November 8, 2002

USENIX Lisa - more innovation per square foot than Comdex?

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

I've spent the last few days at Usenix/LISA02, "the 16th annual systems administration conference." It is not as big as some previous LISAs, but big enough. And Wednesday I got a call from a newspaper editor in Las Vegas that got me thinking about the difference between trade shows and technical conferences.

This editor wanted a quote from me about items that were failures and therefore wouldn't be shown at Comdex. This editor caught me in my hotel room, reading a paper presented here at LISA under the imposing title, "Why Order Matters: Turing Equivalence in Automated Systems Administration," co-authored by Steve Traugott and Lance Brown. If we take "It's at Comdex" as a success indicator, and "Not at Comdex" as an indication of failure, then this paper and the ideas in it are failures. But I found some of the concepts espoused by Traugott and Brown interesting, and I believe their work has more long-run potential for changing the way we think about computing than any dozen cute gadgets on the Comdex show floor.

Maybe this means I'm weird. It also means the other 1400 people who have been in various conference rooms at this Marriott in Philadelphia are also weird. Fine. But "Why Order Matters" is part of the work you can see at, and I suspect the average reader will agree with me and the other LISA attendees that this paper has more potential long-run impact on society than 98% of the "latest and greatest [fill in here]" that will debut at this year's Fall Comdex.

I told the Las Vegas editor I thought the most overhyped product he'd see at the upcoming Comdex would be tablet computers, which Microsoft is pushing like mad. I personally doubt that a laptop minus its keyboard (with a screen you can write on instead) is going to suddenly become a "must have" mass-market gadget even if the concept is pushed at schools like mad.

In any case, it's still a screen and an input device, not much different in concept from a PDA or a laptop. Revolutionizing the way our computing infrastructre's architecture is viewed; how it is built; and how it's maintained... now that's revolutionary. One of the wireless phone carriers runs ads telling us a wireless phone is only as good as the network it's on. This is true. And the same holds true of a data client on your desk, on your lap or in your hand, no matter what you call the thing.

So when I want to see truly revolutionary concepts -- not all of which may work out -- I tend to go to small conferences, not huge trade shows. And LISA is a good conference for this sort of thing, especially if you happend to be a sysadmin or network administrator.

This gathering is small enough and attracts enough annual "regulars" that when program chair Alva Couch opened the Wednesday morning session and prepared to introduce keynote speaker Jim Reese of Google he was greeted more like a favorite uncle at a family picnic than like a professor presiding over a series of tutorials for people who manage computer networks.

Reese's keynote was a fine tour of Google's workings from a systems administrator's viewpoint. He filled a ballroom with enough people that it took multiple 10' tall projection screens to let everyone see his slides. But he was only one of 45 formal presenters, and this number doesn't include all members of every panel or leaders of more than a few "Birds of a Feather" sessions that were organized on the spot, many running late into the night, nor does it count the many "hallway" sessions that took place as much in the hotel's lobby bar as in the actual hallways. Conference organizers arranged a wireless access point for the hotel's public spaces, and there were people all over the place, many sitting on the floor, tapping away on laptops (a surprising number of them Macs) or chatting with each other.

A sample of the kind of conversation that took place in these little groups was one I overheard where a sysadmin from a local company in the financial services industry was asking other attendees whether her company should replace its (no longer supported) Sparcs with Oracle on Linux or spend the money to go with Solaris. Oracle is a given in this situation; the company has too much invested in Oracle-specific programming to want to change databases. But the operating system and hardware choice is still open. Some managers at the company, said the sysadmin, want to move to Windows 2000, a thought that made all within earshot cringe in horror. The discussion then turned to the relative admin hassles (and total cost) of a large group of Linux/Intel servers compared to a small group of Solaris servers, and their relative reliability. Both alternatives had their partisans. And when I came back upstairs to write this article, that discussion was still going on. The upshot, though, was that this comparatively young, new sysadmin learned many new factors to consider in advising her bosses on this decision, and now knows exactly what vendor research she must do before her company spends the $200,000 they have budgeted for this upgrade project.

Exhibitors' Thoughts

There was a small but friendly exhibit floor, with a fair mix of hardware and software vendors and a few others. USENIX tends to be Unix-oriented, but there is a growing trend toward Linux. Asked which vendors were moving toward Linux fastest, one vendor replied, "The ones that want to survive."

Red Carpet (Ximian) had a small display. Product Manager Keith Erskine said their offerings were "being received well. This year is pretty good. We've got a lot of people coming in, saying, 'We've got a lot of Linux we're deploying, and we need some way to manage it.' We're getting a lot of good leads."

Microsoft had one of the larger displays. Conferences like LISA tend to have very small booths; this was not a Comdex-scale thing, just a nearly empty, 6' by 15' space trimmed entirely in black, with two people in it. The sign on the Microsoft booth offered -- and there is no way I could make this up -- "Seemless Intergration." I didn't have a camera with me, but many others took pictures of this glaring error. I asked Microsoft employee Dilip Gopalakrishna if there was some hidden meaning to this. He said, "It's just a typo. People make mistakes." Okay. The company pushing "trustworthy computing" makes mistakes. We can live with that. Our first thought was that this was an attempt to embrace and extend the English language in some bizarre proprietary direction. We're glad we were wrong.

Across the aisle from Microsoft, Sun had a similar-sized display, but it had colors, not just black. All words on Sun's signs appeared to be spelled right. There were Sun employees and hardware a-plenty, and happy sysadmins picking up literature and asking questions. Sun is respected, even loved, by many in this crowd.

OpenBSD developer Jason Wright was selling OpenBSD 3.2 CDs. "Not as many as I'd like," he said, but not doing badly, either.

O'Reilly and Pearson PTR were selling books, and their booths seemed busy most of the time the tech sessions were on break. Pearson's Mark Taub said it was "going pretty well."

CodeWeavers, more commonly seen at Linux-specific shows, was also here, showing off their new Office Server Edition as a low-cost, thin-client alternative to Citrix, Microsoft Terminal Server, and other methods of running Microsoft Office and related products on a single server instead of maintaining copies on every employee's desktop. Aric Stewart, manning the Codeweavers booth, said, "Compared to LinuxWorld this is a great show. Here you run into a high number of people who want to hear your message. At LinuxWorld all they want is your giveaways."

Stewart characterized the attendees he was meeting as "geeks, but geek decision makers. Here, you have people sent by their bosses instead of coming on their own, who go back and recommend purchases."

The Las Vegas editor who equated Comdex visibility with success might consider CodeWeavers and OpenBSD failures, since neither of them have plans to exhibit at Comdex. But at this conference they looked pretty successful.

Attendees' Impressions

Tony Giustozzi, a programmer/analyst for the University of Oklahoma, said his favorite session, as of Thursday afternoon, "was the one on hacking and securing Web applications." Tony also enjoyed the (Google) keynote, and was a heavy tech session attendee in general, spending his time between sessions on his laptop, using the conference's ad-hoc wireless network, and generally socializing.

Mario Delgado said he was here "to network." He's looking for a job. Delgado is unemployed and came as a volunteer; in essence, he paid his admission fee by lugging boxes and manning the SAGE desk. He's been coming to LISAs (and has been a SAGE member) since 1997. He said this year's LISA was much smaller than some earlier ones. "New Orleans in 2000 was huge. The exhibit floor was three times as big as this one. Okay, maybe part of that was that it was in New Orleans. Then 2001 was the smallest floor I've ever seen. This year the exhibit floor is still small, but there are bigger technical sessions."

Jenn Sturm of Hamilton College in New York said, "I'm meeting tons of people -- and I'm getting some some real reiteration of the importance of documentation."

This comment led to additional discussion from other bystanders about how one of the hidden benefits of a conference like LISA is motivation. One talked of how "you go home with lots of new ideas to implement." Yes, another agreed, and said he thought attendance at a conference like LISA was "good for three months of motivitation." Sturm talked of being "reinsipired."

Someone else chimed in with, "And a lot of beer."

There was general agreement about the importance of beer.

But it was getting late, so the discussion ground down and people drifted off.

(I'll have another little story on LISA -- specifically about Larry Wall's Friday talk -- for you next week.)


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