The 2009 linux.conf.au was held in Hobart, on the island of Tasmania. The
setting for LCA - typically on a university campus - is always nice, but it
is hard to imagine a more beautiful place to meet than Hobart. As an added
bonus, the mild temperatures offered a nice complement to both (1) the
brutally high temperatures being felt on the Australian mainland, and
(2) the rather severe winter conditions awaiting your editor on his
return. A number of talks from LCA 2009 have been covered in separate
articles; here your editor will summarize a few other things worth mentioning.
Prior to the event, your editor heard a few people express disappointment
over the choice of keynote speakers this time around. As it happens, at
least some of that disappointment was premature. It is true that things got off to a bit
of a slow start on the first day, when Thomas Limoncelli delivered a
hand-waving talk about "scarcity and abundance." Thomas is a good and
entertaining speaker, but he seemed to think that he was addressing a
gathering of system administrators, so his talk missed the mark.
Unfortunately, your editor got waylaid and missed Angela Beesley's keynote
on the second day.
The speaker for the final day was Sun's Simon Phipps. Your editor entered
this talk with low expectations, but was pleasantly surprised. Simon is an
engaging speaker, and he would appear to understand our community well. As
might be expected, he glossed over some of Sun's more difficult community
interactions, choosing instead to focus on more positive things and the
interaction between the community and companies in general.
Simon's thesis is that we're heading into a "third wave" of free software.
The first wave started, perhaps, before Richard Stallman wrote the GNU
Manifesto; Simon notes that IBM's unbundling of the software for its
nascent PC offering (in response to antitrust problems) played a huge role
in defining the software market of the 1980's. But the Free Software
Foundation brought a lot of things into focus and started the ball rolling
for real. The second wave came about roughly with the founding of the
Apache Software Foundation; that was when the world came to understand that
free software developers can produce high-quality code. He gave Ubuntu as
an example, and noted that even the Gartner Group has come to see some
value in free software.
The third wave is coming as businesses really figure out how to work with
free software. In his point of view, the right way is to do everything to
drive adoption of the software; again, Canonical was held up as an example
of how to do it right. One should only sell licenses, he says, to
businesses who haven't figured out the true value of free software. Why,
he asks, should a company which understands things buy RHEL or SLES
licenses? (It's worth noting that a Red Hat representative took issue with
that comment, not without reason).
"Third wave" businesses should work with something like a subscription
model, selling support services as needed. Things like defect resolution,
preferably done by people who have commit privileges with the project
involved. Businesses can make upgrades easier, provide production support
tools, or, if really needed, sell indemnity guarantees.
Some concerns were raised, the first of which was licenses. While noting
wryly that his company "has done lots of experimentation" with software
licenses, Simon identified license proliferation as a big problem. In the
future, he thinks, the problems associated with proliferation will tend to
drive projects toward a single license - most likely the GPL.
Another problem is, of course, software patents. Simon says we shouldn't
worry too much about patent trolls, though; there is not much we can do
about them in any case. A much bigger concern is companies (unnamed) which
are working as members of the community but which are, simultaneously,
filing a stream of "parallel patents" covering the work they do. Should
one of these companies turn against the community, it could create all
kinds of problems. For this reason, Simon is a big fan of licenses like
GPLv3 or the Apache license which include patent covenants. Every company
which engages the community under the terms of such a license gives up some
of its patent weaponry in the process. The more companies we can bring
into this sort of "patent peace," the better off we will be.
Even so, he says, the day may come when the community needs a strong patron
to defend it against a determined patent attack.
Simon then asked the audience to consider what it is that makes a company a
true friend of free software. Is it just a matter of strapping on a
penguin beak, as the Tasmanian devil has done to become the LCA2009 mascot?
The real measure of friendship is contributions to the community; Sun, he
pointed out, has done a lot in that regard. In closing, Simon's message to
"third wave" businesses was to keep freedom in mind. There is a place, he
says, for both pragmatism and radical idealism. The biggest enemy of
freedom is a happy slave; he held up his Apple notebook as an example.
In response to questions, Simon noted that the license problems with the
sunrpc code will hopefully be fixed soon. The problem is that this code is 25
years old and there's nobody around who worked on it at the time, so
determining its origins is hard. He also said that "pressure is mounting"
to release the ZFS filesystem under a GPL-compatible license. And he
suggested that, eventually, Red Hat will have to start selling support
services for Fedora, since that is the distribution that people are
Freedom was also at the top of the agenda during Rob Savoye's talk. He
discussed the launch of the Open Media
Now! Foundation, which has been formed to address the problem of codec
patents head-on. As Rob puts it, we all create content, we should be able
to give copies of our own content to anyone. In addition, the data we
create never goes away, but our ability to read that data just might.
Plus, he's simply fed up with hearing complaints that gnash does not work
with YouTube videos; it works just fine, but they cannot distribute gnash
with the requisite codecs.
To deal with this problem, the Foundation is starting a determined effort
to gather prior art which can apply to existing codec patents. With any
luck, some of the worst of them can be invalidated. But just as much
effort is going into figuring out ways to work around codec patents. Most
patents are tightly written; it's often possible to find a way to code an
algorithm which falls outside of a given patent's claims. When a proper
workaround is found (and determining "proper" is a job for a lawyer), the
relevant patent can thereafter be ignored. It is a far easier, more
certain, and more cost-effective way of dealing with software patents, so
Rob thinks the community should be putting much more effort into finding
workarounds. He hopes that people will join up with Open Media Now and
help to make that happen.
Matthew Wilcox managed to fill a room with a standing-room-only crowd (and
not much standing room, at that) despite being scheduled at the same time
as Andrew Tridgell. His topic - solid-state drives - is clearly
interesting to a lot of people. Matthew discussed some of the issues with
these drives, many of which have been covered here in the past. Those
problems are being slowly resolved by the manufacturers, but there is a
different class of problems which is now coming to the fore. There are
certain kinds of kernel overhead which one doesn't notice when an I/O
operation takes milliseconds to complete. When that operation completes in
microseconds, though, that kernel overhead can become a bottleneck. So he
has been working on finding these problems and fixing them, but it is going
to take a while. He made the interesting observation that, at SSD speeds,
block I/O starts to look more like network traffic, and the kernel needs to
adopt some of the same techniques to be able to keep up with the hardware.
The Penguin Dinner auction was back this year, after having been dropped
from the schedule in 2008. The auction is always an interesting event,
often involving people deciding to spend a few thousand dollars on a
T-shirt after having consumed enough alcohol to make any such decision
especially unwise. This year's auction beneficiary was the Save The Tasmanian Devil
organization, which came away from the event somewhat richer than it
had hoped. After a long series of bids, matching offers, and simple
passing-the-hat in the crowd, a large consortium of bidders managed to get
a total of nearly AU$40,000 pledged to this cause. There was one
condition, though: Bdale Garbee not only had to lose his beard, but it had
to be done at the hands of Linus Torvalds.
The "free as in beard" event happened on the last day of the conference.
As was noted in the live Twitter feed being projected in the room, it was
most surreal to sit in a room of 500 people all quietly watching a man
shave. Bdale's wife, who took the picture which was nominally the object
being auctioned, has made it clear that he will not be allowed to attend
LCA unaccompanied again.
In 2010, linux.conf.au will, for the second time ever, not be held in
Australia. The winning bid for next year came from Wellington, New
Zealand - a setting which rivals Hobart in beauty. Mark your calendars for
January 18 to 23; it should be a good time.
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