pacific Northwest for a day of informal presentations and a gathering of the local free and open source software (FOSS) communities.

Under the name Linux Fest, Linuxfest Northwest was originally organized by the Bellingham Linux User's Group. Since 2003, other user groups and individuals from as far away as Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Canada have joined to make the event an annual success. This year, the attendees included about 60 on a bus from Seattle chartered by Pogo Linux, who received a free T-shirt as well as coffee and a snack to help them ease into the day.

Part of the appeal of Linuxfest is Bellingham itself, the sort of all-American place that could have sprung from a Ray Bradbury story (minus the aliens) -- the sort of town where a banner advertising the event stretched across a major intersection seemed perfectly natural.

Another part of the appeal, as John Blanford, one of the organizers, writes, "is that it is put on by users for users. We really value the idea that it is a fest, not a formal conference or show." It was a comment I heard echoed by many people throughout the day, from pimple-faced teenagers and gray-haired geeks of both sexes. Those with experience of larger events, such as the LinuxWorld Expo, seemed to find the casual setting especially welcome. Many cited the relative absence of marketing people and the presence of families as major reasons for their enjoyment of the day.

The event featured a crowded exhibition room, a raffle, and a salmon barbecue in the courtyard put on by culinary students from the technical college. However, the major attraction was the multi-track programming. Even with some cancellations, more than 45 presentations were offered over four 75 minute slots.

This scheduling made more than a sampling difficult, especially in classrooms with single exits, where it was impossible to leave without disrupting the presentation. For this reason, I missed dropping in on Todd Trichler's three hour Oracle install-fest, although Trichler later told me that it was attended by about a dozen people, most of whom were pleasantly surprised by recent improvements in the Oracle installer.

I did manage a couple of hops. They included Rob Lucke's "Experiences with FOSS Business." Despite the title, Lucke's presentation was mostly technical, focusing on MySQL, Asterix, and network solutions. His talk could be summarized as suggesting that, if you have a technical problem, somebody, somewhere either has a FOSS solution for it or is working on one.

I also dropped in on Mark Ashworth's "Open Music Systems." Although I expected to hear about FOSS tools for professional musicians, Ashworth's well-attended talk turned out to be an introduction to Internet radio and KDE tools for CD ripping, along with a discussion of the online resources available for building your own speakers. Listening to an enthusiast hold forth is never a waste of time, but I left when Ashworth ceded the podium to a representative from Real, not wanting to spoil the mellowness of the day by listening to marketing material.

Mark Ashworth

Otherwise, I had to make some hard decisions about how to spend my time. Arbitrarily, I decided to forego all the introductory talks. I also chose not to attend the more hardcore presentations, on the grounds that I could probably find that information on the Internet if I wanted it. The decision meant that I missed a couple of specialty presentations from students at Washington University and Bellingham's Western Washington University, but something had to give. Instead, in the spirit of the day, I decided to focus on presentations that focused on FOSS communities.

A thin client and FOSS in schools

I arrived at Linuxfest in time to catch all except the first ten minutes of Eric Harrison's discussion of K12LTSP, a thin-client version of Red Hat modified for education that is used throughout North America, as well as South Africa, Japan, and other parts of the world. Speaking to a full classroom, many of whom were either teachers or technical support staff, Harrison talked about developing a distribution as well as how to be a successful FOSS advocate in the educational system.

Harrison outlined the development of K12LTSP over the last nine years, emphasizing the need for quality assurance testing and sharing some of the tricks he had learned to save time, such as testing CD images by doing NFS installs. "Two to three line shell scripts make all the difference in the world," he added, explaining some of the scripts he had developed to allow maintenance without the intervention of technical support. His scripts included a desktop reset dialog that remove all a current user's configuration files and restores the defaults -- a necessity for dealing with school children, he suggests -- and a root desktop that provides icons for installing proprietary extras such as RealPlayer and Acrobat Reader.

In addition, Harrison and several members of the audience discussed the problems of introducing FOSS into schools. Reliability, price, and the ability to reuse old hardware are some of the reasons that many of those at the presentation moved to FOSS. One audience member suggested using dual boot systems to assure administrators that nothing was being lost.

However, Harrison admitted, FOSS is often introduced by a single "subversive" working alone. Once the subversive has succeeded in demonstrating the advantages of FOSS, more general adoption may follow -- although many schools are locked into restrictive vendor contracts or policies and procedures.

In addition, teachers will often insist they need one particular Windows program. But, as one audience member commented, the use of one particular application is never as important as a system that is stable and simple to use.

If teachers insist that students learn business standard software, another audience member said, advocates should suggest that they need to learn concepts, not specific pieces of software. After all, fifteen years ago, WordPerfect was a word processing standard, but anyone who learned it then would find it had little application today.

Harrison also alluded to Microsoft's 2002 audit of the software used in Washington and Oregon schools -- a move that ended up drawing attention to Harrison's own efforts. In at least one case, Microsoft's attempt to move a school district to a subscription license with the threat of being accused of piracy was derailed by a single comment: "Imagine Johnny crying on the six o'clock news because we had to fire his teacher to pay you."

Harrison ended by making suggestions for those interested in developing their own FOSS projects. He suggested that they keep their efforts simple, by taking advantage of upstream efforts whenever possible, and stressed the importance of quality assurance testing and of not being "cowboys" in advocacy. Moreover, "competing projects are your brothers in arms, not the enemy," Harrison said, referring to how K12LTSP has interacted with Edbuntu and other projects. Finally, he joked, "be ignorant/in denial. Otherwise, you'll never start."

Explaining the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Wearing a black "++ungood" t-shirt, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) activism coordinator Danny O'Brien delivered a humorous, but comprehensive account of the EFF. Originally conceived as a foundation that would raise funds for causes it considered important, the EFF has developed into more of a non-profit law firm whose goal is "to try to move the [American] constitution into the digital age" by establishing how traditional freedoms are extended to apply to computerized, online technologies. "We don't want to be the story or the client," O'Brien stressed. Instead, the EFF looks for test cases to establish legal precedences.

EFF activism coordinator Danny O'Brien

According to O'Brien, the EFF is an unusual non-profit organization. More than 75% of its $2.5 million budget comes from individuals, compared to 21% for the average non-profit. The remaining 25% comes from small companies, rather than Fortune 500 corporations. Most of its budget goes to the salaries of its 23 employees, over a third of which are lawyers. The lawyers constitute what O'Brien jokingly refers to as the "legal" arm of the EFF while technical researchers and educational speakers such as himself constitute the "illegal" arm. He then showed the "What Would a Pirate Do?" chart that hangs in the EFF board room and offers such options such as "Sing a Chantey" and "Loot and Pillage," joking that it was used to decide courses of actions when difficult decisions had to be made.

Becoming more serious, O'Brien went on to talk about some of the EFF's ongoing concerns, such as the struggle to preserve the right to reverse engineer and to define the legal position of end-user license agreements, and the effort to see that online reporters received the same legal protection as traditional journalists. He also included updates on the EFF's class action suit on behalf of AT&T customers to prevent unauthorized wiretapping and its opposition to the American government's attempts to extend the restrictions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Law, which O'Brien described as "akin to a drug war" in its draconian attempts to control the uncontrollable.

O'Brien referred to the potentially sweeping effects of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies, pointing out that they could mean the end of many FOSS tools. Despite the threat, O'Brien remains surprisingly upbeat about the possibilities of defeating DRM. Not only the public, but politicians, he believes, are finally starting to understand the possible consequences. "Politicians are getting iPods," he said briefly, and realizing that the laws they are proposing can affect them personally. Even the manufacturers of proprietary operating systems, he believes, after racing to implement DRM, are becoming alarmed at how the laws they are considering might be personally inconvenient.

All the same, he urges people to use the EFF as a resource to find out what is happening with DRM and other concerns, and to write the EFF about their concerns. According to O'Brien, the EFF depends heavily on feedback from supporters to determine its direction. It "needs to stay two years ahead" of general public awareness on issues in order to stay effective, O'Brien says.

Building the Fedora community

Red Hat's Greg DeKoenigsberg

Greg DeKoenigsberg, Community Builder at Red Hat, gave a frank account of the efforts to expand and improve the Fedora community. Although he was hired in October 2004, more than a year after the Fedora project was announced, concerns about the project name and attempts to clarify the project's relation with Red Hat meant that little community building had occurred before he came on the scene. Just as Jeff Waugh said that the goal of Ubuntu was to build "a better Fedora than Fedora," DeKoenigsberg would like to see Fedora become "a better Debian than Debian, and is deriving practical lessons from both Ubuntu's and Debian's efforts at community building.

DeKoenigsberg explained that a tension continues to exist between Red Hat executives whose main concern is to keep the Fedora project the testing ground for Red Hat Enterprise Linux and those who would like to see the project become more independent. Currently, he says, the control of Fedora's direction is mixed. On issues like the kernel, hypervisors, glibc, and GNOME -- components that Red Hat sees as essential to its own business plans -- over 75% of contributions come directly from Red Hat employees. By contrast, contributions to packages such as Firefox and are more balanced, while KDE packages are developed upstream and maintained almost entirely by the Fedora community.

DeKoenigsberg would like to see more community control in general. In fact, he considers this step a necessity for the continued growth and well-being of Fedora. He sees the newly formed Fedora Project Board as an important step in providing more balanced control. He also sees the Fedora Extras repository as a model for Fedora Core, and would like to see Fedora Core gradually adopt Fedora Extra's release policies over the next few years.

He briefly alluded, as well, to changes in package management, talking about the possibility of Debian-like "enhances" and "suggests" dependencies and a Conary-like combination of version control and package management. DeKoenigsberg expects some resistance to these changes within Red Hat, but, talking as a Fedora community member, he repeated several times that "if we lead, the suits will follow."

Other parts of the day

Bouncing from presentation to presentation, I only had time to drool in passing at the salmon and corn on the cob others were eating -- although I appreciated the canopy the culinary students had raised as a temporary shelter as I crisscrossed between buildings in the rain.

However, after slipping out of Mark Ashworth's presentation, I finally had time to wander the exhibitors' room. While a few companies and organizations had official presences, such as Oracle, SUSE, and the EFF, others, like Google, contented themselves with an information table. A few projects, including Ubuntu, Frugalware, and the Free Software Foundation, were represented by local enthusiasts.

Going through the exhibits was mostly a process of going from conversation to conversation, but the room also had several open computers monopolized by gameplaying children and a display of historical hardware and software that featured a much-ridiculed copy of Microsoft BOB, the 1995 "social interface" whose development was once managed by Melinda Gates. Wandering the exhibits, I scored two free T-shirts (one from the EFF and one from Pogo Linux celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the Linux kernel) -- a very high rating considering the absence of official company booths.

The last part of the day was devoted to the LinuxFest Northwest raffle. With dozens, possibly hundreds of books, T-shirts, books, tchotchkes, and other prizes, the draw needed a good hour or more to complete. Given the attendance, ticket buyers must have had better than one chance in eight to win. Unfortunately, the odds weren't with me, but that might have been just as well; I was already wondering how to explain my horde of freebies to a customs official when I crossed back into Canada.

After the last raffle ticket was drawn, some attendees took advantage of the tickets distributed to the April Brews Day event, a fundraiser at the Majestic in Bellingham's Old Town put on by local micro-breweries to benefit teenagers and adults with disabilities. Unfortunately, I was already headed home by then, but I have it on reliable, if somewhat tipsy report that it was a satisfying end to a successful day.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.


  • Open Source
Click Here!