December 12, 2005

Last day at LISA

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

SAN DIEGO -- All good things must come to an end, and the 19th Large Installation System Administration Conference (LISA) is no exception. The conference wrapped up last Friday with a full slate of activities. At LISA, no matter how well you plan your schedule, the odds are good that you won't be able to attend all of the sessions that you're interested in.

Case in point: On Friday morning I had to choose between a refereed papers session about management tools, an invited talk on wireless security, guru sessions on change management and security/cryptography, or Kevin Bankston's invited talk on "How Sysadmins Can Protect Free Speech and Privacy on the Electronic Frontier." In the end, I opted for Bankston's talk.

Bankston discussed court rulings on wiretaps and pen traps, the USA PATRIOT Act, best practices for online service providers (OSP), and the Tor anonymous Internet communication system. He spent a fair amount of time talking about PATRIOT provisions, and cases where providers are served with "super-secret" orders to provide information on a user, where the provider is enjoined from even notifying the user. He pointed out that a gag order does not prevent an OSP from contacting its lawyers, and can be fought.

Tor came up several times in the talk, and Bankston encouraged attendees to run Tor servers if possible -- or to at least use Tor. He said about 150 Tor servers were in operation right now.

A few attendees were concerned about the legal ramifications about running a Tor node, given the possibility that someone might choose to use Tor to try to anonymize illegal activity. Bankston said that no one had been sued for running a Tor node yet, but it was a possibility.

One attendee asked Bankston how he could ensure that his personal computers would not be seized if he ran a Tor node that was seized -- essentially, how one could prove a separation between personal computers and a single computer used to operate a Tor node. Bankston said that if a person was running a node in a separate location, such as a hosting facility, that it would be unlikely that authorities could also seize personal computers.

Overall, it was an informative talk, and it was encouraging to see so many systems administrators interested in protecting users' freedoms as well as the technical aspects of doing their jobs.

Talking Mac OS X with Jordan Hubbard

Next, I stopped in on the "guru is in" session with Jordan Hubbard, Apple's director of Unix technology, to see what kind of questions LISA attendees would have, and to gauge the interest in Mac OS X among the Linux and Unix crowd.

Apple laptops were very popular at the show. In my informal tally of laptops at the conference, it looked like iBooks and PowerBooks made up about half of the laptops at LISA.

It became clear very quickly that quite a few attendees were, in fact, quite interested in Mac OS X. For the most part, conference organizers did a good job of putting talks in rooms that would accommodate the audience -- except in this case. The room was set up with seating for about 20 people, but by the time Hubbard started taking questions the room was holding twice that many people. Within 20 minutes of the session start time, the room was overflowing.

As we all know, Apple has a policy of avoiding making statements about future products. Hubbard didn't divulge any product secrets, and he dodged my question about Apple's plans for tying Mac OS X to its Intel hardware, but he did provide a few hints as to what Apple might be doing in terms of future development on its Unix side.

In response to one question, Hubbard indicated that Apple had an interest in porting Sun's DTrace to Mac OS X. The audience reacted very favorably to this.

The topic of package management, and package format, also came up. While it's easy to install GUI applications on Mac OS X (it doesn't get much simpler than "drag the icon into the Applications folder"), there's interest in a package format for users who are installing applications servers running Mac OS X as well -- i.e. something like RPM or the Debian package format.

Hubbard let on that Apple was looking at package management, and indicated that the company would go with an existing package format rather than starting from scratch with its own. Hubbard hinted that the company was looking at the RPM format, but didn't commit to it or specify a timeframe.

Many of the questions were about problems or bugs (or perceived bugs) with Mac OS X and deploying Mac OS X in server roles or using Mac OS X in unusual environments or large deployments. Hubbard frequently asked attendees to submit bug reports or feature requests to Apple, and promised that all bug reports and feature requests are read, even if the submitter doesn't receive direct feedback from Apple. Hubbard even gave his personal email address out in response to a few requests, indicating that he'd personally see to it that a few of the problems or requests were given attention.

Hubbard's guru session highlights yet another advantage to attending a show like LISA -- the ability to communicate directly and effectively with the folks who have decision-making power over the IT products we use from day to day. While attendees were getting answers to their questions about Mac OS X, Hubbard was getting some direct feedback about how people use Mac OS X and what the pain points are for those users.

The LISA game show

The LISA game show, hosted by Rob Kolstad and Dan Klein, was the final event on the LISA '05 calendar. Contestants for the game show were chosen from attendees based on a paper quiz that was available from the membership booth. There were 12 contestants chosen, and a handful of runners-up in case any of the contestants didn't make it to the game show.

The game show was a great deal of fun. It's too bad the LISA game show isn't televised -- it's head and shoulders above the game show fare that you'll usually find on television, if a bit more risque.

Game show questions covered a number of different categories for each round, ranging from geek-friendly topics like chat clients to questions about comic strips -- and the ever-present guitar riffs category, which required contestants to identify a song based on its intro, with mostly classic rock staples and nothing more recent than 1990. Judging by the game show contestants' performance, classic rock isn't a big hit with systems administrators.

Each contestant received a few prizes just for playing, including T-shirts, Minix 3.0 CDs, and a handful of technical books. The first-round winners also received PlayStation games (from "not the evil Sony," Kolstad pointed out several times), book bags, and other valuable goodies.

The final round grand prize was, once again, a three-day technical pass for LISA 2006, which will be held December 3 to December 8 in Washington, DC.

While the weather in Washington is unlikely to be as pleasant as San Diego in December, I'm hoping to attend next year as well. LISA is a "don't miss" conference for systems administrators and those interested in systems administration.

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