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Highlights from LCA 2016 in Geelong

Last week I had the pleasure of attending my second linux.conf.au. This year it took place in Geelong, a port city about an hour train ride southwest of Melbourne. After my Melbourne-area adventures earlier in the week, I made my way to Geelong via train on Sunday afternoon. That evening I met up with a whole bunch of my HPE colleagues for dinner at a restaurant next to my hotel.

Monday morning the conference began! Every day 1km the walk from my hotel to the conference venue at Deakin University’s Waterfront Campus and back was a pleasure as it took me along the shoreline. I passed a beach, a marina and even a Ferris wheel and a carousel.

I didn’t make time to enjoy the beach (complete with part of Geelong’s interesting post-people art installation), but I know many conference attendees did.

With that backdrop, it was time to dive into some Linux! I spent much of Monday in the Open Cloud Symposium miniconf run by my OpenStack Infra colleague over at Rackspace, Joshua Hesketh. I really enjoyed the pair of talks by Casey West, The Twelve-Factor Container (video) and Cloud Anti-Patterns (video). In both talks he gave engaging overviews of best practices and common gotchas with each technology. With containers it’s a temptation during the initial adoption phase to treat them like “tiny VMs” rather than compute-centric, storage free, containers for horizontally-scalable applications. He also stressed the importance of a consolidated code base for development and production and keeping any persistent storage out of containers and more generally the importance of Repeatability, Reliability and Resiliency. The second talk focused on how to bring applications into a cloud-native environment by using the 5-stages of grief repurposed for cloud-native. Key themes in this talk walked you through beginning with a legacy application being crammed into a container and the eventual modernization of that software into a series of microservices, including an automated build pipeline and continuous delivery with automated testing.

Unfortunately I was ill on Tuesday, so my conferencing picked up on Wednesday with a keynote by Catarina Mota who spoke on open hardware and materials, with a strong focus on 3D printing. It’s a topic that I’m already well-versed in, so the talk was mostly review for me, but I did enjoy one of the videos that she shared during her talk: Full Printed by nueveojos.

The day continued with a couple of talks that were some of my favorites of the conference. The first was Going Faster: Continuous Delivery for Firefox by Laura Thomson. Continuous Delivery (CD) has become increasingly popular for server-side applications that are served up to users, but this talk was an interesting take: delivering a client in a CD model. She didn’t offer a full solution for a CD browser, but instead walked through the problem space, design decisions and rationale behind the tooling they are using to get closer to a CD model for client-side software. Firefox is in an interesting space for this, as it already has add-ons that are released outside of the Firefox release model. What they decided to do was leverage this add-on tooling to create system add-ons, which are core to Firefox and to deliver microchanges, improvements and updates to the browser online. They’re also working to separate the browser code itself from the data that ships with it, under the premise that things like policy blacklists, dictionaries and fonts should be able to be updated and shipped independent of a browser version release. Indeed! This data would instead be shipped as downloadable content, and could also be tuned to only ship certain features upon request, like specific language support.

Laura Thomson, Director of Engineering, Cloud Services Engineering and Operations at Mozilla

The next talk that I got a lot out of was Wait, ?tahW: The Twisted Road to Right-to-Left Language Support (video) by Moriel Schottlender. Much like the first accessibility and internationalization talks I attended in the past, this is one of those talks that sticks with me because it opened my eyes to an area I’d never thought much about, as an English-only speaking citizen of the United States. She was also a great speaker who delivered the talk with the humor and intrigue… “can you guess the behavior of this right-to-left feature?” The talk began by making the case for more UIs supporting right to left (RTL) languages, citing that there are 800 million RTL speakers in the world who we should be supporting. She walked us through the concepts of Visual and Logical Rendering, how “obvious” solutions like flipping all content are flawed and considerations with regard to the relationship of content and the interface itself when designing for RTL. She also gave us a glimpse into the behavior of the Unicode Bidirectional Algorithm and the fascinating ways it behaves when mixing LTR and RTL languages. She concluded by sharing that expectations of RTL language users are pretty low since most software gets it wrong, but this means that there’s a great opportunity for projects that do support it to get it right. Her website on the topic that has everything she covered in her talk, and more, is at http://rtl.wtf.

Moriel Schottlender, Software Engineer at Wikimedia

Wednesday night was the Penguin Dinner, which is the major, all attendees welcome conference dinner of the event. The venue was The Pier, which was a restaurant appropriately perched on the end of a very long pier. It was a bit loud, but I had some interesting discussions with my fellow attendees and there was a lovely patio where we were able to get some fresh air and take pictures of the bay.

On Thursday a whole bunch of us enjoyed a talk about a Linux-driven Microwave (video) by David Tulloh. What I liked most about his talk was that while he definitely was giving a talk about tinkering with a microwave to give it more features and make it more accessible, he was also “encouraging other people to do crazy things.” Hack a microwave, hack all kinds of devices and change the world! Manufacturing one-off costs are coming down…

In the afternoon I gave my own talk, Open Source Tools for Distributed Systems Administration (video, slides). I was a bit worried that attendance wouldn’t be good because of who I was scheduled against, but I was mistaken, the room was quite full! After the talk I was able to chat with some folks who are also working on distributed systems teams, and with someone from another major project who was seeking to put more of their infrastructure work into open source. In all, a very effective gathering. Plus, my colleague Masayuki Igawa took a great photo during the talk!

Photo by Masayuki Igawa (source)

The afternoon continued with a talk by Rikki Endsley on Speaking their language: How to write for technical and non-technical audiences (video). Helpfully, she wrote an article on the topic so I didn’t need to take notes! The talk walked through various audiences, lay, managerial and experts and gave examples of how to craft posting for each. The announcement of a development change, for instance, will look very different when presenting it to existing developers than it may look to newcomers (perhaps “X process changed, here’s how” vs. “dev process made easier for new contributors!”), and completely differently when you’re approaching a media outlet to provide coverage for a change in your project. The article dives deep into her key points, but I will say that she delivered the talk with such humor that it was fun to learn directly from hearing her speak on the topic.

Also got my picture with Rikki! (source)

Thursday night was the Speakers’ dinner, which took place at a lovely little restaurant about 15 minutes from the venue via bus. I’m shy, so it’s always a bit intimidating to rub shoulders with some of the high profile speakers that they have at LCA,. Helpfully, I’m terrible with names, so I managed to chat away with a few people and not realize that they are A Big Deal until later. Hah! So the dinner was nice, but having been a long week I was somewhat thankful when the buses came at 10PM to bring us back.

Friday began with my favorite keynote of the conference! It was by Genevieve Bell (video), an Intel fellow with a background in cultural anthropology. Like all of my favorite talks, hers was full of humor and wit, particularly around the fact that she’s an anthropologist who was hired to work for a major technology company without much idea of what that would mean. In reality, her job turned out to be explaining humans to engineers and technologists, and using their combined insight to explore potential future innovations. Her insights were fascinating! A key point was that traditional “future predictions” tend to be a bit near-sighted and very rooted in problems of the present. In reality our present is “messy and myriad” and that technology and society are complicated topics, particularly when taken together. Her expertise brought insight to human behavior that helps engineers realize that while devices work better when connected, humans work better while disconnected (to the point of seeking “disconnection” from the internet on our vacations and weekends).

Additionally, many devices and technologies aim to provide a “seamless” experience, but that humans actually prefer seamful interactions so we can split up our lives into contexts. Finally, she spent a fair amount of time talking about our lives in the world of Internet of Things, and how some serious rules will need to be put in place to make us feel safe and supported by our devices rather than vulnerable and spied upon. Ultimately, technology has to be designed with the human element in mind, and her plea to us, as the architects of the future, is to be optimistic about the future and make sure we’re getting it right.

After her talk I now believe every technology company should have a staff cultural anthropologist.

Intel Fellow and cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell

My day continued with a talk by Andrew Tridgell on Helicopters and rocket-planes (video), one on Copyleft For the Next Decade: A Comprehensive Plan (video) by Bradley Kuhn, a talk by Matthew Garrett on Troublesome Privacy Measures: using TPMs to protect users (video) and an interesting dive into handling secret data with Tollef Fog Heen’s talk on secretd – another take on securely storing credentials (video).

With that, the conference came to a close with a closing session that included raffle prizes, thanks to everyone and the hand-off to the team running LCA 2017 in Hobart next year.

I went to more talks than highlighted in this post, but with a whole week of conferencing it would have been a lot to cover. I also am typically not the biggest fan of the “hallway track” (introvert, shy) and long breaks, but I knew enough people at this conference to find people to spend time with during breaks and meals. I could also get a bit of work done during the longer breaks without skipping too many sessions and it easy to switch rooms between sessions without disruption. Plus, all the room moderators I saw did an excellent job of keeping things on schedule.

Huge thanks to all the organizers and everyone who made me feel so welcome this year. It was a wonderful experience and I hope to do it again next year!

More photos from the conference and beautiful Geelong here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157664277057411