Red Hat Summit: Overview and Reflections

by Russell Dyer

Last week in New Orleans, Red Hat held its first annual conference called Red Hat Summit. I've used Red Hat Linux for quite a few years, so this seemed like a good opportunity to meet some of the Red Hat people and to learn more about the operating system and related software. Although the newness of this conference showed at times, overall it was a good meeting. Many interesting presentations were given, which made it worth attending. In this article I give an overview of the conference and conclude with some reflections on Linux that occurred to me during some of the presentations.

General Comments

Over 700 participants attended the Red Hat Summit--not the thousands LinuxWorld Expo can brag about, but a respectable showing all the same for Red Hat's first conference. At the registration desk, attendants were given a neat bag worth keeping, a hat and an impressive booklet describing the speakers and sessions. The registration package looked like it went over budget. I can't imagine it being as nice at future conferences. Each night a reception or party was offered with live music, an open bar and plenty of food. The breakfasts and lunches all were part of the admission price and were excellent as well. The parties along with the meals were paid for in part by corporate sponsors, such as IBM, HP and AMD. Throw in the talks and the hotel room, which was part of the registration fee, and there certainly was good value in the price of admission.

Figure 1. Matthew Szulik (Photograph by Jonathan Opp)

One complaint that many of us had, though, is that the conference didn't provide users with wireless Internet access. We had access initially, but the staff realized it inadvertently had left the network open. By late morning of the first day, they had locked us out. Many of us complained, but it did no good. The staff's retort was that we should use the hotel's wireless network. Unfortunately, it wasn't free, it was down much of the time and it wasn't available in the meeting rooms where the conference was held. Maybe I'm spoiled, but I find it difficult to dedicate several days to a conference and thereby forego all of my other work. Also, it's useful to pull up Web pages and download software discussed by speakers at the various sessions. Hopefully, next year the conference staff will change its attitude on this point.

Keynotes & Announcements

The conference started off each morning with an opening keynote address by a top person from Red Hat, immediately followed by a partner keynote talk from an executive of one of Red Hat's partners. The introduction capped off with a visionary keynote from a member of the community. The executive talks were interesting from a business perspective, but the visionary keynotes were much more interesting for general attendees. The staging, lighting and videos were spectacular, by the way: a highly professional crew orchestrated the keynote talks. My only complaint about the organization of the keynote talks was they rolled from one to the next without a break. For some, though, this may be good in that we were able to listen to three presentations in a row without having to get up.

The first day's keynote address was given by Red Hat's CEO, Matt Szulik. He talked about the future of open-source and free software and how we're at the beginning of a new revolution. He finished off his talk by donning a choir robe and joining in with some gospel singers who sang about being misunderstood. Following Szulik, the partner keynote was presented by Martin Fink, Vice President of Linux at Hewlett-Packard. Fink gave a business analysis of the open-source market. The visionary keynote of the day came from John Buckman of Magnatune who spoke about the music-download industry. At a press conference on the first day, Red Hat announced the Red Hat and the Fedora Directory Server, both of which are based on the Netscape Directory Server that Red Hat acquired last year. According to one of the pamphlets, it is "an LDAP server that centralizes application settings, user profiles, group data, policies, and access control information into a network-based registry." Red Hat intends to make the related software open-source under the GPL fairly soon.

On the second day, the keynote line up was Michael Tiemann, VP for Open-Source Affairs at Red Hat, who talked about how this century belongs to open-source and not to closed-source companies. For the partner keynote, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, VP of Technical Strategy and Innovation at IBM, spoke in the same vein. Then, Greg Stein of the Apache Software Foundation provided an interesting talk on open-source and Apache and the activities at the Foundation. He wasn't originally on the schedule, but he made a great fill-in speaker and should be asked to speak again at next year's conference.

Figure 2. Mark Webbink (Photograph by Jonathan Opp)

The third and final morning offered keynotes from Mark Webbink, Deputy General Counsel of Red Hat; Richard Wirt, VP of Intel; and Bruce Mau, CEO of Bruce Mau Design. It was odd having a lawyer speaking at a software conference. However, Webbink was the right person to explain Red Hat's plan to give Fedora more independence, among other things. This includes handing over the copyrights of Red Hat code to the community spin-off. Webbink also announced that Red Hat is creating an organization called the Software Patent Commons that will work for the sharing of software patents. Red Hat has opposed software patents, but legal actions on the part of Microsoft has made it necessary for patents to be taken seriously.

Break-Out Sessions

The keynote talks were all good, but the breakout sessions were much better. Most of them were practical talks on how to get more out Linux and related software. For instance, one session by Bret McMillan focused on how to use Red Hat Network (RHN) to keep servers up-to-date. There was another session on tracking server performance with RHN, given by Nick Hansen. One can use RHN to monitor system usage and to improve server performance, including not only hardware and network related services but also application performance--Apache, MySQL and so on. RHN also includes an interface for setting up regular expressions for log file monitoring. RHN either provides status information in a Web interface or sends an e-mail to the systems administrator for services that exceed certain levels set by the sysadmin. A session on the various features of the FireFox Web browser was given by Chris Aillon of Mozilla. This included not only giving us some tips on its use but also a discussion of the implementation of CSS3 Selectors; the latest version supports 85% of them. Another session was conducted by Dan Williams on getting cool stuff from OpenOffice.org and how to integrate it with other applications. For instance, with the beta 2.0 version of OpenOffice.org a document can interface with a MySQL database.

Figure 3. Douglas Shakshober

The sessions mentioned above were only a few from the Desktop track and the Application Development track. Five other tracks were on the schedule for the Summit: OS Technologies, Clustering & Virtualization, Systems Management, Business and Security & Identity Management. The OS Technologies sessions, such as the one given by Larry Woodman and Douglas Shakshober on "System Performance Tuning", along with some of the Security track sessions were packed and quite informative.

Personal Reflections

While attending Red Hat Summit as well as LinuxWorld Expo in Boston a few months ago and a couple of other open-source conferences this year, I couldn't help but notice how the face of Linux is changing. When I started with Linux over eight years ago, talks about Linux were given by guys who looked geeky, nerdy or whatever label you want to put on them. It seems that Linux has grown to become the concern of big corporations, and the keynote speakers aren't guys in need of a haircut and some time in the sun. Instead, the keynote speakers are top executives wearing expensive suits or business casual clothing, all speaking in a very professional manner. I don't know if this change is good or bad, but I'm wondering if Linux belongs to us any more.

It's wonderful that Linux is well received and has been growing in success. However, I'm see huge companies, such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Novell and others, trying to take control of Linux and open-source software for their benefit. Of course, whether that's actually possible if debatable. The community created Linux out of simple ideas and intellectual passion. The big software companies tried to ignore it for years until it could no longer be ignored. Now, they're trying to direct it. For instance, frustrated with the haphazard progress of the various GUI desktops, Red Hat scooped up some of the volunteer developers of the GNOME desktop and gave them full-time jobs developing GNOME based on the needs of Red Hat's target markets and on its schedule. Admittedly, this has produced some great results. However, one has to wonder how much the herding and corralling of open-source developers helps and hurts the future of open source. Red Hat seems to be second-guessing themselves on this strategy by setting up Fedora in the hopes that the enthusiasm from the community from years past will take hold again--to their benefit, of course.

When I sit through the keynote speeches at these conferences, it amazes me how these top executives can come up with the most bizarre looking graphs and charts to explain the open-source development trend thus far, thereby attempting to predict accurately where it's heading. These executives seem to be trying to take data they've accumulated on the open-source industry and squeeze it into traditional business models so they can explain it in ways they as business managers can understand. From that, they hope to be able to control or at least to predict future trends. Of course, they're forgetting that the trend didn't occur as the result of careful corporate planning. Instead, it happened over usenets and e-mails and from computer hackers diligently working each night after midnight, obsessed with squashing bugs or adding new features based on their perception of what's cool, not what's profitable.

Linux purists have long been aware of this developing pattern. They regularly guffaw at Red Hat, GNOME and other such commercializations of Linux and GNU software. They stick with Slackware for their Linux distribution, Enlightenment for window management and Emacs for text editing and even word processing. Maybe I'm a little slow, but I'm starting to see their point of view and the validity of it. If the big software companies are to take over the revolution--as implied in Szulik's keynote comments--what will be the results? Will they be what Linus Torvalds set out to achieve 14 years ago? We seem to be long past that point. More importantly, will the many thousands of volunteers that donated their time over the last decade or so have done so in the end to make big corporations richer? Also, if we concede to the overpowering marketing strategies and business savvy of the technology giants, what will become of us? Are we simply to become their employees? Are our opinions in the future to be written on cards to be dropped in company suggestion boxes and thereby ignored? Or, maybe we will merely grumble for a few decades until another Linus Torvalds comes forward and starts a new revolution? I don't know what the answers are, and I don't really know what should or can be done--or if anything needs to be done. I do think, however, that we need to pay attention to what's happening to our revolution, and these are the kinds of questions that should be discussed at a "summit" on Linux--and the answers shouldn't be told to us by corporate executives.

Russell Dyer has written on MySQL and other open-source topics for several magazines, including Linux Journal, over the past three years. He is the author of MySQL in a Nutshell (O'Reilly 2005). He lives and works in New Orleans and can be reached at russell@dyerhouse.com.

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