LinuxWorld Expo & Conference 2006

LinuxWorld is Germany’s second big Open Source event, together with the LinuxTag. This year, it took place in Cologne from 14th to 16th of November. I decided to attend the conference on 14th and 15th, but to leave out the training sessions on the last day. This is the summary of my observations.
I arrived in Cologne Tuesday morning and was at Cologne fair ground right when the conference started at 11 o’clock. (The first positive thing I have to say about the conference is that it had really friendly starting times.)

The opening talk by Dr. Barbara Held from European e-Government services (IDABC) of the European Commission didn’t quite catch my interest because I haven’t yet been thinking much about Open Source Software on an european level. But I can confirm the speaker’s competence. This wasn’t just a publicity thing, Dr. Held really knows the FLOSS scene by experience. Apart from a lot of activity regarding the proliferation of Open Source Software around the European Commission, she told of a soon to be published study that researched the hypothetical impact of making all applications used at the European Commission free software. Sounds interesting!

In his following keynote, Wim Coekaerts, vice president of Linux development at Oracle, gave a situation analysis on Linux usage in Enterprise environments. Having to deal with such an environment every day at my job, there wasn’t much news for me. Wim obviously hadn’t brought his asbestos suit, so he wisely steered around the Unbreakable Linux topic most of the times. In the Q&A roundup, though, he emphasized that Oracle’s new support offer didn’t aim at “killing Red Hat”, but was an issue of meeting customer demands. There was one point Wim shortly touched in his presentation that confirmed a weakness we frequently experience using Linux in a big data center: If we talk “Enterprise”, we talk about supporting high-end hardware. Unfortunately, it still takes Linux a lot of time to adopt new technology. That has to change, and Oracle claims to drive that change, especially with their new Linux support initiative.

Jon “maddog” Hall’s keynote was as entertaining as usual. The president of Linux International explained why “You WILL migrate” to Linux sooner or later, eventually making sure the audience didn’t confuse him with Santa Claus or the all-knowing God.

“Mass storage uninterrupted” was the title of Heinz Mauelshagen’s talk, a kernel developer at Red Hat. Heinz works on the Device Mapper, a powerful kernel module that adds features to Linux that so far have been available only with proprietory storage solutions. For example, you now can build a multi-path, mirrored storage system that is tolerant to all kinds of failures, be it a broken cable, SAN switch failure or a melting disk enclosure. With plugins for specific hardware like the HP MSA1000, you can easily build a high-availability storage system on top of the Device Mapper.

Martin Bracher held a talk about Xen in a training environment where he demonstrated how you can build a virtual Oracle cluster complete with shared virtual ISCSI storage on nothing more than a few Xen instances. Because my team runs a virtual data center with about 50 application servers and 10 Oracle databases on VMware ESX server, Martin’s talk motivated me to give Xen a try myself — there could be some costs to cut.

The last business talk on Tuesday gave some insight into the Enterprise environment at the Munich Business Fair. One interesting fact in this talk was that all cluster nodes at Munich Fair not only share their application data but also their OS disks on a cluster filesystem, so all servers boot directly from a shared root filesystem on the SAN. Therefore, reassigning a cluster node to another task (e.g. make a former Postfix node an Apache node) is allegedly almost as easy as rebooting the server. On a side note, speaker Thomas Merz displayed a misbehaviour common within inexperienced speakers: even though there were only three people in the audience (including me), he talked to the ceiling.

Wednesday began with keynotes again, the first one by Ravi Kalakota from Unisys titled “Leveraging Open Source for Service Oriented Architecture”. He managed to pull through 47 slides crammed full with text and graphics in about 50 minutes and talked in breadth about how Unisys helps their customers to migrate from silo software systems to a service-based architecture. There were lots of buzzwords and acronyms, but also some insights, for example that licensing proprietory software for multi-core architectures is a new headache that opens another doors for Open Source Software.

The following keynote, “Linux Beyond the Data Center”, was held by Dirk Hohndel of X11 and SuSE fame, now Director of Linux and Open Source Strategy at Intel. His talk was a direct opposite of the previous one and in hindsight the most interesting one. First, Dirk refrained from using slides at all, and second, his talk was chock full of criticism of Open Source Software. In his opinion — which I share wholeheartedly — Linux only does almost work in the data center, and almost completely not on the desktop. He sees the reason for both shortcomings in that most developers still don’t think on a large enough scale for Enterprise usage and keep ignoring the common computer user’s needs. Of course, many developers don’t have access to a cluster of hundreds of servers, so they don’t experience the challenges such an environment poses. On the desktop side, developers were, from Dirk’s perspective, the least suitable people to decide how a desktop is supposed to work — just give them some Xterms and you’re done. For Dirk, the Apple desktop has such a tremendous success because everything provided does, other than on Linux, just work. (He also admitted that getting something to work that’s not arranged for by Apple is next to impossible.) Where Linux was successful, though, he stated, is on appliances like routers, settop boxes or even mobile phones. In this growing market, the product’s function set is clearly limited, but those few functions are made to work 100%. In Dirk’s opinion, that’s the mindset Linux developers have to come to: think on an even larger scale, have the common user in mind, and don’t stop at the 80 or 90 percent of “works for me”.

The first conference talk I listened to was “Open Source Integration in System and Network Management” by Claus Wickinghoff. This was the first product-centric talk I attended at this conference. The solution that his company Collax offers for system configuration management isn’t really relevant for my work, but it uses a concept that I thought of myself some years ago: generating actual service configuration files from abstract, implementation-independent data. You could, for example, define a relay host, a few local domain names and some other stuff and generate from that a sendmail.cf as well as a main.cf or a exim.conf. That way, you can easily switch applications or clone a server by just regenerating configuration files.

Arthur Tyde, co-founder of the Free Standards Group, offered “The truth on Linux Management”. He referred to Microsoft’s “Get the Facts” campaign that claims that Open Source Software isn’t suitable for Enterprise use. A study recently conducted by the FSG and OSDL showed other results: Linux is pretty good at being managed, even in big installations with some thousand servers. Additionally, the salary of Linux admins is getting better and more often passes by that of Windows administrators now. Linux is growing faster than Windows, too. He pointed out, though, that scaling out the Linux infrastructure also needs scalable administration processes: even if you have great admins using the right tools to be able to provision or patch a server within minutes, times add up if you happen to have several thousand boxes. This made me realize that just automating and speeding up the steps an admin would do manually doesn’t do it any more. We need new concepts like the global shared root file system mentioned in the Munich Fair talk the day before.

The “FLOSS Weekly” podcast mentioned some interesting bits about Samba 4 in a recent episode. That’s why I was looking forward to the “Samba Status Report” by german Samba hacker Volker Lendecke. Unfortunately, I received an urgent phone call that made me leave the talk early. Samba 4 is nonetheless something to look forward to.

You never know when you have to rescue your data, so I attended “Open Source System Recovery” where Kai Dupke pointed out the difference between backup and desaster recovery as well as the advantages that Open Source Software has in this area.

Finally, since I couldn’t get a reservation on an earlier train, I had enough time to also visit “Gentoo, the meta-distribution” by Tobias Scherbaum. Having all those Gentoo hackers around me at work, this was a good opportunity to widen my Linux distribution horizon. I still prefer Ubuntu, but it was an interesting talk.

In conference pauses, I also visited the exhibition, but found nothing exceptionally interesting. Most booths were occupied by either the usual suspects like Red Hat or Novell or some vendor of software that I don’t have a use for. The “.org area” sported booths of the FSF and projects like KDE, Gnome, openGroupware or Asterisk. Unfortunately, many of those booths showcased only a person occupied with her laptop instead of information material that could draw people’s interest. Could someone give those hackers a lesson in marketing, please?

The only booth where I stayed longer was that of Zimbra, a company that offers a Web 2.0-style alternative to MS Exchange. What makes Zimbra different from established software like openXchange is that it also can be used offline: while working in offline mode, Zimbra stores your email, calendar entries and contact information locally, and when you’re back online, everything gets synchronized with the central server again. You can rent a managed installation from one of Zimbra’s business partners as well as install Zimbra on your own server. Of course, there’s a free Open Source Edition with limited features.

To sum it up, the LinuxWorld Expo and Conference gave me the opportunity to catch up on recent developments in the FLOSS scene and get some fresh ideas how we can get more out of Open Source Software in our data center. Combined with a nice night out with ex-coworker Peter and his girlfriend Svenja, it were two days well spent.