Last weekend I went to FOSDEM, and on my return was promptly ill for a week, probably with some Euro-virus. I’ve mostly recovered now, so here is my belated review. This is the fourth time I’ve been in five years and I think it’s the one I’ve enjoyed most.

It’s an expensive weekend however you look at it. The Eurostar is usually between £70 and £90 depending on when it’s booked and what time the trains are. The HantsLUG geeks usually stay at the Novotel which is very convenient for the city centre and is right at the start of the bus route to the University. It’s clean and comfortable but not the cheapest, about 140 to 190 euros for two people over two nights, again depending on the deal. And that doesn’t always include breakfast. Throw in the cost of travel on the wonderfully efficient Belgian busses and metro system for the weekend (about 8 euros), a couple of meals out and drinks to accompany and you’re soon heading for £250 per person.

I don’t mind forking out for that if it’s going to be a fun weekend and I learn something useful too. The problem is that in previous years I didn’t feel I’d done that. In 2005, I probably selected the wrong talks. Not being a developer, a lot of information wasn’t any use to me. I also lost contact with the HantsLUG lot I’d travelled out with and spent the Saturday evening on my own in the hotel. So I didn’t worry about going back in 2006. The year after I decided to give it another go. I understood more of the talks and enjoyed the social activities. More importantly the contents of the talks I attended were actually useful. But I always come away wondering whether I can justify coughing up the dough next year.

This year, the FOSDEM organisers seem to have introduced lots of new ideas, all of which make life a little bit easier for people attending the event. These are important steps. The easier it is to get to, enjoy and get away from an event, the more likely you are to return.

Instead of one bar there were two, reducing the rush at peak times. The same simple and cheap sandwiches were provided, although the chip van was even more popular this year, in its new, prime, location. And the best idea yet: Breakfast! Each morning volunteers dished out coffee and pastries to attendees for only a few euros. Compared with the 18 euros per person the hotel was charging this was a great price and helped lessen the cost of the weekend. They had a free cloakroom, so we didn’t have to lug our bags round with us all day, the usual curse of the Sunday at FOSDEM. There were free buses provided throughout Sunday afternoon between the University and Gare du Midi from which the Eurostar departs. Although Belgium’s public transport is very punctual, there is no direct route between these two locations, so the special bus service meant we could stay a bit later to catch that extra talk. As last year there was a “spouses tour” run by professional guides, a perfect way to occupy potentially bored other halves, dragged to a fantastic European capital only to be subjected to the insides of a drab sixties university occupied by the finest cross-section of geek culture. As ever the large volunteer crew kept everything running smoothly for the 5000+ geeks in attendance, whilst seemingly remaining cheery throughout.

It’s still not perfect though. The noise from the bar still drifts up to the main Jansen lecture theatre and some attendees still thoughtlessly leave the doors between the two ajar, exacerbating the problem. The PA in Jansen is still next to useless. You can only hear clearly if you sit right at the front or directly facing one of the sets of speakers mounted in the room higher up this massive lecture theatre. Once you cotton on to that trick, all you have to do then is filter out the murmours and mutters from the assembled continental geeks who seem to maintain their own conversations through most of any speaker’s presentation. Some of the developer rooms, notably the Debian room, never seem large enough to accomodate all the people who would like to get in. The corridors are over-crowded at times, meaning it takes ages to get between rooms.

There were a few problems with the main schedule, requiring amendments to be displayed. Ted T’so had his laptop stolen at the grim Gare du Midi station. The developer rooms still haven’t been pressured into finishing all their talks on the hour so that people can easily move between tracks. Moving the event to the beginning of February rather than the end meant that attendees were forced to decide between getting cold dashing between buildings or having to carry a big coat around with them inside. The street outside the venue for the Friday night beer event, Cafe Delirium, was a crush again and it proved impossible to get inside for hours. Perhaps there is no venue suitable for that many geeks but FOSDEM has certainly outgrown this one.

The usual suspects were present on the stands, including the lovely Josette on the O’Reilly stand. I resisted and didn’t buy anything though, for once! The stands occupied most of the communication space in the outlying “AW” building too. Although I don’t get much out of those stands, it’s good to see from the general levels of activity around them that I appear to be an exception.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The weekend started by meeting up with Adrian at Waterloo. Having planned for the worst effects on the trains of the continued snow, we were in plenty of time, so we went for an enjoyable lunch in that little restaurant under the railway arches opposite the station. Knowing that the Eurostar wasn’t due in to Brussels until about half seven we also stashed sandwiches into our bags for consumption during the journey so we could get to the beer event as soon as possible after checking into the hotel. At St. Pancras we met up with Graham, Hugo, Andy, Neil and James before boarding a hassle- and noise-free carriage. The Eurostar has started selling tickets for the Brussels’ metro system but ran out before everyone had got one. This meant an inevitable wait while multiple ticket machines, credit cards and cash denominations were tried before the entire party had a valid ticket. One of the useful things about FOSDEM the way that we have tended to do it (travelling on Friday and Sunday) is that you can do the whole weekend on a “5 journey” ticket so at least once the hurdle of getting the tickets is surmounted, it doesn’t need to be repeated. Next year we vowed to order tickets online before travelling to eliminate the hassle. Time will tell if any of us remember this.

By the time we’d reached the hotel, checked in and unpacked, it was gone nine. Those who hadn’t packed lunches for the journey dived into Subway for rapid refreshment. Fortunately the location for the beer event, Cafe Delerium, is only a short walk away, although the walk does involve running the gauntlet of the tourist-hungry restaurants who are especially forceful in trying to gain your custom in the winter slump. Having got there and ploughed halfway through the aforementioned crush, we diverted into the bar opposite, which was marginally less crammed. A few beers down, we were joined by the bald Ade Bradshaw and his friends. Ade was in a particularly jolly mood helped no doubt by the excellent Belgian beverages. Eventually I braved the alley way and made it into the Cafe proper and found Emma Jane Hogbin and Matt Garrett. Conversation was difficult as the pub was so packed with inebriated geeks it was hard to make oneself heard. Fortunately I was able to grab a seat after a bit and spent some time shouting at Will Thompson.

Looking over the schedule online before the event is essential. Unless you want to rely on the conference wireless of course! There were twenty tracks this year so most of the talks only had the title included in the printed booklet. The website however gives whatever extra information is available on each talk, incredibly useful when the subject matter is obscured by the talk title. The upside of this is that if you know there is nothing you desperately want to see at ten in the morning, you don’t have to drag yourself out of bed in time to do so. Which is what we did on Saturday morning, arriving in time to get breakfast, donate to support the event (whilst picking up a t-shirt!) and catch the start of the second keynote, Bdale Garbee talking about Debian.

Bdale is a genial speaker and his brief history of the Debian project was well delivered. However his talk seemed to miss a real central topic, which was hinted at by a brief rundown of Debian’s governance from a historical perspective. It would have been interesting to look at some of the thinking behind the successful governance of Debian and the impact of particular incidents on how the community runs itself. Maybe given the turbulent times Debian has recently been experiencing this was too fresh a subject matter for such public dissection but it resulted in a talk which, whilst superficially interesting, seemed like it skated around its real subject matter.

Wandering around the event on Saturday, I bumped in to Scott James Remnant, James Westby and Bruno Bord as well as the suspects from the previous evening. It was great to catch up with them all and really helps one to feel part of the community. I also stuck some Ubuntu UK Podcast stickers on the notice boards and Jan Cleys of the Belgian LoCo was happy to give out more from the team’s stand. After lunch I went off to the talk by the DebConf video team. The talk was considerably delayed, but fortunately Matthew Walster was also in the audience so we chatted whilst watching people try to make video equipment work. It was probably not the best idea to have the video team giving the first talk, as they were still setting up the bits of equipment necessary when the talk was supposed to be underway. Once they got going, two rather frazzled speakers took us through the set up used to stream the multi-venue DebConf to viewers on the ‘net. There are probably better ways of doing it, but few cheaper, I suspect. I was also very interested to hear about DVswitch, a networked software vision mixer. It’s very simple, both in terms of features and GUI but apparently much more complex to set up. It could be a very useful project if development continues.

Then the Lightning Talks room. If there’s nothing else specific I want to see, I’ll usually end up there. Mostly because you might just see something totally random and unexpectedly interesting whilst minimising the short discomfort of an irrelevant talk, but partly for the teutonic efficiency with which the room is run and the carefully planned pun with which each speaker is presented with a box of chocolates afterwards. The Linux Defenders presentation was a slightly curious attempt to describe a pro-software patent organisation which aquires patents and makes deals with companies to defend FLOSS developers. Given software patents are not inforcable in Europe (thanks, OpenRightsGroup!) and that most FLOSS developers have an instinctive dislike of software patents anyway, this talk did not have the impact it would probably have done in front of a US crowd. The next talk, SmallMail, was equally curious. Touting itself as a solution to e-mail privacy in an era of data retention, it seems to use a mixture of public-key encryption and the Tor network to anonymise e-mail whilst still retaining the important functionality of enabling two people to communicate electronically. The format of the anonymised addresses shown present a usability nightmare and I suspect this technology will remain in the domain of tin-foil hat brigade for some time yet. I did promise myself I would look more into the technology to better understand how it works though, so I will.

The FLOSS Metrics talk gave an insight into how the health of a project can be measured using mailing lists, wikis and VCS commits. This information might be of interest to statistics nerds or potential investors but it wasn’t clear to me who outside of those groups would benefit from the huge amount of information being mined out of the various sources. The Bazaar talk was given by Lenz Grimmer, a Sun employee working on MySQL. Apparently Sun use Bazaar a lot internally so it was reassuring to see the tool being advocated by someone who wasn’t one of its developers. After a break I returned to the Lightning Talks and heard James Peel talk about what’s new in Opsview 3 and what will be coming in the next release. I am a fan of Opsview and it was great to see that there is a lot of development work still going into it. The next talk was a real highlight: Marionnet. Marionnet is a network simulation tool. Designed for an education environment, but suitable for anyone who wants to test and debug networks and network applications, it allows the GUI construction of networks incorporating servers, hubs, switches, routers, dodgy cables and ports, unknown network clouds and more. It can generate packet duplications and losses, with simulated NIC status lights actually reflecting each packet hitting the card. Each server or router has a terminal from which the user can issue commands, perhaps to attempt a denial of service attack or to test firewall settings. Graphical applications can be run on the virtual hosts. Being designed for education, it even includes an exam mode where the actions of the candidate are recorded for assessment. Unfortunately the GUI is in French at the moment but as it gets translated I’m sure it will proove increasingly popular.

Back to the Debian room to find out about running Debian on a NAS device. If you just want to use your NAS device as a NAS then you might as well stick with the firmware bundled with it, but if you want to turn your NAS device into a print or shell server too then you might be able to do so. Debian Lenny supports lots of NAS devices and we were given a rundown of which ones work best. Most have very small amounts of RAM which makes life tricky though. Unfortunately this talk was a recap of talk given the previous year, so the rundown of new devices didn’t suit the largely new audience very well, myself included. I’ll need to do more research before I can retire my old file server and replace it with something greener and quieter. My last talk of the day was Gemvid, a program for monitoring animal behaviour. As the keeper of two animals whose behaviour often bewilders me, I was amused to hear how relatively cheap kit from Ebay could be used to measure the activity levels of, in this case, rats. It turns out that rats mostly don’t move during the day and mostly do move during the night. Individual rats can then have their normal patterns of activity “fingerprinted”. This can then be compared with readings taken after they’re given a presumably experimental dose of some chemical or other.

The evening saw Emma and James join the HantsLUG lot for the now traditional Saturday night curry. After a brief confusion over in the lobby of which Novotel we were supposed to be rendezvous-ing and my confusion about the location of the restaurant in relation to the large columnate buildings that populate central Brussels, we made it. The curry was good when it both it and my seat had eventually arrived. I enjoyed the company too.

I missed the Cobbler & Koan talk on Sunday morning for similar reasons to the day before. I heard some interesting things about it afterwards, so was mildly annoyed at having done so. After breakfast I made it to the MySQL HA talk, given by the same Lenz Grimmer who had talked about Bazaar. The first third or so of the talk was taken up with a discussion of what High Availability is and isn’t. As I’m familiar with the theory if not the practice of HA this wasn’t useful for me, but would have served as a good introduction for people with no experience of HA whatsoever. The remainder of the talk looked at the various replication topologies that MySQL can use to provide HA, as well as other tools which can provide related redundancy options.

The traditional lunchtime GPG keysigning took place, but fortunately I had restricted myself to CACert activities. When the GPG signers were dragged outside to complete their awkward ID-verifying conga I was glad I wouldn’t be enduring the cold to do so too. This was my first “mass assurance” session for CACert, having previously only done assurances for individuals. It was good to see so many people wanting to be assured and I was glad to finally be able to give more than ten points to someone, having notched up enough assurances to shunt me up the ladder. I curtailed my CACert activities to meet up with Ade and then did a couple of interviews which may be appearing on a podcast some time.

The highlight of the afternoon was Bruno’s talk about Pyroom. I tried Pyroom back in the early days but it was fantastic to see that it had been developed beyond Bruno’s expectations. As soon as my Internet connection is back at home (three weeks and counting PlusNet!) I’m going to try it out again. Bruno gave a largely serious but charming talk with excellent slides and threw in a couple of nuggets for the LUG Radio fans in the audience, including a reference to Baguette on Snails. I then caught the end of Ted T’so’s talk on ext4, which was largely the same as the one I’d seen at Google in December. Unfortunately the P2P Replicative Filesystem talk was cancelled, but the train times meant I would have missed it anyway. I also had to miss Leslie Hawthorn’s keynote on the Google Summer of Code scheme, but at least she gave me a big hug in the corridor beforehand!

The journey back was reasonably quick and quiet, although standing in the lobby area next to first class recording another podcast interview caused many amused looked from the catering staff. Let’s just say that one will have “atmosphere”. Heading down from London I was surprised to see that Basingstoke’s platforms were still covered in snow, both in that it hadn’t melted naturally or hadn’t been cleared manually. Although it means missing the tail end of the event, leaving that bit early meant getting home by ten, much preferred to gone midnight as it has been in previous years.

Personally, FOSDEM 2009 was well worthwhile attending, and it was made more enjoyable by great company and new visitor facilities.

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