Roger Whittaker

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LinuxWorld: the view from the stand

The Linux exhibition at Olympia is a regular high point of the calendar in London for Linux enthusiasts. The show now operates under the LinuxWorld banner, and traditionally offers a paid-for conference alongside the free exhibition. This year's event followed the same pattern, and took place on the 25th and 26th October.

My own view of these exhibitions has always been from the point of view of an exhibitor: since 2000, I've been on a stand at the show every year except 2004. So I see the event from possibly a slightly different perspective from that of a typical visitor. It certainly means that there's less time to browse the whole hall, because there's a constant queue to be dealt with.

At LinuxWorld 2006, I was part of the Novell team, answering questions about SLES 10 and demonstrating new features such as Xen and Apparmor. The questions came in thick and fast, particularly after our rather noisy speakers had done their pitch in front of the big plasma screen.

The general layout and look of the show were similar to previous years. As you might expect, the large stands were those of Novell, HP, IBM and Oracle. These were surrounded by many smaller stands belonging to smaller companies.

I was situated at the edge of the Novell stand, and just across the aisle from where the ".org village" began: a good place to be, both literally and metaphorically.

One company was highly conspicuous by its absence, but probably more talked about than any other by participants in the show. Red Hat did not have a stand, and had only a tiny presence on the IBM stand. But the news that came out overnight between the two days of the show brought their name into sharp focus.

On the Wednesday, all the talk was about what would be announced by Oracle overnight. Most people seemed to believe that Oracle would be announcing a deal with Canonical to make Ubuntu its preferred Linux distribution. The Canonical representatives were tight-lipped. The Oracle staff were also saying nothing. On Thursday morning, when news of Oracle's announcement of their parasitic distribution sank in, it was the talk of the show, and there was a lot of speculation and discussion about the likely impact on the Linux market as a whole.

Among the more interesting smaller companies exhibiting were Bytemark, with their virtual hosting solution, Tux Games with their selection of games for Linux, and UKLinux with their Linux-friendly ISP service. Transtec were there with their Linux-friendly hardware. Centrify were showing their Active Directory integration tools, and SpikeSource their supported versions of Open Source programs. Scalix were demonstrating their email and calendaring solution, and AVG their anti-virus tools.

Also scattered among the commercial stands were OpenForum Europe, the National Computing Centre and CompAid.

For those wanting to buy books to brush up on their Linux knowledge, there were three choices: Josette Garcia was, as always on these occasions, representing O'Reilly with her usual style and panache, while Foyles and Apress also had their own stands.

In the .org village, organisations represented included GLLUG (the Greater London Linux Users' Group), Lonix (their more convivially-oriented counterpart), UKUUG and the Free Software Foundation,

Projects with stands in the .org area included Debian, OpenBSD, Joomla, Inkscape, Postgresql, Karoshi (an interesting school server solution), Centos (possibly upstaged by Oracle's outrageous Centos-ising we heard about on Thursday morning), Drupal and Hula. KDE had a stand from which they were distributing Kubuntu disks, while Ubuntu was represented in the .org area by volunteers as well as in the "commercial" area by Canonical.

As usual at these events, some exhibitors used eye-catching gimmicks to draw attention to themselves. The outrageous and unfeasibly proportioned Rackspace blondes were not in attendance on this occasion, but there was a Rackspace radio controlled airship flying up to the roof of the hall. Qube networks featured a group of "Maoris" performing the haka (hacker, geddit?), a performance which was loud, spectacular and just across the aisle from our stand. Amusing and fun at first, it became slightly harder to cope with after several repetitions while we tried to explain the minutiae of Xen virtualisation to potential customers. Positive Internet's excellent giraffe man was seen walking around the show from time to time, and even joined the "Maoris" for their performance at least once.

Throughout the two days of the show, the parallel conference (for paying customers) was going on downstairs. I only managed to get away for one of the conference talks (Justin Davies' discussion of "Web 2.0"). Other talks were given by some big names, including Jon 'maddog' Hall, Alan Cox, Bdale Garvee and Jeremy Allison. Michael Meeks spoke about the current state of the Linux desktop, and Ian Pratt spoke on "Xen in the Enterprise". Unfortunately Bruce Perens (who was slated to appear on the second day) had to pull out, but Google's Chris DiBona discussed their "Summer of Code" initiative, and Jono Bacon also did a desktop session. Other speakers included IBM's Nick Davies and Ruediger Berlich, well-known to UK SUSE veterans. The conference sessions took place in what I can only describe as tents on the lower floor. These were not ideal, particularly from the point of soundproofing: a lot of noise seemed to come into the presentations from the surrounding area.

Also downstairs was an area where Omni had set up computers for Internet access, with a far larger number of keyboards and monitors, making use of their interesting desktop multiplier solution.

On both days there were also a couple of "masterclasses" as part of the conference, as well as free business briefings and the lunchtime "Great Linux Debate". I wish I could tell you more about all these things, but stand-manner's lot is not always a happy one: apart from grabbing an egregiously expensive sandwich at the cafe downstairs, there was not much time for doing other things, because the flow of visitors to the stand was a constant one.

On Wednesday evening a large contingent made their way in groups to various local pubs and restaurants. Those with invitations and tuxedos attended the awards dinner, where awards went to (among others) Michael Meeks for his individual contribution, Ubuntu as a distribution, and LugRadio Live for Linux marketing. Maddog won an award for his lifetime contribution to Linux. Joomla! won a project award, and the Kent Police Authority together with Novell won an award for best public sector open source implementation.

The attendees were (as usual) a very varied bunch. Those wearing suits were in a minority, and females even more so. There were plenty of beards, and at least some sandals were clearly visible. Many of the attendees were what some people slightly condescendingly describe as "hobbyists": to me that's fine, because that's pretty much what I was before my career in Linux began. Others were owners of small businesses installing and supporting Linux for their customers. Others were system administrators and technical staff working for businesses of all sizes, while still others were budget holders in large companies. In many cases it was absolutely not clear at first sight whether they had what's known as "influence over purchasing decisions", but there were some surprises where people who were very young, very hairy or both turned out to be making major strategic decisions.

That brings me to an important point. The rumour was that Red Hat's non-attendance was partly a result of a feeling on their part that the cost and trouble of attending the show is not offset by the resulting orders. This is likely to be at least part of the reason: judging purely on a financial "return on investment" basis calculated via the conversion of leads gained at the show, it might well not be considered worthwhile to attend. But that kind of calculation is in my view a narrow one: LinuxWorld is not the kind of show that many people come to in order to buy at or make immediate decisions about purchasing. It's a place where people go to improve the quality of their background knowledge, to gauge the quality of the offerings and knowledge of the various vendors, and to interact in a general way with others who share an interest in Linux and Free and Open Source Software. It also provides the vendors with a way of interacting with the community. And that's important: people who use Linux are not just "consumers" of software: they are, and should be encouraged to become, part of a community. Vendors need to cherish and encourage that sense of community, because of the mutual benefit it provides and the trust that it engenders.