LinuxCon: the Good, the Bad, and the Nerdy

Wednesday Sep 30th 2009 by Charlie Schluting

LinuxCon 2009 represented the Linux Foundation's first big-tent technical conference. Did it deliver on its promise to innovate, or will OSCON remain at the top of the open source conference heap?

I am now officially happy to be a Portlander. O'Reilly's OSCON left the great city for the San Francisco Bay area, and we gained two new conferences in its wake: Open Source Bridge and LinuxCon; almost. LinuxCon is not a mainstay, but at least the first gathering was located in Portland.

About LinuxCon

LinuxCon's focus is technical, designed to provide a collaboration and education space for everything Linux. The Linux Foundation organizes many summits and small conferences, but LinuxCon is its first large multi-topic conference.

LinuxCon was co-located with other conferences, which is both a blessing and a curse. The Linux Plumbers Conference started on a Wednesday and thus had a day of overlap with LinuxCon. Many attendees wished to partake in both, but had to choose which sessions to attend. LDAPCon, Novell SUSE Workshop, and others were also held during the week. These co-located conferences may have artificially boosted the reported number of attendees at LinuxCon (500+), as people might not have traveled for just LinuxCon. It certainly was, however, a great way to start a new conference.

The Linux Foundation mentioned the undesirable overlap in the closing remarks after Linus Torvalds' Git tutorial at the Linux Plumbers Conference, stating it would ensure LinuxCon and Linux Plumbers Conference would not overlap again.

Session Focus

The Linux Foundation has a clear and simple mission: "to fuel the growth of the Linux platform." While LinuxCon did contain many highly technical topics, the standard "spread Linux" fanfare also permeated the atmosphere.

Likewise, "Linux on the Desktop" was, as always, a frequent topic. These days people seem to joke about it more than seriously promote it or work toward it. Theodore Tso cracked, "I believe next year is the year of the Linux desktop, because the next year is always the year of the Linux desktop!"

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth gave the closing keynote and harped on developers for writing 20 percent of an application, verifying that other Linux geeks can figure out how to use it, and then calling it good. [Editor's note: To some controversy.] This largely summarizes the plight of the Linux world. Shiny things. Too often developers work on what interests them, and then move on instead of fixing what horror they (or others) have dumped upon the world. Case in point: how many Linux sound subsystems do we have?

LinuxCon sessions were tagged as either Business, Developer, or Operations. The business track contained such topics as cloud computing, open source legal compliance, and the cost of using open source. The developer track was speakers promoting a new idea or piece of software they wrote, or a technical journey through an interesting problem and likely resolution. The operations track was sysadmin-oriented, focusing on configuration management, server security, and of course virtualization.


For a "technical conference," the keynote talks were certainly lacking on the technical. These are supposed to be entertaining, but of the ten people I surveyed, all of them mentioned that most of the keynotes were boring and lacking real content.

Another common topic of discussion was, "What about OSCON?" Are people going to attend both? LinuxCon is certainly broadly focused enough to demonstrate some overlap, but one simple fact remains: LinuxCon had Linus Torvalds. He spoke and he hung out in the halls, and if anything, O'Reilly should be worried about the viability of OSCON. If an attendee must choose only one, the winner would be clear.

As may have been inferred from the matter-of-fact comparison between LinuxCon and OSCON above, yes, most LinuxCon was a high a quality venue as one could expect. This is both good and bad. It was high quality, but somehow, seemed almost identical to OSCON, excluding the exceedingly good speaking talent LinuxCon acquired.

One thing, however, stood out. LinuxCon refused to call its exhibit hall an "exhibit hall" or "vendor booth room." No, it was to be referred to as the Technology Showcase. From the conference Web site:

"LinuxCon Attendees: We promise that we will not waste your time with an extensive and unnecessary exhibit hall that shows you nothing new. Instead, we have asked a limited number of companies to showcase an innovate [sic] product or technology they think you might be interested in seeing."

At least The Linux Foundation tried. In reality, it looked like every other exhibit hall at every other conference I've attended. Frankly, most exhibitors (I was one, at LinuxCon in fact) would not show up without something new and engaging to brag about. The sponsor and exhibitor presence at LinuxCon felt the same as any other conference.

When all was said and done, I believe most people walked away from LinuxCon feeling it was a success. And indeed, it was. It just wasn't unique enough. There were more than an average number of interesting talks, but it was all very familiar.

A conference could, for example, still retain the top-notch speaking talent, but at the same time do something fundamentally different. That sounds like a recipe for history making. A mixture of LinuxCon and Open Source Bridge just might change the way these "technical" conferences are organized.

When he's not writing for Enterprise Networking Planet or riding his motorcycle, Charlie Schluting works as the VP of Strategic Alliances at the US Division of LINBIT, the creators of DRBD. He also operates, and recently finished Network Ninja, a must-read for every network engineer.

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