Impressions from Linux Conference Australia (LCA) 2009

I have returned home from Hobart where for the past week I have been attending the 2009 edition of Linux Conference Australia (or probably more accurately Australasia). It is usually referred to by the acronym: LCA.

This is largely a technical conference, but is evolving to be inclusive of all sorts of other disciplines too. For example, there were talks about the value of freedom in software and gaming with free and open source software and open hardware devices and so on.

This is interesting for me. Around 2002 I was configuring and installing Red Hat 5.2 boxes as on-site mail servers for clients. However, the company I was working for at the time didn’t give me any training on the systems. I just followed the “how-to” by typing in commands as I saw them. I didn’t develop an understanding of Linux, in fact quite the opposite and I was probably a denigrator of it for a while as I thought it was difficult to use and there was no GUI.

I continued in SME tech support and networking with Microsoft Windows, and got pretty good if I do say so myself!

Socially, most of my friends and people in my extended friendship circle are uber-geeks. But their world is completely different to mine. One of them works in a ISP writing code to monitor hundreds of servers. Others work in large organisations supporting thousands of users across continents. For someone who works in a small IT company supporting about 100 companies each of about 20 users, this is a completely different league.

In 2004 a friend gave me an Ubuntu 4.10 CD and told me it would be the next big thing. I tried it but wasn’t hugely impressed, so I left it for a while.

In 2005, the company I worked for had a client with a problem that needed an immediate, and if possible, cheap, solution. They were running a Windows Small Business Server and a Windows Terminal Server. One for data, the other for applications. They were having problems with bandwidth usage on their Internet connection and thought that one particular user was causing it, but were unable to prove it. We had to come up with a way of proving it. Easy you’d think, but when every web browser session is coming from the same server, the Terminal Server, that makes it rather difficult. We had to find a way of separating the session requests down toe the user level. And cheaply. The last bit was the actual problem. We could do it easily if the client agreed to pay lots of cash, but they weren’t going to agree to that.

I was tasked with this and after a few days of research and testing had a fully working and documented solution: Squid with NTLM authentication. The users would authenticate against the Squid proxy server and then we could analyse the log files to work out who was doing what. Needless to say, once the proof was presented to the user he stopped doing what he was doing and their monthly bandwith usage dropped off significantly.

This was my first real introduction to the power and flexibility of Free and Open Source Software. I was mightily impressed and I started to look into it a lot more. At about this time, Ubuntu was getting a lot of press. I tested out various distributions such as Ubuntu, MEPIS, SuSE and others. Whilst I didn’t begin to use any of them as my full-time operating system, at various points I had dual-boot systems and I was very slowly learning in my spare time.

I wasn’t until I got to China in late 2006 that I really had enough time to really get a grasp of Ubuntu (which was the only one of the various distributions that actually worked properly on my laptop). By the time 2007 rolled over into 2008, I was a firm FOSS fan-boi! The benchmark that I used was: how well does it work on my laptop? And the answer by this time was: really well. I no longer had to constantly worry about defragging, viruses and so on. Additionally, each major upgrade got things working better and faster.

I have been struggling to find out what I can do in this environment and community of free software uber-geeks (and I use the term in the nicest possible way!).

This conference I think I found it.

I am never going to be an uber-networking guy. I am never going to be able to programme anything much. I am never going to have the detailed technical knowledge of one particular subject. And that’s OK.

I am a generalist with business knowledge. I know how to write, document and train people.

And that’s what I can do. And will do. Stay tuned.