LISA ’06 off to a strong start


Author: Brian Jones

The 20th Large Installation System Administration (LISA) conference began Sunday in Washington, DC. The first few days have been all about training, followed by some catching up with other admins, followed by dinner, and beer.

Conference organizers provided pens and notebooks, coffee and pastries. iCal subscriptions are available to those who wanted to have something on their local machine to keep track of what they plan on attending, but finding those links is a challenge. If you’re reading from the show, they’re at, and offering locations in addition to the times would have been nice.

The first half-day training session I attended on Monday was “Beyond Shell Scripts – 21st Century Automation” by Æleen Frisch, author of Essential System Administration among other books. This was a good talk, though it was mostly about Cfengine, which is a tool with its own language that is used to help administrate and configure large networks.

Frisch gave us exercises to do that were designed to help people who had never configured Cfengine and were intimidated by it. She went over the exercises and allowed more experienced attendees the chance to offer other solutions besides her own. Being one who never “made friends” with Cfengine, I learned a lot that would’ve taken quite some time to glean from traditional printed documentation. In speaking with other users, it would appear as though Frisch has done much to make the attendees feel empowered to approach Cfengine with confidence.

The second half-day training session I attended was “Project Troubleshooting” by Strata Rose Chalup. This was an excellent talk given by a true veteran of the consulting and project management fields. Not a single question went unanswered, and it seemed there was no issue the audience could throw at her that she couldn’t handle.

Chalup was a very generous speaker, and she was even nice enough to forgo a break of any kind to help one of the audience members with a particularly tough project issue.

In addition to these presentations, there were many good reports from attendees about Lee Damon’s “Issues in UNIX Infrastructure Design“, which addressed many pressing issues of modern day infrastructure services admins, such as how to do single sign-on securely, and keeping a “master database”. Damon covered so many topics that it’s impossible to summarize, but the presentation, the materials, and the user feedback were second-to-none.

I was also able to peer into Gerald Carter’s presentation, “Ethereal and the Art of Debugging Networks.” Carter delivered a fascinating talk whether you’re an old pro or a junior admin. He pointed out several things to consider when debugging networks in general (e.g. your system logs may be lying, or telling half-truths, which makes network auditing even more important), and went on to talk about the nuts and bolts of using Ethereal as the go-to tool for any network troubleshooting task.

I later learned from a very satisfied attendee of that talk that Ethereal can parse tcpdump output, which was something some old pros may not know, and may make the tool more immediately useful. Carter is a gracious speaker and is also very approachable, willing to speak with anyone and answer any questions one might have.

Day two at LISA ’06

On Tuesday, without question, the main attraction was David Blank-Edelman’s “Over the Edge System Administration” talk, which was delivered in two “volumes,” split into morning and afternoon sessions. By the end of the morning session, organizers were moving in more tables and chairs to handle the flood of oncoming attendees.

Blank-Edelman’s presentation was about finding creative ways to solve problems in systems administration, and using traditional tools in non-traditional ways to solve problems. Blank-Edelman is a humorous, energetic speaker who encourages interaction from the audience. This provides a bonus to the audience, since for each solution provided, we also heard variations on the solution from audience members which were also very useful in most cases. The talk was entertaining, and constantly reiterated the main point of taking chances to flip tools around on themselves, experiment, and find new ways to develop solutions.

Many more attendees arrived on Tuesday. By late afternoon, all of the hotel common areas, laptop rooms, business centers, registration areas, not to mention the area bars and eateries, were teeming with conference attendees. The IRC channel (#lisa06 on serves as a virtual gathering place where attendees check in upon their arrival, and coordination for after-hours activities are planned. Trips to bars, restaurants, book stores, and the local zoo are coordinated daily. In addition, IRC offers people a way to communicate through the walls of the presentation rooms to get feedback on how things are going. Most attendees will automatically feel connected to what’s happening at the conference, as well as the people in attendance.

The evening Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions went off without a hitch, with sessions running the gamut of admin-specific interests from the just-for-fun bash scripting competition to the comparatively stodgy Fedora Directory Server meeting.

The BoFs also served as fertile ground for further social interaction, and the halls outside of the sessions served as a continuation venue when the one-hour scheduled meeting rooms had to be vacated. When standing in halls gets tiring, it’s down to one of the hotel lounges to continue the conversations.