December 19, 2002

A low-cost, Linux-based conference registration system

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

Massachusetts resident Dave Belfer-Shevett likes to attend both technical and science fiction conferences, and for years he has been appalled by the poor systems they used for registration and badge printing. "I could do better than this," he said. And so he did -- using Linux, MySQL, and surplus hardware he picked up on eBay and elsewhere.

This is how Linux-based businesses are born these days. An itch is found that is not necessarily the programmer's, and in the scratching process an opportunity to make money appears -- and is exploited.

This is not communism, even though some proprietary software boosters want you to believe communism is the predominant economic theory behind Linux and Open Source. Rather, this is capitalism in its purest form, specifically of the "find a need and fill it" variety.

In this case, the parameters that defined the nascent business were:

  • A known need for the service
  • Virtually no development or hardware budget
  • Processing speed (can't have conference attendees standing in long lines)
  • Rugged, easily-transported hardware
  • Easy interoperability with organization Web sites and membership databases

One more ingredient: Dave's own skill. He had already written and sold the well-known (proprietary) Keystone trouble-ticket program, so he was not new to software-based entrepreneurship. He had also learned the hard way about what can happen to proprietary software: the company that bought Keystone from him later stopped selling and supporting it. (Dave now recommends GPL-licensed RT: Request Tracker to people who might have chosen Keystone a few years ago.)

iOpeners and the LTSP

Remember the iOpener? It was one of those "Internet appliance" things where the manufacturer took a loss on the hardware to get you to subscribe to an ISP that would hopefully be profitable, except that a lot of people figured out how to modify iOpeners and use them as cheap Linux PCs, so the company ended up taking lots of hardware loss and getting hardly any subscription profit in return.

The iOpener, it just so happens, can easily be adapted to run software from the Linux Terminal Server Project that turns it into a great, low-cost thin client. At $40 or so apiece, Dave now has a total of 16 iOpener xterminals that, he says, are not only wonderfully functional for what he needs, but are also great on the portability front "because they fold up flat."

Add a pair of (cheap, used) 1U rack mount P-III 700MHz servers in a (cheap, used) portable case, (used) network hubs, and the rest of the (mostly used) gear needed to hook everything together and transport it safely from place to place, and you haven't spent much more than $4000 or so.

Dave says, "The only thing I had to spend real, live money on was the badge printers. They were too crucial to buy used."

Add the badge printers, and Dave's total hardware investment jumps to around $5500, which is still next to nothing compared to the cost of traditional conference management systems.

The software

Dave uses a package called CONGO. He wrote it, in Java, using Sun's JDK. He was originally thinking about PHP because that was where most of his experience was, but he wanted a little more challenge -- and wanted a true desktop app that wouldn't be bound by the "post and response" nature of PHP. He's still using PHP for most of the online registration side of his CONGO package, but the actual on site work is Java-powered.

While there is no specific software license mentioned on Dave's Web site for CONGO (because he hasn't chosen one yet), the phrase "Full source code disclosure" is used, and this is a system that runs on Linux and is based on MySQL, so its Open Source heart is more-or-less a given. Not only that, but licensing may not matter greatly one way or the other; Dave is primarily interested in providing a service rather than in supplying software. The software is an ingredient in that service, but so is Dave's ability to make it work with a client's current membership database information and existing Web site, and to set up and operate an on site registration system quickly and efficiently at a reasonable cost.

A business still in its infancy

Dave has done two complete conventions so far, and has five more lined up. This is not quite enough for him to quit his "day" job, but it's close. He hasn't done any advertising or promotion yet. "I have to be careful not to oversell myself," he says. "It took 1.5 years to write the software and get everything working right."

So far, he says, "It's all been word of mouth." And before you ask, no, none of the Linux or Open Source conventions or conferences have approached Dave so far, although he'd love to do more work in this area in part, he says, because without Open Source he never would have been able to start this business.

"I could not have gotten to this point," Dave says, "if I had been saddled with the license fees and legal issues surrounding commercial software."

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