Linux.conf.au has long been one of your editor's favorite events anywhere
in the world. It typically features one of the most diverse and
interesting programs and is hosted in a different city every year. And the
whole thing is fueled by that classic Australian energy and humor — even when
it is held in New Zealand. With well over a decade of history, LCA seems
like a solid and well established event. So it was a surprise to run
across a discussion suggesting that there might be no LCA in 2014. LCA, it
seems, has found itself needing to rethink how the conference is organized
Linux Australia council member James Polley started the discussion with a post on the
current status of LCA 2014:
Back in April, we announced the call for bids from parties
interested in hosting LCA 2014. According to the timeline posted
then, we should now be in the final stages of meeting with bid
teams and visiting the proposed venues, ready to make a decision in
the next few weeks.
This task turns out to be trivially simple, because to date we have
not received any bids. Several teams and individuals have expressed
an interest, but the number of bids received is zero.
James noted that LCA was once the only major community conference in
Australia; now, instead, there are several. Perhaps, he surmised, there is
no longer a need for LCA? Or, perhaps, it is time to move from volunteer
organizers to a professionally-managed event? Or, perhaps, it's time to
take a break and see if any interest develops for 2015?
Participants in the discussion raised a lot of concerns that the conference
has simply gotten too big and complex. Potential organizers, they say, are
being put off by the sheer time commitment required. Some past organizers
(such as Russell Stuart, Brisbane 2011)
disagreed, saying that the actual time
required is not as much as it seems. But there is no denying the fact that
LCA organizers tend to look awfully tired and haggard even at the beginning
of the event and thoroughly fried by the end. Putting together a
conference like LCA is a lot of work.
So it is natural to think about ways to reduce that work. Perhaps LCA
should go back to being a smaller event? There were proposals to reduce
the number of talk tracks, eliminate various social events, and even to
drop the 1-2 days of miniconfs that precede the conference itself. LCA did
not originally include miniconfs; they were first added by the Brisbane
team in 2002. But the miniconfs have since become an integral part of the
conference. Their contents are not under the control of the program
committee, with the result that the areas covered — and the quality — vary
widely. But the best miniconf talks tend to be quite good indeed, and the
miniconfs serve as an important entry path for speakers trying to get into
LCA proper. It would be a shame to lose them.
Another idea that came up was to settle down and have the conference in the
same city every year. That, in your editor's opinion, would risk repeating
the story of the Ottawa Linux Symposium. There is a long list of reasons
for that once-dominant conference's decline, but one of them was certainly
the organizers' unwillingness to move the event to new locations. Even a
city as nice as Ottawa gets a little tiresome after several years in a
row. A new location every year helps to keep LCA fresh and interesting.
The volunteer organizer model also helps in this regard. LCA has managed
to evolve a mechanism where each year's team is given a great deal of
freedom in how it runs the conference. Behind the scenes, though, a
"ghosts" committee (made up of prior organizers) oversees the effort,
provides advice, and sounds the alarm when it sees something in danger of
going wrong. The end result has been a conference that is, in some ways,
new every year, but which still runs like a smoothly oiled machine.
A shift to a professionally-organized event might take some strain off the
volunteer organizers but it would have to be done carefully
if it were not to kill the magic that has made LCA such a good event for so
many years. That would not be impossible to do; the Linux Plumbers
Conference has thrived with a great deal of organizational help from the
Linux Foundation. Such a setup requires professionals that are willing to
defer to the "amateurs" for most of the important decisions; it can be
done, but it's not something that happens by itself.
Donna Benjamin (Melbourne 2008) thinks
that workload issues could be addressed, perhaps with the help of
professional organizers and a team that is distributed across the country.
But, she says, there is another, more difficult problem: the fact that the
organizing team must sign up for a lot of criticism from the community.
If no one wants to run it because it's just too much work, the
workload can be addressed. But if no one wants to run it because
they don't want to sign up for the toxic bikeshedding - that's a
very different problem.
This sentiment was echoed by a number of other participants in the
discussion. In our community, it seems, no good deed goes unpunished; even
an event as well run as LCA is going to draw its share of complainers.
When a difficult job starts to appear thankless as well, the number of
volunteers is certain to decrease. But potential organizers should also
heed the words of Andrew Ruthven
The *most* important thing for any potential team to consider is
that running LCA is AWESOME. I'm going to repeat that, IT IS
AWESOME. What's more, we would do it again.
Finally, one could also argue that most conferences have a limited
lifetime. Linux Expo and LinuxWorld are long gone. Even the
much-respected Linux-Kongress, arguably the first Linux conference, was
last held in 2010. LCA, having started as the Conference of Australian
Linux Users in 1999, has certainly had a long run. Perhaps LCA, too, is
reaching the end of its life span?
Your editor does not believe that to be the case. We are not witnessing a
conference heading into senescence; instead, it is a middle-age crisis at
worst. There is too much that is valuable and unique worldwide in LCA, and
the people who attend the conference every year clearly appreciate it. LCA
can be seen as a sort of free software project that, after years of
success, needs to reevaluate its processes and governance. Once that task
is done, LCA is likely to be stronger and more vital than ever.
For 2014, the deadline for bids has been extended for a few weeks, so there
is still a chance for interested groups to sign up for a chance to host the
event. There is talk of putting together a distributed team that, most
likely, would propose to return LCA to Sydney. One expects that somebody
will step up to the plate and make the event happen; who knows, perhaps 2014
will be the year that LCA finally is held in Broome.
Comments (11 posted)
You may run free software, but electricity still isn't free. Until it is, monitoring and minimizing power consumption is a necessary evil. Intel released version 2.1 of its power-consumption utility PowerTOP on August 15. PowerTOP has been around since 2007, but the 2.0 release from May 2012 heralded a major rewrite of the code and a shift for the project itself. 2.1 builds on the new design, adding a handful of new features, but if it has been a while since you examined PowerTOP, you may be surprised at how much it has grown.
The new and improved
As the name suggests, PowerTOP monitors system power consumption and reports its statistics to you in a top-like summary. It also makes suggestions for system tweaks that could improve the power usage profile of your system, including everything from peripheral device options down to processor performance states and scheduler settings. In PowerTOP's early days, most of these recommendations were tweaks that the user or system administrator would need to manually apply. Over time, however, the various Linux distributions began to use PowerTOP as a profiling tool to automatically track down optimal settings, which would become the out-of-the-box defaults. This shift in usage patterns was one of the reasons maintainer Arjan van de Ven cited for the rewrite that became 2.0.
Two other factors Van de Ven cited were the unstructured way in which more and more features had been bolted on to the code base, and that PowerTOP is increasingly used as a diagnostic tool to track down specific power consumption problems — such as an errant application or driver — rather than profiling an entire system. As a result, the 2.0 rewrite refactors the code with an eye toward making subsequent extensions easier to add, and it provides a report-generation facility that can output CSV or HTML diagnostic reports suitable for later study.
The 2.x series also utilizes the kernel's perf events subsystem to gather processor-related data, which leads to more accurate numbers. The project has been steadily adding support for additional power-management features in hardware; the supported list includes CPUs, GPUs, storage devices, and an extensive collection of peripherals (network controllers, audio chips, USB adapters, and so on). The 2.1 release itself adds support for monitoring processor cores without performance states (a.k.a. P-states, which correspond to different clock frequencies). This is primarily useful for GPUs, which do have power states (or C-states, which allow the system to put the processor to sleep in stages), allowing inactive cores to be powered-down, but do not have the frequency scaling features now common in CPUs.
In addition to the technical changes, the 2.x series saw the project move away from its original home at lesswatts.org and into Intel's new open source project warehouse at 01.org. The new site hosts news updates, downloads, and a new mailing list. Unfortunately this change meant cutting off the site from several years' worth of mailing list archives and existing online documentation at the old site — although for the time being lesswatts.org remains online. In other changes, the source code is now hosted at GitHub, and the project is using Transifex for UI string translation. The 2.1 announcement advertises nine languages at present, which is not many in the grand scheme of things, but signals an improvement. Compiling PowerTOP is a simple affair; it uses autotools and has few dependencies. The main issue to consider is the kernel version of the machine you wish to profile: 2.6.36 is required for perf support, and newer kernels add additional measurement tools.
PowerTOP has two major operating modes: interactive monitoring and report generation. Running powertop (as root) launches the interactive mode, which provides a five-tab ncurses monitor. The overview tab sports a summary line displaying the current number of wakeups-per-second, GPU operations-per-second, virtual filesystem (VFS) operations-per-second, and CPU activity. Beneath this line is a list of power-consumption events of various types (for example, network activity, active processes, and interrupts). CPU information is split into two tabs: Idle Stats and Frequency Stats. The former shows C-state information as an activity percentage for the processor package and for each core; the latter reports the same information labeled with the actual clock frequencies rather than the C-state level.
The fourth tab, Device Stats, contains power usage information from the other hardware devices on the system: the battery (where applicable), screen, GPU(s), networking hardware, and everything else. For laptops, PowerTOP reports the battery's discharge rate, and estimates the discharge rate of the other components. For an accurate report, however, you should first run the calibration routine with powertop --calibrate. This will cycle through the hardware options (e.g., the supported backlight levels) and log the power consumption characteristics. PowerTOP supports even more accurate measurement with a USB-attached power analyzer tool from Extech, although considering the four-digit suggested retail price of said instruments, you would need to tweak quite a few machines to recoup the investment in electricity bills.
The fifth tab, Tunables, lists system settings that can affect power consumption performance. Highlighting an individual entry allows you to toggle the setting on or off with the Return key, so that you can quickly assess its impact. Most of the controls are sysfs parameters (such as SATA link power management or USB device auto-suspend), but others involve separate interfaces (such as wake-on-LAN status for Ethernet adapters). The tab sorts the list into "Good" and "Bad" states, with the Bad listed first, so you can quickly work your way through the list and see if you notice a difference.
PowerTOP's other mode is report generation, which you can invoke by running either sudo powertop --html or sudo powertop --csv. The CSV output is essentially the same information as that presented in the first four tabs of the interactive mode, with header information demarked by asterisks. The "Tunables" information is listed as well, but the commands required to alter each setting are not supplied. The HTML output presents the same information in a nicely CSS-styled HTML file, complete with element classes on each table cell that might allow further customization or processing.
A bit more interesting, however, is the HTML output's Tuning tab, which includes the command necessary to change each "Bad" setting — for example:
echo 'min_power' > '/sys/class/scsi_host/host0/link_power_management_policy'
This is particularly helpful for bus devices whose specific address would be hard to guess at otherwise, such as /sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:1f.2/power/control or /sys/bus/usb/devices/3-2/power/control. One of the lingering gripes many end users have about the program is that the changes they make to device settings do not persist after reboot. PowerTOP's stance is that it does not want to be in the business of writing permanent or semi-permanent changes to the system configuration — for a number of reasons, including the fact that such changes can introduce performance or even stability problems. But having the correct commands at the ready allows the user to assemble a start-up script with little hassle, whether the machine in question is an old netbook with battery trouble or an expensive server.
In addition to the broader changes discussed above, each release of PowerTOP tracks new features available in updated processor and device architectures. The latest releases, for example, have improved support for ARM power management features and for Intel graphics adapters. But even if your processor is already well-supported, the project has made impressive improvements in data collection and in presenting its findings is human-consumable terms. I last looked at PowerTOP in late 2008, so by comparison the advancement of the feature set seems dramatic. But the more important factor is that it has proven itself to be a useful diagnostic tool, and it allows even novice users to instantly apply and test power management options — which could at least de-mystify the world of power-saving, one system at a time.
Comments (24 posted)
The thicket of lawsuits surrounding the mobile industry has grown to the
point that it is hard for any individual action to stand out. If any case
has managed to make itself visible in that crowd anyway, it is the battle
between Apple and
Samsung currently being fought in the US. The first stage of that battle
has just been resolved, heavily in Apple's favor. It will be some time
before this story truly reaches its end, but some of the more interesting
implications for the industry, and for free software, can already be seen.
Let's take a moment to look briefly at the history of the industry,
because this is not Apple's first attempt to eliminate competitors with litigation. Back
in 1988, Apple sued
Microsoft for the crime of offering a system that placed icons and
overlapping windows on the screen. Apple didn't invent the graphical
display, of course, but it still asserted the right to be the only company
offering such displays in the market. At that time, the Free Software
a boycott; none of its software would be ported to A/UX and purchase of
Apple products would be discouraged. Chances are that an FSF boycott in
1989 failed to make Apple's executives reconsider their business practices
in any serious way, but it did convey a loud and clear point. The boycott
was maintained until after Apple finally lost the suit and gave up.
Apple is currently engaged in a second round of look-and-feel lawsuits; the
big difference is that, this time, they appear to be winning and there is
little response from the community. Indeed, we enthusiastically buy their
hardware and port our systems to it. Perhaps, soon, we'll have rather
This time around,
Apple accused Samsung of violating three utility patents:
(pinch-to-zoom), and 7,864,163
(tap-to-zoom on a web page). Samsung was also accused of infringing four
design patents: D504,889
(rectangular electronic device),
(ditto again), and D604,305
(iconic application directory with a dock at the bottom). The jury
concluded that Samsung had indeed violated all of those patents with the exception
of 504,889, the most tablet-like of the design patents. Apple has been
awarded a bit over $1 billion, and there will soon be discussions
regarding blocking various Samsung products from the US market. Samsung's
countersuit, which involved some patent infringement claims of its own,
lost out entirely.
Amusingly, some commentators have begun to say that this outcome is, in
fact, a significant win for Samsung. For a mere $1 billion, the
company was able to break into the smartphone market in a big way; that
looks cheap when compared to how much some other companies have spent.
Meanwhile, Apple can be said to have proved, in a court of law, that Samsung's
products are just as good as its own; maybe that will translate into more
Apple customers being
willing to check out iStuff alternatives. These ideas seem a little far
fetched, but one never knows.
Victory or not, this ruling will certainly be appealed. There are various
allegations that the jury, in a rush to protect a US company from a foreign
competitor, disregarded the instructions it had been given and did not even
consider many of Samsung's claims. But, even without the possibility of
invalidating the jury's ruling, an appeal would make sense: it will keep
the matter open long enough for most of the products involved to reach the
end of their normal commercial lives, and large monetary awards are often
reduced on appeal. So expect this story to play out for a while yet.
It's worth pointing out another reason for this story to be a long one:
this is not a USA-only fight. Apple and Samsung are fighting the same
battle in several countries around the world; one amusing result is that
products from both companies have been banned in South Korea. Samsung has
been struggling in Germany as well; other countries could well join the
list. Software patents may be mostly a problem in the US, but design
patents are much more widely recognized.
One good thing about design patents, though, is that they are usually
relatively easy to work around. Indeed, Samsung is already doing so; for
details, see The
Samsung Galaxy S III: The First Smartphone Designed Entirely By Lawyers
on the Android Police site. The device in question (The
Galaxy S III) is not quite
rectangular, uses a different rounding radius on the top and bottom
corners, is not black, etc. Only one of the workarounds requires software
changes: the dock disappears when the application directory is brought up.
Mostly trivial stuff; one may argue that giving Apple a monopoly on black
rectangles with rounded corners is unfair, but it also does not make things
that much harder for competitors.
The utility patents are another story, of course. Arguably the most
significant problem in this
particular set of patents is the concept of zooming the display with a
two-finger gesture. That gesture has become sufficiently universal that a
device lacking it will feel decidedly inferior. As numerous commentators
have noted, it is somewhat like giving one automobile manufacturer
exclusive rights to a circular steering wheel.
But the real problem is that things won't stop there. Every company
involved in this market will continue to bulk up on these patents, and they
will continue to assert them against each other. Many of these patents
will come closer to what we do in the free software community. It will
become increasingly hard for anybody to field a mobile product until
somebody, somehow, cuts through the thicket.
What is really needed is some
sort of reform of the patent regime. Perhaps this very case, should it
make it to the US Supreme Court, could play a role in that reform. Failing
that, we're left depending on politicians to fix the problem; that,
unfortunately, seems like a long shot indeed.
Comments (163 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: The perils of big data; New vulnerabilities in flash-plugin, kernel, mozilla, phpmyadmin, ...
- Kernel: 2012 Kernel Summit coverage.
- Distributions: Whither Mandriva? Part 2; FreedomBox, OpenIndiana.
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