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Open Source Convention summary

These are my thoughts -- not heavily edited, nor intended for publication in a "real" outlet (this is a pretty standard blog disclaimer). Heck, there's probably still lots of typos and grammar mistakes -- I read it once after I wrote it and made a bunch of changes, but I'm sure it's not perfect, nor would I expect them to hold up to rigorous scrunity. But they're a summary of my thoughts, and perhaps you'll enjoy them, and/or have something to think about after reading them.

The conference was in San Diego, a city to which I've never been before. The airport is actually in the city -- it's weird to fly lower than some of the buildings while coming in for a landing. The meetings and whatnot were spread across the two buildings of the Sheraton right near the airport. Walking between the two buildings was a nice five minute walk along a marina. Great weather provided some nice scenery between sessions/meetings.

There's great wireless connectivity in just about all the sessions. All the keynotes and breakout meetings had good wireless coverage -- even walking between rooms worked nicely. It's been really handy to have internet connectivity during some of the talks. Indeed, I transcribed most of the open source debate w/ MS's Craig Mundie and immediately mailed it off to a few friends and internal mailing lists when it was done. I even managed to stay not too behind on my e-mail -- lots of LAM mail that I didn't even get to this week (including some from Brian; oops :-\ ), but I did manage to handle a bunch of other stuff.

I have to admit that I found this conference more interesting than I thought I would -- I've actually gotten something out of this conference other than "open source is great, we should all use it." If nothing else, it was refreshing to see the enthusiasm of all the young (and not so young!) coding punks out there, and talk with them about what they were doing. It was also good to see that there are some smart, Important People wondering about the future of open source, and how to keep it alive.

That being said, there was also a bunch of the predictable "Microsoft should die" kinds of things, as well as "all patents are bad; they should be abolished" and "all software should be free". While I personally have nothing against these kinds of zealots, and, indeed, I may not totally believe their positions (and sometimes not believe them at all), I do understand where they are coming from and am at least somewhat sympathetic to them.

However, (IMHO) such zealots tend to ignore certain realities in their ideological zest. Someone recently said, "Some things just are. The speed of light for example, while I personally think it is too slow, is unchangeable." Ok, so there are few things that are as totally unchangeable as the speed of light. An example: getting congress to abolish patents is effectively trying to change the speed of light; there's no money in the open source movement to do so --
more importantly, there's too much money in the opposition that supports patents such that congress would laugh at the very idea of abolishing patents. Heck, they wouldn't even laugh, they'd totally ignore the prospect. It's an impossible task.

I am not such a pessimist that I believe this for all aspects of things that I personally believe to be undesirable, but I do certainly believe that one needs to pick and choose their battles. Abolishing patents is not a battle that we should pick (nor do I really believe in that one -- I'm just continuing my above example).

Does this make me a cynic? I prefer the term "realist".

I do believe that there is much that we can do. I believe that the work that we do (writing free software) is important, and that we can accomplish some really Great Stuff and help people in the mean time. Especially as an academic, we can produce Quality free software through the open source paradigm and still get funded (as is all-important in academia) while still in the university spirit of open intellectual research. We do what we do because a) we believe in it, and b) we enjoy it. That isn't going to change for the foreseeable future.

I arrived here Tuesday night. I registered at the conference and went to the Sun Grid Engine BOF (birds of a feather session --
typically an informal meeting to discuss a given topic). It was pretty much an ad for Sun's product, so I left and went to the CVS BOF. I specifically went to that BOF because we use CVS every day, it's a great tool. That being said, it sucks. There are some well-known problems with CVS that can be really annoying. CVS is kind of a "best of the worst" that is sometimes a common label among free software. :-)

My purpose in going to the CVS BOF was that I wanted to see what the future of CVS was going to be. Indeed, Brian Behlendorf from Collab.net was there, as well as Derek ?Atkins? (the current man-in-charge of CVS, so to speak). My take from the BOF was that CVS is loosely supported by Collab.net and Derek, and there are a few new features that are planned / halfway written. Over time, these features will be added to the mainline CVS distribution. However, they really want others to help contribute to CVS; they're not spending huge amounts of money and/or time on developing CVS. A bunch of the Bad Things that we don't like about CVS won't really be fixed, both for the reason cited above (Collab.net not spending a lot of time/money on it) and because CVS is somewhat architecturally limited such that fixing them would entail a complete rewrite.

Loosely speaking, the future of CVS is SubVersion (I didn't previously realize that the SubVersion people were the same as the CVS people). SubVersion will basically do everything that CVS does and fix all the known Bad Things about CVS by starting over from scratch. Apparently, SubVersion will soon hit a milestone where they start using SubVersion for their own version control -- this should happen by the end of the year. At that point, SV will be usable, but probably not very feature-rich, and not have any GUIs, etc. They expect to have a full, feature-rich SV in about 2 years.

Should be interesting. I probably won't play around with SV now, but maybe in a few months, when it gets comfortably past the "usable" stage.

Then I met Rich for dinner. It was great; I hadn't seen Rich in probably at least a year. We went to an Irish pub, had a feast of food, and talked about All Things Geek. Then we went to a Hookah Bar where we ran into two of Rich's friends. Rich rented a water pipe with some apple-flavored tobacco. It was interesting. I can now say that I have smoked a water pipe -- check that off my "life experiences" list. :-)

The next morning, I went to the two keynotes. The first was from Fred Baker, entitled "Will the Next Internet Generation Still Depend on Open Source?" It was somewhat doomy and gloomy, full of caution and worry. While I did not agree with all of his points, he did make some very good ones (that others in the audience certainly did not agree with). A good example can be summarized as, "When will my mother use Linux?" This is very true. Sun's usability report on Gnome that was published a week or two ago showed that even though things like Linux are pointy and clicky, they are still heavily geared towards geeks and not the general public. This is a problem. It certainly can be fixed, but it needs to be recognized first -- the open source movement has to "grow up" and recognize that things are what they are, and to get widespread adoption, we have to cater to the public, not the other way around. Very true. Another example that he cited is that customers want software that is stable. Features are great, but stability is necessary if you want to use software with a business. This is something that I think open source programmers are starting to realize ("stable" and "unstable" trees are becoming more common).

The next keynote speaker was much more fun -- he was W. Philip Moore from Morgan, Stan, Dean, Witter, and gave a speech entitled "An Open Source Success Story on Wall Street". He is a programmer for MSDW, and uses open source products all the time. His main point was that OS is great, and Big Companies like MSDW love OS. They even fund OS projects. An example (that I'm forgetting some of the details on) is that they needed some extra features in MySQL for their particular. So they paid MySQL a few hundred thousand dollars to do it. MySQL and the MySQL community wins, and MSDW wins (a few hundred thousand dollars is chump change to MSDW). Yay for everyone! :-)

Another of his points was that vendor support can suck. Just because you're paying someone support contracts doesn't mean that the support that you'll get is any good. Managers think that paying for support gives them a warm fuzzy fallback when things go wrong, but the reality of the situation is that this is not always so. The OS communities (in his experience) tend to give better support, and fix bugs faster than vendors. He was extremely happy with Perl and the Perl community over the years. Indeed, MSDW now uses large numbers of Perl scripts to run their enterprise.

So these were refreshing words to hear. And it brought to light a previously unknown open source champion -- the major corporations who don't necessary write open source software, but use open source software. Perhaps these companies may be able to be persuaded to take up the banner, so to speak. If open source helps their bottom line, what would happen if it all went away? (this is a much longer conversation, but it's an interesting proposition)

After that, I went to the O'Reilly Summit on Open Source Strategies (a track within the overall conference). Tim O'Reilly himself spoke, as well as some other well-known folks. It was fairly predictable stuff, though. The big question was how to make money off open source and/or free software. Selling support has frequently shown to be not enough (although not in all cases). Companies like RedHat are frequently held up as if to say, "See? Open Source and free software can make money!". When actually such companies are (at least today) more the exception than the norm.

Making money off open source / free software is a problematic issue. Starting from scratch with a new product that is both open source and free is a difficult position to make money. The ones who are making money, for the most part, were either established companies before they went open source (IBM, Sun, HP, etc.), or were deeply established products before they went corporate (Berkeley DB, Sendmail, etc.).

I don't know the answer to these kinds of questions; no one does yet.

I met some guys from the University of Arkansas at lunch; a sysadmin/instructor and two of his students. They were fun to talk to. After lunch, we all went to a talk from Dave from Microsoft about some of the infrastructure of .net and C#. Specifically, it was about CIL and CLI -- the meta language and run time environment for that meta language (I forget which is which) that will comprise the backbone of some of the .net stuff. It was actually fairly interesting; I think Jeremy/Todd/Ron/Jeremiah would have enjoyed the talk because it was about language design and compilers and the like. I got the impression that Dave was a manager, but still very much an engineer and coder, so he spoke the same language as most of the audience.

As with all things MS, it sounded great. It's totally vaporware at the moment (and potentially quite monopolistic), so I reserve judgment. But the technical side of it sounded pretty cool. Whether MS actually delivers or not is a different question. And more importantly, what is left out of what MS deliver? What were they not telling us? What's the catch? Historically, I have come to not trust Microsoft. It sounds great, but I'm not a believer. We'll see how it plays out.

After that was a talk from Miguel from Gnome about their implementation of the CIL/CLI/.net stuff -- Mono. He has a heavy accent (he's from South America... Brazil, IIRC?), and talks very fast. He's a funny guy, though, and pretty smart. His take on this stuff was that he thought it was very exciting, cool stuff. Their reason for doing it in Gnome is not to be compatible with MS (although that's a nice, desirable side effect) -- they're doing it because it actually provides them with good infrastructure for advancing Gnome. It gives cross platform, cross language connectivity, and a reliable and modular approach to the software engineering of a complex system.

Both talks were fairly interesting. It'll be interesting to see what Mono is not allowed to do -- I find it hard to believe that MS will allow them to be first class citizens in .net. We'll see how it plays out.

I went to the beginning of "The Challenge of Privacy and Security" back in the Summit part of the conference. I think the best quote was from a Ph.D. who is the head of a privacy watchdog, that went something along the lines of (ok, I'm totally paraphrasing. Cope), "However bad you thought it was in terms of privacy on the internet, it's actually 100 times worse."

She told horror stories of how companies are gathering and cross referencing enormous amounts of statistical data on web surfers, 99%
of it without the knowledge or consent of the user. Such information gathering is typically not done out of malice or a desire to control users, but to help their marketing -- companies don't think that they are doing anything wrong.

Another assertion that I have privately believed for a while is that initiatives like TrustE have failed. There have been well-documented cases of companies that were certified by TrustE (or one of the other companies like TrustE) who then reversed their position and started (for example) disseminating private information that they had collected on their users. The long and the short of it is that paying for a seal of approval is just that -- it doesn't necessarily mean that you conform to the guidelines of what is implied by that seal of approval.

Then I left and went to a talk from LLNL entitled "Steering Massively Parallel Simulations under Python". I went specifically because these are the guys who who pyMPI -- Python bindings for MPI. I talked to Pat, the main author for a little while afterwards. Their main purpose for doing it was to do rapid prototyping -- they could hack something up in python and play with various algorithms before handing it off to a computer scientist to code up in C for real production runs, etc. He said that coding up in python was much quicker for them than coding up in C, and so the net time saved was actually very large. Interesting perspective.

We also chatted about using pyMPI with LAM (it does compile and work with LAM, of course). He said that pyMPI was initially developed using MPICH, but then as more people wanted to use it, they added LAM to the "supported" list as well, and it was a good portability lesson for them. MPICH makes different assumptions than we do, so expanding their code to make it handle LAM as well was good for them (his words [paraphrased], not mine).

After that, I went to dinner in the big open-air tent between the two hotel buildings. I picked a random table and sat down with some people that were already sitting there. Most were business types of one flavor or another (programming consultants, independent small software companies, etc.), which provided some interesting conversation. The more interesting guy was Michael, who is finishing would could be best described as a "walkabout", in the true Australian sense of the word. He got married and three days later he and his wife started a would tour that went wherever their feet led them.

He was a programmer before he started his walkabout, and he and his wife are now winding down the grand tour, and thinking about stability somewhere with a real job, etc. So he decided to attend this conference to catch up on the current State of Things. Great quote from him about why it was time to end his walkabout, "We were in Nice a few weeks ago, and were thinking, '<Yawn> Another fucking beautiful cathedral. <yawn>' Yeah, that's a good sign that we're done."

He was interesting to talk to.

I went to the Slash BOF after that. More specifically, I was wandering by all the BOF rooms when I heard some voices that I recognized. It took a moment or two, but then I placed the voices: I had heard them in "Geeks from Space" installments on Slashdot. So I wandered in and sat down to listen to what they had to say.

Rob Malta and several of the other Slash and Slashdot crew were in there. They're an arrogant-yet-funny group, and have lots of inside jokes with each other. They reminded me of any good programming crew. They talked about some of the upcoming features in Slash (and therefore, someday in Slashdot). They also had a bunch to say about the optimizations that they code for (have to be able to handle an absurd number of page views every day), and the extensive infrastructure that they have behind the scenes to handle all the user traffic and thwart evil/asshole users. Pretty cool stuff, actually.

Andy came in really late that night; the plane that he was supposed to catch left 10 minutes early for no apparent reason. He and about 10 other passengers were left behind. So he had to catch a later flight. Weird.

We went to the Great Open Source Debate keynote the next morning
-- "Shared Source vs. Open Source: Debate and Panel Discussion" with Craig Mundie from Microsoft (MS), and Michael Tiemann, CTO of RedHat (RH).

I've already posted my version of the transcription of the speeches and debate. I should have done it immediately instead of waiting a day (indeed, I only sent it to a few friends and internal mailing lists), and I could have gotten slashdotted. ;-)

Andy and I chatted about the debate afterwards. He's my take, with some flavor/discussion from Andy as well.

Microsoft won. Craig Mundie calmly discussed his position, and was in an easily-defendable position. Michael Tiemann and [most of] the various people who asked questions from the audience came across as whiners, saying "It's not fair!"

Come on, folks -- Microsoft is in the business of making money. Why on earth would they change their model when their current model is working very well, and doesn't show many signs of abating? Their bottom line is to a) make money, b) increase shareholder value. That's it. Call it malicious, call it evil, call it whatever you want
-- it's business. Yes, they happen to be the biggest software company in the world and have tremendous influence, but (whether we like to admit it or not), they earned that position. Yes, with flawed and crappy software, but people bought it anyway. Regardless, that's not what we're debating here.

Remember: [potential] technical superiority of open source is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to debunk MS.


Don't get me wrong; I think that many open source products are vastly superior to MS products in many, many ways. But just because something is open source does not make it superior to proprietary/MS products. There's a lot of open source shit out there. Troll around on freshmeat, where every teenager who has every written a shell script has "published" their "software package". 98% of them are total crap and only work on the machine that the author wrote them on, or only work on Linux (which, to me, is useless).

There's a helluva lotta software engineering and design that has to go into a successful, Quality product. Just because you're open source and/or GPL doesn't mean that you are Better. So when I talk about technical superiority of open source products, I'm talking about the big Quality products, like Apache, MySQL, Postgres, PHP, etc., etc. Not every tiny little open source project out there.


MS is successful for many reasons. But the fact is that they are very successful. They have an enormous percentage of market cap. Why on earth would they want to give up even 1% of that to open source? Of course they're going to fight. Of course they're going to doublespeak and claim that they are better (technical superiority). Of course they're going to say that GPL is anti-business. Of course they're not going to play nicely with others; that would be giving away market cap. Of course we're going to feel like the underdogs (which, in many ways, we are), and feel that this is not far. This is not under debate.

To defeat your enemy, you must first understand your enemy. So understanding MS's position is important. Call it greed, call it business, call it whatever you want -- they're making money and they're good at it. Understand that, and then calmly, rationally proceed. Bringing up religious arguments (software should be free, you guys suck, etc.) is not helpful, because like it or not, MS has the law of the land behind them right now. They are are in perfectly defendable position of saying "the law agrees with us" (I'm not talking about their potentially illegal monopolistic practices here --
I'm talking about their attitudes towards open source/free software and the fact that they don't feel that they need to be compatible with anyone else, and their "embrace and extend" attitude). You may not like that, but it's a fact (similar to RIAA issues with napster and whatnot). Like I said above, it is what it is. Go read The Prince.

The next step is to figure out what we're going to do about it. How do we a) make money as well, b) eventually displace Microsoft and/or force them to make higher quality products and place nicely with others? Reasoning with them won't work, because the almighty dollar is always a more persuasive argument -- trying to reason w/ MS saying, "hey, give us some market cap and then we'll think you're good guys" is simply not a compelling argument.

Indeed, some audience member asked Mundie to sit down with the GPL authors at some upcoming FSF/open source convention on Oct. 10th of this year -- the audience member said that if MS's beef was with the GPL, they should be debating with the GPL authors, not open source luminaries (they are different things, for those of you who don't know). Mundie replied, "Richard wouldn't join our discussion" (referring to the fact that MS tried to initiate license discussions previously). Hmm. That's quite damning, actually. I can imagine why they didn't (because it wouldn't have been constructive, odds stacked up on MS's side, etc.), but it comes across as "the GPL folks will only join the conversation when it suits them". Indeed, Mundie came to the open source convention where the odds where stacked up against him, didn't he?

Some have criticized Mundie for the following exchange during the debate:

Audience member: ... Do you think it's right when an OS infringes on a "silly" patent that they are persecuted?

Mundie: Absolutely.

Audience member: Even if it's a stupid patent? It takes money to fight patents.

Mundie: Fine. Get your money.

Mundie's position here is perfectly defendable.

  1. Why should MS be punished when they have anted up the money to defend patents and whatnot?

  2. The abided by due process; it's too bad that others don't have the money or resources to do the same, but it's not their problem.

  3. They paid their dues, built up their company from scratch, and now have the resources and ability to do such things.

  4. It's the law.

Is it annoying and contentious? Yes. Is it fair? No. Is Mundie right? Yes, he is. Democracy isn't fair. Neither is business. Capitalism does not equal freedom.

Our country is built on change. That change has always had rules associated with it about how to acquire that change. Right now, those rules involve a lot of money (lobbying in D.C., etc.). I don't necessarily like that fact, but try living in an oppressive third world country where people daily have to fight for food and then tell me that the US sucks.

Michael Tiemann came across as a whiner. "It's not fair", "We just want our turn", "Buy RH software". Shut up. That's not the point. Indeed, what would happen if RH was in MS's place? Would RH still be so altruistic? Who knows. The fact of the matter is that I wouldn't want RH in MS's spot -- I don't want any one company to be the top (this is one of my big beefs with MS, incidentally). I contend that any firm that enjoys a monopoly like MS currently does would act exactly the same way that MS is currently acting. There's a reason that unscrupulous bastards are king: Money talks, bullshit idealism walks. Specifically, I believe that RH would be just as bad as MS if they were King right now.

So I think Tiemann's approach was entirely wrong. He should have addressed the monopolistic practices of MS. He should have cited the illegal and underhanded activities (he sort of did -- his "be and not seem" remarks were right on the money, actually). Cite the concrete legal issues about what MS is doing wrong. Not whine about "it's not fair", and try to whip up religious fervor by drawing comparisons to Rosa Parks and free speech.

Some of the panel's most insightful comments came from Brian Behlendorf and Mitchell Baker. They came across as calm, insightful, and rational arguments. Much of the other stuff was fluff and religious fervor.

Perhaps the most constructive comments that I have heard so far in reaction to this debate were along the line of:

  • Just write excellent code. Keep writing it. Write the best damn code that you can. Even if technical superiority isn't a sufficient condition to win, it can certainly help.

  • If you don't know anything about the political process, let the appropriate people handle that. The politics of this beast are very complicated; let those who know how to play the game make the public movements. Stuff like "MS sucks!" doesn't help, and makes the rest of us look stupid.

There. That's my $0.02. Comments are welcome.

After the debate, Andy and I went down to registration to straighten some details out. Lo and behold we ran into Johnney (old timer in the LSC). Small world! We exchanged cell phone numbers and then ran off to the next session.

Andy and I watched a neat presentation from the Collab.net folks, and then a presentation from Sun's openoffice.org guy. Both were pretty good. The Sun guy had three important messages that he kept hammering throughout the speech (I hope I got these right!)

  • Open source is a lot of work
  • Open source is not free
  • Armadillos don't make good pets (arrgh... I have no idea what his third point was)

These are good and important messages. Sun spent millions of dollars converting the StarOffice tree to be open source (translating it to english, cleaning up the code, going through all the legal hassle of ensuring that they owned all of it, etc., etc.) which many people don't seem to realize. "Just publish the CVS tree!" isn't an easy thing to do.

Nothing ground breaking in these sessions, but they were good talks. We talked with the Collab.net guy after the sessions, and we might end up using some of their tools for our own work back at school.

Andy and I wandered to the open air tent for lunch. We grabbed some box lunches and were looking for a table to sit down at. We walked by a table where Tim O'Reilly was sitting, and I made the offhand remark, "Wanna have lunch with Tim O'Reilly?" We walked about 10 steps further and then Andy said, "Sure, why not. I didn't get to ask my question at the debate this morning."

So we sat down next to Tim. He was in the middle of a conversation with some other people, so we just sat and listened for a little while. Then I caught his eye and we introduced ourselves. We had a short chat about the role of universities in open source and the whole movement thing (Tim is a big believer in the participation of universities, incidentally). He had to run off to handle other things, but now I can say, "I had lunch with Tim O'Reilly".

We chatted with the other folks at the table too. It turns out that two of them were academics as well (Carnagie Mellon), and they had very similar views about software as we do, which is very rare in the academic community (i.e., software should "just work" and suck less, that it should work on all platforms not just linux, etc., etc.). I didn't catch their names (more specifically, I don't remember them), but I think they were the primary people behind the Festival open source speech synthesis software. There was another guy from Cisco at the table who was having animated discussions with them as well, so I think he was either interested in, or involved with the speech synthesis/telephony over IP kinds of things.

Michael, the interesting guy whom I met at dinner the previous evening, joined us at the table as well.

Andy and I eventually wandered outside to the grass by the marina to discuss "stuff", including the morning's debate and whatnot.

We next when to an OSX talk. I'm not a big Mac fan, so I didn't pay much attention, and instead took advantage of the internet connectivity to catch up on some important pending e-mails, etc.

Andy and I tried to go to some extreme programming sessions after that, but the sessions were already jammed and overflowing with people, so we went to the exhibit floor instead. We ran into Johnney again and generally wandered around the floor. I only got 3 t-shirts. There was another free t-shirt from O'Reilly, but you had to buy the "Learning Perl" book, which I didn't really want to do (and therefore the t-shirt wasn't really free, was it? Hmm...).

Nothing too earth-shattering on the floor, but I did chat with the president of SAGE (System Administrator's Guild), who's a sysadmin from the University of Wisconsin. He knows Curt (of course), and so we had a nice talk about Condor, LAM, and general sysadmin stuff (I amused him with one or two Army sysadmin stories from Atlanta). I might well sign up for SAGE; who knows how it might benefit me in the future (it's a tax break, too!).

He said that one of the things that they are working on is a standardized test for system administrators. I think that would be great. Indeed, when I first got to my army post in Atlanta, the whole network was a mess. And this was from a full-time sysadmin who they paid a good amount of money to. Here's one example: when my predecessor applied patches under Solaris, if he ran out of space in /var, he would NFS mount some other disk to finish applying the patches (if you don't know why that isn't a good idea, don't become a unix sysadmin).

We were a little late getting to a session back in the Summit track from Eric Schmitt (sp?), president (I think, or CTO, or CFO, or CIO, or...) of Google. He had some pretty interesting takes on open source and its ramifications. Well reasoned, well thought out, etc. A good speaker, and an intelligent man.

Fun facts about Google that he shared:

  • Google has 4 data centers. Each center has a huge number of computers (he said the numbers, I don't remember -- let's say 1,000 each). Each data center is hosted by a professional company, such as Exodus.

  • They stack their computers 40 or 50 in a rack, and have to put the racks as close together as possible "for speed of light reasons".

  • They use Pentium III/750 chips rather than Pentium IV chips because when they tried PIV chips in 40-50 computer racks, they would melt the ceiling tiles. And this is in a professional hosting site, where they have enormous air conditioners, etc. They had to bring in a cooling engineer to redesign the air flow, etc. So until the chips are cooler, they're limited to PIII/750.

I don't remember too many of his specific points (should have taken some notes...), but I do remember agreeing with most of them. We went up to chat with him afterwards. Andy asked him about the role of universities, etc., in open source. At some point I interjected saying something about how most academics only develop proof-of-concept quality code. He agreed, saying (paraphrased), "Most academics code in Java, C, or Perl for Linux."

"Oh no," I said, "We code for POSIX -- we think that our software should work under all flavors of unix."

He literally did a double take. "Really? That's very unusual in academia..."

So that's pretty cool. I made the president of Google do a double take. :-)

We were walking out of that session, on the way to meet Johnney for dinner when we heard someone say "cluster". We turned and it was a guy from Compaq. We butted into the conversation and learned about an interesting project at Compaq to make single system image systems for linux (also see here) -- but different than Scyld. Their idea is to take a cluster of machines and show the entire aggregate as one machine. i.e., all the processes, all the disks, all the RAM, etc. This is different than Scyld, who believe that the non-master nodes are just shells for computation. For example, if a process migrates around in one of these systems, the entire process migrates -- it doesn't leave behind proxies for system calls (sockets are still problematic, though). Indeed, we might have less trouble porting LAM/MPI to this kind of system than to Scyld systems (don't have the filesystem issues, for example). Could be interesting.

We joined Johnney, his cousin, and a friend of theirs who lives in San Diego for dinner at the Ruth Chris Steakhouse. Yum. Good food, good conversation. It was great to see Johnney again.

Andy and I went to an extreme programming BOF that night which was somewhat interesting. Much more interesting was a BOF entitled something like "When Politics and Open Source Mix". This was an extremely enlightening BOF.

It was hosted by some guy (I'm so horrible with names -- I wish that I could remember his) who used to be a white house staffer, then worked as a programmer for a defense contractor (Nichols Research -- a "beltway bandit"), and now does independent consulting. There were only a few random people at this BOF, which was a shame. It seems like there needs to be a lot of people involved.

His main point was that he has seen the political process from the inside. In general, it goes something like this:

  • Congressman Smith gets a complaint about X.

  • Congressman Smith knows nothing about X, so he turns to his staffer and says "Find out about X. Find out how we can a) resolve it, b) make me look good, and c) make our contributors happy" (not necessarily in that order)

  • So the staffer goes off and first calls all their contributors and says "How do you feel about X?"

  • The contributors weight in on how they feel about X.

  • If the staff is feeling adventurous, the staffer will try to find out more about X outside of just the contributors' opinions (but not always). This may involve, say, Google searches, some more phone calls, etc.

  • The staffer will take all these opinions, and reconcile them with the three goals set out by Smith (resolve the issue, make me look good, and make our contributors happy).

  • The staffer will present their report to the Congressman Smith, who will then act accordingly.

This is a big part of what happens -- making the contributors happy. For example, have you noticed how the Washington Senators and Congressmen are against the Microsoft lawsuit? Why? Because MS contributes lots and lots of money to them. It's all legal --
there's nothing nefarious happening here. We're not talking direct bribes (try not to be cynical), we're talking support for campaigns, creating jobs for constituents, etc. But the total dollar figures are staggering.
Money talks.

MS publicly admitted that they goofed w.r.t. the initial lawsuit back in 97 or 98 -- they had completely ignored D.C. until that point, thinking that it was irrelevant to what they were doing. They admitted their mistake, and have since rectified it. MS now spends enormous amounts of money every year lobbying in D.C. and elsewhere. Have you noticed how New Mexico just settled the lawsuit with MS? There were many reasons (new DA who inherited the case, etc.), but at least some of it was due to the fact that MS "made it easy" for them to settle by offering incentives and attractive terms to settle.

Our BOF leader's point: most congressmen and senators don't have an opinion about open source or the GPL right now. But soon enough, they will be forced to have one. Some court case will occur, or MS will address it with their own lobbying, or one of a hundred other things will happen that will force the issue. The question is: if MS is doing all the talking to the lawmakers, who is talking for open source?

It's an easy enough word association for the senator or the staffer -- "Hmm... open source software. 'Software' -- I guess I should call Microsoft to get their opinion." But who do they call for Open Source to get the other side of the story? This is the big question.

Do we want them to call the FSF? Talk to Stallman? Personally, I don't think so. Their religious fervor might well scare off the staffer and/or reinforce MS's position. Perhaps they should call RedHat. Or O'Reilly. But a) I highly doubt that they've heard of RH, and b) why on earth would they call a book publisher about a software issue?

The problem is that there is no one person to call. This is kind of the nature of open source, actually -- a distributed group of people working together for some common goals. But that nature makes us politically vulnerable. And it may become a problem in the future. It's depressing, but true.

There are other ways to influence the process, but it all comes down to money. And MS has a whole lot of it. One way or another, there needs to be some central group(s) organized in the open source movement to start handling the politics of it. One suggestion that was floated was to get the Big Companies who use open source involved (Sun, IBM, Compaq, HP, etc.). Indeed, IBM is going to dump $1B into Open Source this upcoming year. So likely the NY senators and congressmen will be on our side. But that isn't nearly enough. What about all the countless other companies out there that use open source? This sounds crass, but forget all those millions of teenagers and spare-time developers out there who are writing open source, what about the companies who are using open source to increase their bottom line and increase shareholder value? I would think that they would be pretty peeved if open source went away.

MS made the mistake of ignoring the politics a few years ago, and has since taken steps to rectify the situation. We need to do the same, lest we get the equivalent of an anti-trust/monopoly lawsuit against open source. Our BOF leader said that this was the first time he had spoken out about these kinds of topics; we encouraged him to spread the word since he was so well informed.

This was very enlightening to Andy and me. Depressing, but forewarned is forearmed. I don't see either Andy or me getting involved on this front, but we'll see how it plays out.

It was late after this (after 10pm), so we went back to our hotel after this. We went to the keynote the next morning, but didn't pay much attention (it was mainly three people who stood up and said, "we use open source in our company, and it's been mostly great, but we did have to work around some problems."), and just answered e-mail and the like. Then we got on planes and headed home.

All in all, like I said at the very top, it was an interesting conference. If nothing else, the enthusiasm for code was quite contagious. We didn't attend many of the "technical" sessions (there were oodles of meetings on MySQL, PHP, Perl, Python, and all kinds of other open source projects), but the buzz was everywhere.

Go forth and write Righteous Code.

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