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The Fourth Annual Linux Expo

By David Penland

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This year, Red Hat Software decided to hold the fourth annual Linux Expo at Duke University's Bryan Center in Durham, North Carolina. The event was scheduled over three days from April twenty-eighth to the thirtieth. In addition to the normal vendor displays and conference, the Linux Expo web site promised such diverse attractions as a quake fest and a paintball tournament. I arrived at the Center at seven-thirty on Thursday to find over one hundred people already ahead of me in line. Registration wasn't until eight o'clock. Apparently I was not the only Linux fanatic champing at the bit.

The doors did not actually open until a little past eight, and I did not get in to register until about eight forty. As a pre-registered attendee, I received a Linux Expo tote bag bearing the Expo logo, as well as logos of Expo sponsors. Inside I found a bound copy of the proceedings, a VAResearch tee shirt, a Red Hat cap, an issue of SysAdmin, and a Caldera flashlight, as well as flyers advertising specials at Expo vendor booths.

Prominently placed in front of the entrance was the Red Hat booth. Their booth featured the new Red Hat Linux 5.1, due to be released the following Monday. Also on the upper floor was the Caldera, Linux Hardware solutions, Linux International, Solid, and RHAD Labs booths, as well as the Expo store, and the Softpro Bookstore.

Because of registration delays, the tutorials and technical conference fell thirty minutes behind schedule, and remained out of sync with the business track for the rest of the day. The Extreme Linux tutorial was kicked off by Mad Dog Hall, who explained the name Extreme Linux, and the snow boarding penguin logo. Basically, Extreme Linux is Linux with an attitude Although Mad Dog said that the project's founders do not want to tie. the commodity cluster idea to a single operating system, he urged people to use the name Extreme Linux when referring to clusters of Linux machines.

After Mad Dog finished, Peter Beckman explained how Extreme Linux cluste rs were used at Los Alamos' Advanced Computing Labs. Several members of his team talked about their experiences with the system, and the problems they had solved. The talk featured the Linux Expo cluster, a four node cluster set up especially for the show. The cluster consisted of 4 dual 333 MHz Pentium two's, each with 256 megabytes of ram and a four gigabyte disk drive. The cluster was tied together with a Myrinet network. After putting the cluster through its paces with modeling programs, Beckman decide to bring out a "practical application", the Extreme Linux monster truck.

Although it had been a radio shack remote control toy in a previous life, the monster truck had undergone an "Extreme" transformation. The body had been removed, and the truck's circuit board hacked. For vision, the monster truck had a Connectix quickcam with a custom mount to allow panning. Mounted on top was a Toshiba Libretto with a wireless Ethernet connection to the cluster. An operator sat at the console of the cluster, controlling the truck as it cruised across the floor observing the crowd with its quickcam. The operator's console was projected on a screen, and the crowd could see themselves from the truck's point of view thanks to the quickcam. Beckman assured us that the truck had a practical use, pulling network cables under the raised floor at Los Alamos. Without a doubt, the truck stole the show. For more information see http://www.Extremelinux.org/.

After the tutorial, I decided to make my way to the vendor area on the lower level. Strategically placed at the entrance to the vendor area was Cobalt Microserver Inc. They were showing the inexpensive Cobalt Qube microserver, a blue 7.25"x7.25"x7.75" cube with powerful intranet server capabilities. This little box will be near the top of every Linux geek's Christmas list.

Inside the door I found Stay online, a retailer of inexpensively priced computer components. The vendor area was so jammed with Linux enthusiasts that I had a hard time getting to every booth. Linux Mall was once again on hand offering great deals on everything. I picked up Red Hat Linux 5. 1 for twenty-five dollars and Star Office Commercial for fifty dollars. Sun Microsystems was a very noticeable new addition to the Expo this year, showing off complete Ultrasparc computers as well as Ultrasparc based motherboards for building your own homebrew ultrapenguin machine. Alta Technology and Paralogic, two vendors of pre-built Extreme Linux clusters were also present. At another entrance, Jim Paradis of Digital Equipment Corporation entertained a mass of power hungry linuxers with a new smp alpha machine.

Cobalt wasn't the only company with miniature gee-whiz computers. CorelComputer was showing off their soon-to-be released Netwinder computers. These little boxes (9.5"x6"x2") have everything you could want in an intranet/internet client, and can be used as web servers as well. The Netwinder could be serious competition for the Qube, but I think many customers might choose a mixed environment of both.

Another major attraction was the RHAD Labs booth, which featured a couple of computers running gnome. The booth was staffed by members of the RHAD Labs development team, and Miguel de Icaza made occasional appearances. At just about any point in time, people were lined up three deep to get a look and gnome and ask the developers questions. One of the gnome computers had a camera attached to it, and some interesting pictures from the Expo have been posted on http://www.gnome.org/.

Toward the end of the second day of the Expo, I got an unexpected surprise which made the show immensely better than I had expected. While looking through the popular tee shirts offered by Xunilung, I overheard someone proclaiming that Linux was a misnomer, and that the correct name of the system was Gnu-Linux. This was a position I had heard before. I stepped back from the tee shirts to peek around people who had gathered around a table placed perpendicularly to Xunilung's. Sure enough, the gnu-linux admonishment was coming from Richard Stallman. For those who are not familiar with rms, as Stallman is often called, he is the person who started the gnu project in 1983 to provide a free version of Unix for anyone who wanted it, unencumbered by proprietary licensing restrictions. Stallman is responsible for the Free Software foundation, and the general public license.

Although I do not really agree with him about the naming of Linux, I firmly believe Linux could not have been developed without the tools provide d by the FSF. Stallman has been a hero of mine since before Linus discovered Minix, so I was somewhat speechless when I saw him there unannounced. I stood back and watched for a while as young hackers got autographs and bought gnu tee shirts, CD-ROMs, and books. Occasionally Stallman would place the platter from an old disk pack on his head. With this "halo" in place, he became Saint Richard, patron saint of the Church of Emacs, and he would bless the young hacker's computers provided they did not have any proprietary software on them. When it was my turn to talk to Saint Richard, I thanked him for the work he had done, and bought two Emacs books. He signed the books happy hacking, and happier hacking, Richard Stallman.

After my encounter with rms on the second day of the Expo, I found my way to the auditorium where Linus would be giving the keynote speech. I was lucky, I found a seat about fifteen rows back from the stage. Less fortunate fans continued to file in for another fifteen minutes, and by the time Linus got on stage, people were standing and sitting in the aisles. An overhead projector indicated the theme of Linus' talk, titled Ramblin' Linus. Linus took the microphone and said "I'm Linus, and I am your god", at which point the crowd responded with deafening applause. Linus thanked various people for their work, in particular Alan Cox who has taken over the normally thankless job of maintaining the stable kernel for the last year or so. Some of the topics covered were the current state of the development kernel, the upcoming release of the 2.2 kernel, and future directions of kernel development. Linus spent about twenty minutes answering questions from the audience, and then everyone filed out for a southern style barbecue dinner in the university yard.

Conference talks were the main focus of the Expo for me. Unfortunately there were so many talks offered, I had a hard time making up my mind about which ones to attend. Extreme Linux is the only tutorial I made it to, but there were eleven more, on subjects as diverse as programming with gtk+, Python, hacking the Linux kernel, LinuxConf, and a demonstration of the Coda filesystem.

The conference was broken up into a business track and a technical track. The technical track auditorium was where I spent most of my time, but I did make it to several interesting business talks. Robert Hart of Red Hat Software gave a talk on linux certification dealing with what certification meant, and who should try to get it. He also encouraged the audience to drop off resumes at the Red Hat booth, which I did. I am still wait ing on your call Robert. Mad Dog gave an anecdotal talk on how Linux is used around the world, and Tim Bird of Caldera filled us in on the COAS project. COAS is a project to develop an integrated administration tool for Linux and possibly other unices, they are looking for volunteers, so drop them a line. The last talk in the business track was actually a panel which discussed free software licensing. The panel consisted of Eric Raymond, Richard Stallman, and Bruce Perens, who moderated. Raymond's and Stallman's views were not exactly in sync, so some very interesting discussion concerning the state of free or open source software licensing took place.

The technical track started earlier, and ran longer than the business track all three days. Unfortunately, registration problems, and technical difficulties threw the schedule off the first two days, and technical talk s were out of sync with business talks which made it hard to move freely between tracks. David Miller gave a very technical talk on optimizing the Cobalt Microserver. Peter Braam of Carnegie Mellon University gave two informative talks on the new VFS interface, and the Coda distributed files system. The Coda team has made a lot of progress, and the filesystem is so mething worth looking into. Peter also mentioned that the team is looking for a good system programmer who likes interesting work, but doesn't mind being poor.

Bruce Perens and Daryll Strauss both gave talks on the use of computers to make movies. Strauss showed us how a pile of alphas running Linux help ed with the making of Titanic. During a short video presentation, he pointed out some amazing effects that were computer generated. Bruce went over some basics of computer animation in Toy Story, and showed an experimental piece by Pixar called Gerry's Game. The auditorium was packed for both talks.

Miguel de Icaza discussed the gnome project to a very large crowd. Due to technical problems with his laptop, the talk ran over by about thirty minutes. Fortunately, Miguel is a very entertaining speaker, and he kept the audience's attention while half of the RHAD Labs team and a concerned member of the audience fretted over his computer. Lars Wirzenius presented his Linux Anecdotes, a history of the linux system from someone who was right there when it was created. Lars shared an office with Linus at the University of Helsinki, and was the first person to actually run Linux on his computer. Alan Cox, a fixture at Linux Expo, gave a talk about the trials and tribulations of porting Linux to the Apple Macintosh 68K. His talk was titled "I don't care if space aliens ate my mouse". The title comes from an old Apple document, apparently the only official document ever written on the apple mouse.

These were only a few of the talks given at the Expo, a complete list can be found on the Linux Expo web site: http://www.linuxexpo.org . In addition to vendors and talks, there were other things to keep Expo attendees busy. A quake fest ran all day every day on the lower level, with deathmatches every fifteen minutes. Prizes were awarded for the highest body count from each match up. Birds of a Feather sessions were offered throughout the three days on a variety of topics, and an "email garden" was set up to allow attendees to get access to the net for checking their email. On Thursday, the age old question of which editor, Emacs or vi, is superior was finally answered. Obviously, the only way to resolve the issue was through brute force, so the Expo hosted Editor Wars, a paintball tourname nt. When the CO2 propelled paint mist settled, the vi team emerged from the field victorious.

Wrapping up the show Saturday evening was the second annual Linux Bowl. Mad Dog was the host, and the teams consisted of conference speakers and audience participants. Rasterman, of RHAD Labs, and audience members were the judges. Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond were two of the contestants. Some of the questions asked were: what lilo option is used to list currently mapped files(answer: -q), what was the first kernel tar.gz to exceed ten megabytes ( to which Bruce Perens promptly replied Microsoft NT. The correct answer was 2.1.88), which movie featured the Red Hat Office building (one contestant replied Debbie does Durham, and Mad Dog felt compelled to award one point. The correct answer was Kiss the Girls), why was the Beowulf project named Beowulf( answer: it sounded cool), and a trick question, what was the first system to run UNIX ( answer: a pdp7).

The Fourth Annual Linux Expo was a tremendous success, and I think every one went home happy. The show organizers deserve a big round of applause for their efforts, and if this year's turn out is any indication of things to come, they had better get a bigger building next year.

Copyright © 1998, David Penland
Published in Issue 30 of Linux Gazette, July 1998