December 8, 2005

LISA '05 Conference: Day 1

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

SAN DIEGO -- My first day at the 19th Large Installation System Administration (LISA) Conference in sunny San Diego was kind of like Disneyland for geeks. There are no rides, but there are plenty of attractions, and far too much to do in one visit.

LISA started on Saturday for those attending the full-day workshops and tutorials, but the conference went into full swing on Tuesday, with technical tracks, workshops, the exhibit hall, birds of a feather (BoF) sessions, and a lot more.

Qi Lu, vice president of engineering at Yahoo!, was the keynote speaker for Wednesday morning. While there's usually a lot going on simultaneously at LISA, Lu's keynote on "Scaling Search Beyond the Public Web" and the conference "opening remarks" were the only thing scheduled from 8:45 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. A lot of attendees voted with their feet during Lu's speech. It's not that Lu's keynote was bad, but it seemed a bit high-level for a group that was in town to tackle the more difficult subjects in systems administration. Several folks I chatted with thought that the talk started off a little too much like a commercial for Yahoo! rather than the kind of talk they'd come to expect at LISA.

No shows and rescheduling

The next talk I went to was completely devoid of marketing considerations -- or anything else, as the speaker didn't show up. Dan Kaminsky of DoxPara Research was scheduled to talk about "Network Black Ops: Extracting Unexpected Functionality from Existing Networks," but Kaminsky failed to appear at the appointed time. What was really impressive is how fast the LISA organizers managed to reschedule Kaminsky's talk and inform conference attendees. The talk has been pushed into the lunch hour for Thursday, and the schedule on the LISA Website has already been updated.

Since I had the time slot free, I slipped into one of the other talks in progress, Bdale Garbee's "Computing on Amateur Satellites." While it didn't provide a great deal of information that I could put to use in day-to-day systems administration tasks, it was interesting and entertaining. Garbee talked about the history of amateur satellites, how amateur satellites are designed, how they're put into orbit, and things that the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) is up to for the future. I doubt I'm going to have an opportunity to launch any amateur satellites anytime soon, but it was fun hearing about them nonetheless.

I also went to Strata Rose Chalup's talk, "Under 200: Applying Best Practices to Small Companies." Chalup talked about things that systems administrators could do, or systems they may want to deploy, to try to be more effective in a small company -- essentially bringing some of the infrastructure you'd find in larger companies to companies with fewer than 200 employees. This being LISA, many (if not most) of the talks are aimed at larger sites, so it was good to see a talk aimed at admins working at smaller companies. Having worked with smaller companies in a systems administration capacity, I recognized a lot of problems that Chalup was discussing.

Chalup's talk seemed to go over pretty well with the audience, and I thought she nailed a lot of pain points that smaller companies have in their IT departments, and provided some sensible (and inexpensive) ways to solve some of those problems.

Exhibit hall: Brought to you by the letter "S"

LISA's exhibit hall is of rather modest proportions compared to the rest of the conference. Actually, it's about the same size as one of the larger conference halls where talks are being held. There are about 40 vendors at the show, handing out swag and scanning badges.

Google is on site, recruiting furiously. Sun is here showing off some of its hardware and talking about ZFS and Solaris 10. I spent some quality time talking to representatives from Sun, Splunk, Symark, SourceFire, and The Written Word (which, oddly, has nothing to do with documentation or writing).

Splunk, which just recently launched its professional software, provides search software for system logfiles using a Web-based front end that provides some Google-like search capabilities. I got a quick demo at the booth, and spent about half an hour talking to Patrick McGovern, the "Chief Community Splunker." It looks like something that would be useful in the datacenter.

Food and beverages were available throughout most of the conference. In the morning, they put out fruit, pastries, water, and (most importantly) coffee. After the workshops and technical sessions let out for the day, they put out a spread of Mexican food and margaritas in the exhibit hall, which proved to be very popular.

The "hallway" track

After a short break, allowing attendees to get dinner, the Birds of a Feather sessions start. Interestingly, LISA's BoFs are still being scheduled, rather than having the schedule set in stone before attendees arrive. Have something you want to talk about with your peers? No problem! Put it on the board and see who shows up.

LISA is a strong community show, and you'll hear a lot of references to the "hallway track," the between-sessions time where geeks get together between classes and socialize. I've already met a number of interesting folks from other companies, and have had a great time chatting with other geeks in attendance and finding out what kind of work they do, and what tools they use.

Even past 10 p.m., things are still hopping in the conference hall. The "laptop room" is open to attendees 24 hours a day, and there are at least 10 people there even at such late hours sending email, checking on remote systems, and gathered around laptops having discussions about technical topics. There are also, of course, vendor-sponsored after-hours parties.

So far, I haven't found any attendees that aren't happy with the conference, which is saying something given the cost of attendance. A day of technical sessions is $250, and a day of the training track runs $625. This doesn't, of course, cover the cost of travel, hotel, or meals.

Still, by all accounts, LISA '05 is turning out to be a very successful conference. I'm looking forward to day two.

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