Impressions from ALS
I just returned from the ALS in Atlanta. What began as the Atlanta Linux Showcase is now the Annual Linux Showcase. Created by the ALE (Atlanta Linux Enthusiasts) in 1997, the show is now run by Usenix. (See Resources for links to both.) Sadly for the Atlanta-area Linux community, next year's ALS will be held in Oakland, Calif.
The ALS is not the biggest or most hyped Linux show, but it is the best one I've attended. Unlike LinuxWorld Expo -- the biggest and gaudiest show -- ALS is about Linux, not the companies scrambling to make money from Linux. And because Linux is about community as much as software, the ALS is definitely a people show (albeit geeky people).
The crowd seemed almost evenly split between the exhibit hall floor and the technical presentations. As with most Linux shows, all the big names were present: VA Linux, Red Hat, SuSE, IBM, Sun, HP, and so forth. But they didn't dominate the show.
On the floor
One exhibitor caught me by surprise: AOL was there. Why? To recruit Linux talent. AOL has a deal with Gateway to put a Linux-based network appliance (running a slimmed-down version of the AOL client) on the market by the end of the year, and is looking for Linux programmers to help meet that goal. I asked a guy in the booth if a full Linux version of the AOL client would come later. He shifted his gaze, hemmed and hawed, and finally left it as a maybe. It seems to be far more difficul to correctly set up a modem via software under Linux than under Windows or Mac. And as you may know, the classic first question from AOL tech support, regardless of what your problem is, is "What is your modem init string?"
Another interesting booth belonged to Geekcorps. (See Resources for a link.) I spent a few minutes chatting with cofounder Ethan Zuckerman, who was manning the booth. Geekcorps is modeled after the Peace Corps; its mission is "expanding the Internet revolution internationally by pairing skilled volunteers from the high-tech world with small businesses in emerging nations." There are already Geekcorps volunteers working in Ghana, West Africa, for example.
Zuckerman said Geekcorps is completely OS-agnostic; it provides training in the software that best meets each customer's needs. Sometimes that is Windows -- sometimes not. For example, if a client wants to run Windows 2000, IIS, and Exchange, but doesn't have the hardware horsepower for the job, Geekcorps will suggest more efficient software from the wonderful world of open source.
I also stopped by the Borland/Inprise booth to beg for a beta copy of the Kylix RAD tool. (See Resources for a link.) The live demos looked very impressive. No RAD tool I have used on Linux approaches the ease of use that Kylix will deliver to developers. Of course, if you can't code in Pascal, it won't do you any good -- not for a while, at least. Inprise expects to release Kylix by the end of the year, and to add C/C++ to it within six months of the initial release.
I also hung out at the Debian booth long enough to meet Joey Hess, who leads the effort to redesign and rewrite the installer. I also swung by the KDE booth, where Kurt Granroth explained all of KDE2's benefits. Eric S. Raymond was signing copies of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, so I stopped to say hello and pick up a souvenir copy.
The most amazing thing I saw on the exhibit room floor (not counting the biker women, dressed in basic black and sporting tattoos, pinning small penguins on showgoers' shoulders for Pocket Penguin) was probably the transformation of the email garden (thanks, VA Linux!) into a Beowulf cluster. Honest. And it only took about 10 or 15 minutes for Scyld Computing to convert the machines on the LAN into a supercomputer. That kind of ease of use would make Grendel purr. You can get a low-cost version (without support) for as little as $1.95 through Linux Central. (See Resources for a link.) The high-priced spread comes with tech-support packages that range from $999 to $23,500, depending on the complexity of the installation.
In the sessions
I sat in on several excellent technical sessions, where I would have remained longer, were it not for a sore tailbone that forces me to get up and walk around from time to time. In every session I attended, I found geeks speaking my language, not CEOs or market droids lip-synching la buzz du jour.
Steve Best from IBM's Linux Technology Center spoke about JFS, but I skipped it because I had seen him give that talk at the Austin LUG a couple of weeks before. But I did catch most of another IBM-related session. Adam Thornton spoke on the Linux System/390 project, and even showed that certain users should consider the behemoth for their platform. EBCDIC and ASCII are like oil and water, so Thornton spent a lot of time explaining the strange and wonderful world of hard files and the S/390's enormous bandwidth to an audience much more familiar with Intel and IDE drives than IEFBR14 and channel control programs.
Ken Coar, also from Big Blue, gave an entertaining talk on Apache and the Apache Software Foundation. File this one as another dubious example of why open source will never work. After listening to Coar describe the various processes for getting something done, I was left with only one question in mind: Was anyone sober while drawing up those procedural guidelines? In spite of the seeming impossibility, Apache today accounts for more than 60 percent of the HTTP-server market share.
Urs Hölzle's presentation attracted a lot of interest in Google's use of clustering. I learned later that Hölzle was confused about the difference between page views and number of visitors, but Google's numbers are still impressive. SCSI drives? No, thanks. Google uses two IDEs per box in its configuration. Hölzle explained that that method is more cost-effective than better hardware. Interestingly, only about 50 of the approximately 4,000 Linux boxes that make up Google's search engine are busy serving HTML. The rest host the 100-million-plus Webpages indexed by Google's search engine, or actually search for new ones. When asked what Google indexed, Hölzle replied "Everything."
The last talk I attended was Larry Wall's keynote. Wall, famous for creating Perl, gave a brief history of Unix and Perl, and a fascinating discussion of other languages. Unfortunately, my tailbone was killing me by this time and I had to leave about halfway through his talk.
In the halls and after hours
The exhibit floor was interesting, the sessions great, but my favorite moments of the ALS were chance meetings and brief conversations.
It was at the now-defunct Open Source show in Austin that I met Dave Whittinger, founder of Linux Today and Linsight. Whittinger was discussing earlier Linux shows, and said his favorite was the one in Raleigh where Dr. Greg Wettstein talked about "world domination." I made a mental note of that, and a few months later (in March 2000), did a story about Wettstein.
At the ALS, I had stopped in the hall to say hello to "maddog" Hall when he started calling to someone going the opposite way. It was Wettstein. Not only did I get a chance to meet "Dr. Greg," but I got to listen to him and "maddog" reminisce about the early days of the Linux community. Later, I chatted with "maddog" again in the press room before a vendor he was meeting with arrived and swallowed him up.
ALS has a reputation for good parties; now I understand why. The double-decker bus ride to the Thursday night party at Dave and Buster's was exciting in itself, but more excitement was inside. I was nearly knocked down by a guy on his way to the free bar, and again by a geek on his way to the game room. I briefly shared a table with a college student from Singapore who hoped the game room had a Quake server. The Friday night party was a Friday the 13th and Halloween disco. I admit to being old enough to leave early, but not so early that I didn't see a lot of younger people having a great time.
I also had the good fortune to share the long cab ride to the airport with Dr. Peter Salus. Salus is many things, including chief knowledge officer of Matrix.Net, the company that produces those cool maps of the Internet. I've always been fascinated with his personal knowledge of the history of computing. If ALS were a gathering of tribes, Salus would be best described as the shaman in charge of our oral history. His tales of the beginnings of Unix, and the open source methodology that surrounded it, are fascinating. It was those chance meetings with Hall, Salus, Wettstein, and the young man from Singapore that I will most remember about my first ALS.
If I could have changed one thing, I would have postponed my departure until Sunday morning. Dr. Wettstein gave his talk (the most important talk of the show, he said) on Saturday evening. One of his current missions is to convince the Linux community of the importance of middleware and of becoming a strong player in that area. I missed the talk, but I have a copy of the proceedings. I am going to follow up with Wettstein in the next few weeks, and hopefully write a column about his views on and concerns about Linux and middleware.