Linux.Conf.Au trip report

by corbet

January 20, 2004

Your editor is back and rested - if somewhat jet lagged - from the 2004  production of Linux.Conf.Au in Adelaide. Some 540 people attended this event -- the highest attendance in this conference's five-year history. Here's a quick summary of what happened as seen by LWN.

Greg Ungerer gave an introductory talk on uClinux which will be interesting to those who haven't actually looked at how this kernel (which runs on systems without a memory management unit) works. Modern uClinux supports a vast number of architectures, and will run on systems with as little as 1MB of memory (though "you can't do much" on such a system). There's a few little things missing, of course: virtual memory support, the fork() system call (vfork() works), no dynamic stacks, no sbrk(), etc. And, of course, nothing protects the system and applications from each other. Even so, making applications work on uClinux is usually not a particularly big deal. Future plans for uClinux include supporting more hardware, adding to the list of ported applications, and integration with the RTAI real-time system.

Running device drivers in user mode was discussed by Peter Chubb. This topic will get a more detailed treatment on this week's Kernel Page.

Your editor has come to the conclusion that Jon 'maddog' Hall serves as a mutual exclusion mechanism for Linux conferences. Since he, inevitably, shows up at every Linux event, his scheduling constraints serve to keep multiple conferences from happening at the same time. In Adelaide, he discussed the differing expectations of developers, users, and managers. Among other things, he predicted that 2004 will be the year when the Linux desktop truly begins to take over. Maddog's talks are invariably fun to hear.

Greg Lehey discussed his Vinum volume manager. Vinum runs on FreeBSD and NetBSD, but a Linux port is in the works. It provides many of the usual features: disk concatenation and striping, along with implementations of the various RAID levels. Among other things, Vinum was intended to be easy to configure via a relatively straightforward text file. As Greg noted, however, "pilot errors" remain possible.

Bdale Garbee gave a wide-ranging talk covering a number of topics. The core of the discussion, however, had to do with truly large-scale Linux deployments, such as those which have happened in Extremadura (Spain), and in Brazil. He notes that Linux has become an obvious first choice for publicly-sponsored computing initiatives in many parts of the world - especially the less rich areas. Use of Linux allows greater control, doesn't require sending large amounts of hard currency to the United States, and can help in the creation of local information technology expertise. Bdale also noted, with visible pleasure, that the Debian distribution (or a derivative thereof) tends to be chosen for this sort of project. He sees Debian as embodying many of the free software community's core concepts and being appealing for its essential openness.

Havoc Pennington touched on some similar concepts with his "state of the Linux desktop" keynote. He repeatedly pointed out that, to achieve true success on the desktop, the free software community must focus on what it does best, rather than trying to imitate current proprietary offerings. For example, since any interested party can add to free software and influence its development, the very best translation and accessibility support tend to be found in free systems. Many languages and user communities are too small to be worth supporting for a proprietary software company, but the users themselves don't care about that. Then, there are projects like Dashboard and GNOME Storage (among many others) which show that anybody can pursue interesting ideas; if others like the results, those ideas will be enhanced by others and eventually incorporated. For this reason, it is important that the Linux desktop remains 100% free software; as soon as proprietary components start to appear, the advantages of free software are lost.

His call to go beyond imitation notwithstanding, Havoc is clearly very focused on where Microsoft is headed, especially with the forthcoming "Longhorn" release. He says that the delays in Longhorn give Linux a window of opportunity to step in (especially since moving to Longhorn looks like it will be no easier than switching to Linux), but we have to be aware of the sort of features Longhorn will offer and have something which will be a competitive alternative.

Jeff Waugh gave a high-energy talk on the GNOME project. His focus was on the decentralized nature of the project, the increasing number of developers, and the tightly-run six-month release schedule. He talked of some trends in GNOME development (the new "evolution data server" which will provide contact and calendar information; embracing of standards and code coming out of; the commitment to ABI stability across GNOME 2.x, etc.) but it seems that nobody really knows what future GNOME releases will bring. The one sure thing, according to Jeff, is "we will rock you."

Beyond the talks, this conference included a well-developed "partners program" for the families of attendees, dinner events put on by IBM and Oracle, and the now-famous dunk tank. The break area lacked coffee (by American standards, anyway) but made up for it in free ice cream. The venue was beautiful; Elder Hall with its woodwork and pipe organ is far superior to the typical conference ballroom. And the whole event was suffused by an Australian sense of humor and fun.

Also worthy of note was the "Miniconf" program which ran for two days before the main event (and which, unfortunately, your editor was unable to attend). The Linux and Open Source in Government miniconf, in particular, seems to have brought out many themes which resonated through the rest of the event.

In summary; Linux.Conf.Au was a great success. It was, as intended, a seriously fun gathering with much talk about the technology and no marketing. Let it never be said that volunteers cannot bring off a complex event of this type. Linux.Conf.Au is more volunteer-driven than most; it is run by a different committee in a different city every year. Despite the talk of heroic, last-minute, all-nighters put on by the conference staff, the attendee experience was smooth and seamless. Linux.Conf.Au came off better than many events run by "professionals." Great congratulations are due to the dedicated group of people who pulled this off.

LWN would like to thank HP one last time for making our presence at Linux.Conf.Au possible.

Copyright 2004