Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce linux.conf.au: Getting the smalltalk on the road

linux.conf.au: Getting the smalltalk on the road

Every year (bar one) since 1999, around 800 people have got together on an annual basis to discuss an operating system that was for a long time deemed to be on the fringes. These days that description does not apply, but the gathering is still as informal as that inaugural session during the tech boom.

This, even though the type of people who are involved has changed somewhat. No longer is it only the true geeks and nerds who gravitate to Australia's national Linux conference ; as the years have gone by more and more people in the middle have migrated thither and lent their expertise to make the conference what it is today.

James Turnbull isn't exactly one of those "middle" people - he works in the security field and has been sustaining an interest in FOSS and IT since he was in his late teens. But he is quick to admit that he is not a hardcore coder. In his role as a security professional at a large corporate, he has found it increasingly necessary to turn to FOSS for solutions that are not available in the proprietary world.

This year, Turnbull (no relative of the Australian environment minister and not even a fraction as odious) finds himself organising the mini conferences at the 2008 Linux conference. For a person who has attended two conferences out of the eight held, it is a bit of a leap but is certainly illustrative of the fact that members of the FOSS community can genuinely get "passionate" about something. They don't have to fake enthusiasm.

Turnbull went along to an open meeting for anyone interested in being associated with next year's event and volunteered to be the organiser. It takes about a year of gradually increasing work from one conference to the next and the labour is its only reward; the individual has to donate his or her time and to many it may sound like only a person who is a glutton for punishment will take on anything to do with such a conference.

But, as Turnbull puts it, this, in the main, is a chance for him to give something back to a community from which he has gained a lot. Such sentiments seem out of place in the heavily corporatised world which dominates modern life. But then, remember, we are talking about Linux and FOSS.

The mini conferences are, in the words of the organisers, "dedicated conference streams for specific communities of interest. The ...organisers provide the space, and leave the rest up to the organiser of each mini-conf."

The mini-conferences also provide a chance for people from different parts of the globe who have similar interestes to rub shoulders and get acquainted. The conference attracts a fair number of overseas presenters and attendees.

Turnbull says there were 28 applications for mini conferences when expressions of interest were invited. Fifteen were chosen, with the logic employed being that of "trying to find a mixture of the new and established ones."

The topics he's ended up with are community wireless and connecting community in Australia; Debian; distributions; education; embedded; Fedora; gaming; Gentoo; GNOME; greater FOSS security; LinuxChix; the kernel; MySQL; systems administration and virtualisation.

Some of the topics are new - community wireless, for one. Turnbull says this is a field of increasing interest given the spread of internet use and the inability of many to obtain decent bandwidth. The other new mini conferences are those to do with Gentoo and distributions. The latter is being organised by Linux Australia chief Jonathan Oxer.

Security finds a place as this is one of the focal points of the whole programme - security guru Bruce Schneier is one of the keynote speakers.

Once someone puts up his or her hand to take on a mini conference and it gets included in the LinxConf programme, the whole show is handed over to that individual. It is up to him or her to plan the content of the mini conference, while it is Turnbull's responsibility to provide the space, presentation aids etc. In other words, the micro-managament commonly seen in the corporate world is absent - and that, in large part, is what makes the entire programme markedly more effective and efficient.

Given that both participants and organisers come from all over Australia (and some from across the pond), email plays a big role in communication. One hallmark of people in this community is that they really know how to use email effectively to get things done. One only has to look at the way the Linux kernel is developed as an illustration.

Turnbull has to expend a considerable amount of time to ensure that everything works well at the conference but he juggles things around and makes everything fit. He will use up his annual leave attending next year's conference and when one says that he is happy to do so, one is saying a lot.

He is but one of a handful of volunteers who will sit down at the end of the conference with a sense of satisfaction. There won't be a paycheck to show but there will be a feeling of having done something that cannot be measured in mere mundane terms.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.