An inside view from OSCON 2012

By Luke Tymowski, Systems Administrator, Calgary

Are we creating more value than we capture? Tim O'Reilly explored this question in his OSCON keynote address. While everything from the Web to Wall Street today runs on open source software (allowing geeks to become millionaires, and occasionally billionaires), very few companies give back to the communities that allowed them to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Larry Wall, creator of the Perl programming language, was really sick but soldiered on and gave his State of the Onion talk.

O'Reilly spoke of this in the context of companies. But I think those of us involved in open source as individuals should ask ourselves the same question. Are we giving back to the communities that help us do our jobs and hobbies? There are several easy and obvious ways for us, as individuals, to give back, such as contributing to bug reports, code fixes, and documentation.

OSCON, O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, which was held July 16-20 this year in Portland, Oregon, is, as he likes to describe it, the annual gathering of the open source tribes. Not all of them were there, but at over 3,200 attendees, there was a sufficient supply of geeks and nerds to fill the sessions from 09:00 to 17:30 and BoFs from 19:00 to 22:00 every day. Fitness geeks were there in force, too, helping to organize and participate in the OSCON 5K run.

While the conference proper ran from Wednesday through Friday, the Oregon Convention Centre was also busy on Monday and Tuesday with tutorials on everything from Git & Github to OpenStack, Erlang, and Go.

Github didn't exist five years ago, but it is now the hub around which much open source software is developed. OpenStack celebrated its second birthday at OSCON, and had a full day's worth of sessions, all of which were filled, some even beyond capacity. (The fire marshals were kept busy on Tuesday).

Erlang, a programming language originally developed in the 1980s at Ericsson to build better telephone switches, is enjoying a second life as Web developers use it to build databases and messaging systems.

Go is the first new systems programming language in more than 20 years. A team from Google, which counts among its members some of the original developers of Unix and Plan 9, built it to solve several key problems: to make it easier for large teams to develop software; and to take advantage of concurrency. Brad Fitzpatrick, one of the newest members of the Go team, told me that he uses Go for everything from building complex applications to command-line scripts.

Florian Haas gave a BoF talk on Ceph. Object and block storage is a fairly nerdy subject. Haas's session was scheduled to run from 19:00 to 22:00. I expected a handful of people, but the room was packed. There were even more people at his daytime session on Pacemaker.

Some companies sent teams of developers to the conference. Others paid their own way, and have for a number of years, because they see OSCON as important to their careers, not just their current job. Ten years ago there were a handful of technical conferences a year. At a conference like OSCON, you could expect to meet many of the people involved with open source. Now, there are conferences, and unconferences, for every subject, whether its PostgreSQL, Ruby on Rails, or Node.js. Even Python and Chef!

In many of the sessions, the presenter asked for a show of hands from people who were new to OSCON or seasoned veterans, and how experienced they were on the presentation topic. There were a large number of first timers, but even more people who had previously attended OSCON.

Would I go again?

Yes. As a sysadmin, I deal with many technologies, and there were many presentations directly relevant to my job. But even those that were not directly relevant were still beneficial to me. I might not have to program in Erlang (even though we use RabbitMQ in our OpenStack installations), but the Erlang tutorial did make me think about applying its ideas to other projects we have.

If you're a developer, or a DBA, who works only with a specific technology (say, Node.js or Riak), you might benefit more from a conference specific to your platform.

The OSCON presentations covered a lot of technologies and approaches. (A tutorial by Damian Conway, a noted Perl developer, on how to give effective presentations was filled to capacity.) There were few mainstream open source projects that did not enjoy a presentation or three (Rails, for example, and very little Ruby compared with Python and Perl), but the vast number of large open source projects were represented. Well worth while attending.