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Friday, 10 June 2016 15:05

iTWire shows Linux Australia the right way to host a server

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An iTWire article appears to have resulted in Linux Australia seeing the folly of not having proper arrangements in place for hosting its website.

Further, a member of Linux Australia has suggested the office-bearers should resign en masse for not anticipating a breakdown in hosting the organisation's website recently.

Linux Australia secretary, Sae Ra Germaine, posted to the Linux-aus mailing list in April to explain why the organisation experienced server downtime, ultimately because the team charged with managing this task, while recognising a risk of disruption, did not engage with the University hosting the server instead choosing only to liaise with ex-employees, and discontinued searching for a new host between December 2015 and March 2016.

Consequently, and one might suggest predictably, the organisation experienced an outage and scrambled to secure new hosting and migrate data and restore backups.

Given Linux Australia is a profit-generating organisation, essentially serving no other visible purpose than to run the Linux.Conf.Au conference each year, and reported a profit of $143K last year it must be asked why the organisation makes the curious decision to rely on donated hosting rather than simply pay for robust, and importantly SLA-backed, hosting. It is not due to financial considerations because it made the decision to purchase and own its server hardware, going for CapEx over OpEx.

Without a change in mindset, I suggested this would not be the last time Linux Australia suffered such an outage.

Predictably, a vocal minority of Linux Australia members chose to read into this either a total criticism of the organisation, or an aggression towards volunteer workers, or indeed to close their ears and just say "that journalist has no integrity" as if this made the issue at hand disappear.

Rational members steered the topic back to the actual problem of hosting, and whether my argument had a basis.

"The core point regarding hosting is a reasonable observation ... It does seem strange that L[inux] A[ustralia] would rely on donated hosting ..." stated Phillip Smith.

Noel Butler agreed. "The wrong decision to keep expecting an org like this with a healthy bank account to get free hosting. When you don't pay for it you are of course at the mercy of someone else's generosity. When you pay for it, you end up with SLAs," he stated.

Butler continued, "the fact no one took ownership and worked day in day out to move it after being given notice reflects poorly upon that team, and the fact nobody did squat till it was too late, that entire team should be asked to resign."

Butler is blunt in his message, but he reflects reality, further adding "in the real world out there ... do you think your employers would give you that option [of offering up your own resignation] if you did it to them? No, they'd have security escort you off premises so fast you'd be wondering what just happened."

Butler is right in the fundamental heart of his message, though it is a difficult line because Linux Australia is staffed by unpaid volunteers.

Nevertheless, while it is important to recognise the vital and good work of volunteers there is still an onus of responsibility in a volunteer position.

The issue remains that the outage was predictable and preventable. The issue remains that once risks were identified and Linux Australia sought to find new hosting it left this project dormant for three months.

I previously commented on the team's apparent lack of willingness to actually engage with those who held the server hosting's future in their hands, choosing instead to only deal with ex-, or soon-to-be ex-staff, and by placing a sticker on a server. This is a level of communication akin to Mr Bean's artistic appreciation of Whistler's Mother being "nice frame."

In a similar fashion, this team chose to remain silent and not act. It may be they were busy with work and with life, and being volunteers they absolutely have that right. Yet, as responsible adults, there is a reasonable expectation to make their inability to focus on, and action, re-hosting known to others.

Even Russell Coker, who lambasted much of my previous writing as rubbish, acknowledged "In retrospect it would have been a better idea for L[inux] A[ustralia] to work with people from LUV [Victorian Linux User Group] in arranging these things."

Hugh Blemings, the president of Linux Australia, made an articulate case to put this matter in perspective.

"I was, frankly, a bit annoyed that our infrastructure went offline precipitously," he states, "... but the thing that really allowed me, for want of a better term, to find peace with the situation was the realisation that actually – it didn't really matter."

"Nobody died, no one lost revenue, no LA events were dramatically impacted" he stated.

Blemings goes on to say "What we do is fantastic, important and useful, but it isn't (and probably shouldn't) be mission critical."

Blemings is right, and he correctly calls upon Linux Australia members to act with civility to each other (and towards technology journos, right?).

Yet, as much as the work and time constraints of volunteers can be appreciated, Blemings simultaneously notes, "this is not to say for a moment that we shouldn't take our responsibilities or the work undertaken seriously".

Although Blemings intervened to quell some rising hostility in the members' discussion, in a way he intervened too soon. The organisation was beginning to acknowledge there must be a better way of managing server hosting than to buy a server for an upfront cost, then ask mates to stick it in their server rack for free, and hope nobody notices when they leave the organisation because nobody really wants to have to talk to anyone.

The discussion commenced, and then with a stroke reminding people to be civil, concluded without resolution.

The issues remain, and sadly until the proper discussion has taken place with decisions made and actioned, Linux Australia can continue to expect to endure outages.

After all, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.


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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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