October 4, 2006

Ohio LinuxFest 2006 brings a record crowd

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

More than 1,000 people turned out on Saturday for the Ohio LinuxFest 2006 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC) in downtown Columbus, Ohio. The LinuxFest featured big-name speakers such as Jon 'maddog' Hall, Chris DiBona, and Jeff Waugh, and live penguins from the Columbus Zoo.

The LinuxFest actually started on Friday, with the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) providing an opportunity for LinuxFest attendees to take the LPI Certification (LPIC) exams in the morning at a discounted rate. Volunteers helped with pre-show prep on Friday, and there was a pre-show get-together Friday night at the Holiday Inn for those who arrived early.

Crikey! That doesn't look like Jeff Waugh!

Jeff Waugh was scheduled to give the morning keynote, but his flight was delayed, and he was still in transit when it was time to open the conference. Waugh contacted presentation committee chair Richard Zack, who managed to track down Chris DiBona, Google's open source program manager, and get him to substitute.

DiBona was originally slated to give a talk on Google's use of open source at 1:30 p.m.. He did a great job of modifying his talk for the keynote slot -- as well as injecting a number of friendly pokes at Waugh during the keynote.

LOPSA board member Stephen Potter - click to view Flash video or click here for Ogg video

During the keynote, DiBona talked about how open source and Linux are important to Google, and how Google contributes back to open source. For example, DiBona explained that open source is crucial to Google because the company doesn't have to pay license fees for the privilege of running code -- which not only saves the company money, but also means that Google has no obligation to report how many computers it's running at any given time. Since Google doesn't disclose how many servers it has in use, DiBona kept referring to Google's "20 computers," and said it was important that the company be able to use software that doesn't require per-server fees.

DiBona also commented on reports that Google was experimenting with OpenSolaris. DiBona says that it's possible that a Google engineer may be doing something with OpenSolaris in his 20% time, in which engineers are free to pursue their own projects, but it's unlikely that the company would move away from Linux.

Waugh eventually arrived in time to take DiBona's 1:30 p.m. slot.

After the keynote, it was time for the regular talks, which ran from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with 15 minute breaks between sessions to give attendees more time to mingle, check out the exhibits, or head to the bathroom before the next talk.

No matter how well-planned the schedule is at a show like this, though, you always have hard choices to make when deciding what talks to attend. For example, I had to decide between going to see Matthew Porter discuss "Using Linux in Embedded Systems" or Jorge Castro's talk on "The Integration Holy Grail," both of which were in the 10 a.m. time slot.

I opted for Castro's talk on integrating Linux systems with a Windows Active Directory installation. Castro discussed his experiences integrating Linux desktops at Oakland University, and provided a number of examples and configuration tips for this somewhat unsavory combination.

Integrating Windows and Linux seemed to be a hot topic, as the room was packed with several hundred OLF attendees eager to learn how to authenticate Linux systems off of AD.

It's harder than it looks

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was not just an attendee at this year's Ohio LinuxFest. After attending Ohio LinuxFest 2005, I was so impressed with the show and what the group had accomplished that I asked if there was anything I could do to help with this year's event, and wound up helping with public relations and working with the presentation committee.

In the process, I managed to get a close look at all of the work that goes into planning an event like OLF. Even though it's only a one-day affair, it takes a lot of work to make that day run smoothly, and planning for the show goes on almost all year.

The convention center has to be booked far in advance, and money has to be put down long before the day of the event, which means that organizers need to find a way to raise several thousand dollars well before sponsors are lined up.

Finding and working with sponsors is another hefty task, as is managing the show budget. There's also selecting and confirming speakers for the event, putting together the show guide, maintaining the Web site, and planning for volunteers to help run the event the day of the show. Any successful show requires a lot of work, but it's even more impressive when you consider that all of the people organizing the show are volunteers.

The day of the show, volunteers went into the GCCC starting around 6:30 a.m. to do last-minute setup and prep for the first sign-in rush. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Clymer, Scott Merrill, and a handful of volunteers, the registration tables were ready to go by the 8 a.m. check-in time.

No matter how much planning is involved, sometimes events conspire against even the best-organized event planners. For example, due to a conflicting event schedule, the hotels attached to the GCCC were already booked for the weekend of the LinuxFest. Attendees from out of town had to settle for rooms at the Holiday Inn about nine blocks from the GCCC, or at the Midwest Hotel several miles away. However, shuttles were available from the hotels to the convention center, so attendees could get to the GCCC with as little hassle as possible.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Apache

I've been working with Apache for a number of years, so Richard Bowen's "20 things you didn't know you could do with your Apache Web server" was something I just couldn't miss. Of all the talks on Saturday, I learned the most from Bowen's, though I did happen to know a couple of the things Bowen talked about doing with Apache.

Bowen explained how it was possible to improve Apache's performance using Apache 2.x caching features and mod_deflate, discussed using the ironically named mod_speling Apache module to allow users to find content even if they get the URL slightly wrong, and creating style sheets for Apache directory index pages. All in all, Bowen's talk was informative and a lot of fun.

I also went to Michael Johnson's talk about rPath's rBuilder and the Conary package management system. The rBuilder system is rPath's online tool for building custom distributions based on Conary and rPath Linux. The idea, says Johnson, is to make rPath as "vanilla" as possible to allow distributors to focus on their enhancements, and not worry about the core operating system.

Overall, I enjoyed Johnson's talk, though I was hoping that Johnson would talk a bit more about Conary than he did. Most of the talk seemed to focus on rBuilder, which is less interesting to me than the way that Conary works.

Part of life is just showing up

Every conference has to deal with the possibility that a speaker will miss the show, or their time slot. I haven't been to a trade show yet that didn't have at least one cancellation, and OLF 2006 was no exception. Two speakers with slots towards the end of the day were no-shows, but the slots were covered. Bowen stepped in with a talk on Apache's mod_rewrite, and Kim Brand stepped up to deliver a talk on getting Linux into schools.

Brand, the CEO of Server Partners, had given a talk at last year's OLF, but his talk wasn't accepted for this year's schedule. Brand still turned up for the show, and when it became clear that the original speaker was not going to make it -- just an hour or so before the scheduled talk -- organizer Mike Meffie asked Brand to step in. Brand says he was happy to fill in at the last minute, and "hopefully, I'll be able to speak on purpose next year."

Michael Johnson of rPath - click to view Flash video or click here for Ogg video

Cruising the exhibits

OLF also had a small exhibit hall directly outside the presentation rooms, with a number of commercial and .Org exhibitors. IBM, Digium, Novell, Astaro, Sun Microsystems, ImageStream, and several other vendors showed up to support OLF and discuss their products with attendees.

In between sessions, I cruised through the exhibit area to talk to the vendors and .Org folks who were there. I noticed that the GNOME and Free Software Foundation booths were busy much of the time, even during the sessions, as was the Linux Link Tech Show booth.

I spent some time talking to Stephen Potter of the League of Professional System Administrators (LOPSA), to see how the group was doing since it was formed last year. Potter says that LOPSA has grown to about 1,000 members, and that LOPSA has recently formed its first local chapter in Phoenix, Arizona. I was a bit unsure last year whether LOPSA would get off the ground, but it seems that the organization now has some momentum.

I saw a lot of familiar faces from last year, and had a chance to catch up with some people I'd met at last year's OLF or at previous events. It's interesting how quickly you can bond with people you see only once or twice a year.

Saving the best for last

After a full day of talks, on a Saturday no less, it wouldn't have been surprising if the crowd had thinned considerably by 6 p.m. However, the bulk of the crowd had stuck around for the big finale of live penguins and Hall's closing keynote.

Executive committee member Beth Lynn Eicher, who organized the penguin presentation in addition to all of the other work she did prepping for the show, introduced the penguins. Trainers from the Columbus Zoo brought in two spheniscus demersus, otherwise known as jackass penguins. The trainers talked a bit about different species of penguins and the history of this mated pair, JB and Punky.

At the beginning of the presentation, the lead trainer said that flash photography was allowed, so long as the audience members didn't try to touch or get too close to JB or Punky. With that, dozens of attendees crowded around the stage and proceeded to take tons of pictures throughout the presentation. The penguin presentation closed with a Q&A session, which drew more questions than any of the other sessions that I attended during OLF.

Once the penguins left the stage, I had the honor of trodding in some of the penguin poop to introduce maddog to the OLF crowd.

After giving the audience a brief history of his career with computing, Hall told the audience that proprietary software was "a mistake ... a blip on the radar. The future is free software." He then went on to talk about the steps for people and organizations to move to open source, starting with learning about open source, and finishing by evangelizing open source.

Hall encouraged the audience to start with "invisible" projects, and not to replace proprietary systems if they were already working well, unless they depend on expensive hardware. He also knocked Microsoft's total cost of ownership (TCO) arguments, saying that organizations should instead look to the total value of ownership when it comes to software deployments. What's important, says Hall, is the value that a particular application or system adds to the bottom line, not just the cost of deployment.

Penguins from the Columbus Zoo - click to view Flash video or click here for Ogg video

After the ball

After Hall's keynote, executive committee member Greg Boehnlein gave closing remarks and thanked all of the volunteers, speakers, and sponsors who made the show possible -- and then encouraged attendees to head over to the Holiday Inn for the OLF After-Party, organized by Paul "Froggy" Schneider and Jodie "Tyger" Schneider, who put on the NOTACON event.

I went to the party for a bit, though exhaustion forced me to duck out after a few hours. The party was spread out through several rooms and the Holiday Inn bar. It seemed as if everyone was having quite a good time drinking, munching on snacks, and generally chatting about Linux and other topics.

Last year's LinuxFest drew about 750 attendees. The final, official count for OLF 2006 was 1,061 attendees -- though I suspect the actual number was closer to 1,200, since the show was free to attend, and a fair number of folks bypassed the registration tables.

The date for the Ohio LinuxFest 2007 is already set for September 29, and the organizers are already talking about ways to make that show even better than this year's. A page has been set up for photos from this year's event, and you can check to LinuxFest blog for information on next year's event.

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