Admins of a Feather Flock Together at LISA

The 20th annual LISA (Large Installation System Administration) conference was held in Washington DC this year, from December 3rd to December 8th, continuing its tradition of excellent speakers, thought provoking side-topics and an all-around good time.

Science fiction author Cory Doctorow gave the keynote address on Wednesday. An aroused audience listened intently to a fun, anecdotal speech about the entertainment industry’s never-ending desire to lock products down with digital rights management (DRM). The takeaway from Doctorow’s address was that consumers must fight back, else the increasing restrictions will continue to stifle product usability and lock them into specific companies’ products. A surprisingly large number of attendees showed at this early morning kickoff.

LISA is broken up into two main portions: training sessions and technical sessions. Training sessions are available every day, and the technical sessions, held Wednesday through Friday, are the “main talks.” Training programs are expensive, but industry leaders and experts generally teach them, and they are very worthwhile. A variety of training courses are available, ranging from the managerial aspects of IT to low-level, highly technical training in many areas.

Each day of the technical sessions consists of four different tracks. This means that in each one and a half hour block, there are four talks to choose from.

Refereed papers are submitted well in advance, usually with more of a research orientation. Papers accepted by the committee are presented to an audience along with two others in the same time block. If you’re looking for cutting-edge ideas from the top researchers, this is the place to go. Refereed papers aren’t all about research, though. Systems administrators are encouraged to submit papers that talk about a problem and how they solved it. Many of these papers are insightful, and a source of invaluable information for other administrators.

Invited talks are also part of the technical session schedule. Each time block schedules two of these at once. The invited talks are actually more informal, and the topics vary a great deal. They encompass everything from DJ Byrne’s (NASA, JPL) “Open Source Software and Its Role in Space Exploration” talk, to sales pitches swung as informational pieces, such as the Power-Managed Storage speech given by Aloke Guha of COPAN Systems. Many are simply overviews of a technology, and perhaps some “best practices” advice.

Finally, the fourth talk is generally a “Guru Is In” or “Hit The Ground Running” session. Guru sessions are very informal symposium-style sessions run by an expert in a specific area. For example, VMware talked about virtualization, and Tom Limoncelli talked about Time Management for System Administrators; the title of his excellent book, but the talk was not a sales pitch by any measure. When there wasn’t a Guru session scheduled, the Hit The Ground Running sessions were available. Each session consisted of five topics, intended to provide some insight into what, why and how to implement technologies. A small sampling of these topics includes: OpenAFS, NFSv4, Puppet and Bcfg2 (configuration management tools), and “Building a Linux Oracle RAC Cluster.”

There were many interesting topics, and some were getting more attention than others. Not surprisingly, spam discussions were everywhere. How to deal with it, what new technologies exist, whether or not greylisting is practical and nice, and just about every other aspect of spam handling.

Configuration management was also a hot topic; especially since the authors of the big three configuration tools were present and giving excellent talks about their tools. Configuration management is the mechanism by which configurations of servers are handled. In short, it’s how systems are defined and subsequently automated. Cfengine’s author Mark Burgess gave a Refereed Papers talk about the next generation of configuration management. The more practical applications, Puppet and Bcfg2 were on everyone’s minds as authors Luke Kanies (Puppet) and Narayan Desai (Bcfg2) both gave numerous informative presentations about their tools. The real question everyone is struggling with is not whether they should continue using cfengine, but rather which of the other two they should switch to.

An undisputed benefit of conferences is the social networking aspect they facilitate. There’s tons of free food, goodies from the vendor booths, and of course the BoFs, or Birds of a Feather sessions.

A BoF can be scheduled by anyone; in fact, there was a board available for anyone to pencil in a room reservation. BoFs happen in the evening after the day’s festivities have subsided and everyone has had supper (or beer, the substitute). The same problem exists with BoFs as with the technical track: there are too many good options. A BoF can be a gathering of like people to discuss anything they’re interested in. Topics included: Issues being Gay/Lesbian/Bi in IT, product pitches from startup companies, Issues with University IT, roundtable discussions of particular technologies, etc. The BoFs are the single most important activity if you’re looking to meet people, or possibly want ideas on how to solve a big problem—chances are many people have already done it.

Professional affiliations are important, and provide an excellent way to keep on top of current issues through publications and sponsored events. SAGE, the USENIX Special Interest Group for Sysadmins sponsors LISA. However, a newcomer was present also. Just formed last year, LOPSA, the League of Professional System Administrators, is a bona fide professional organization for system administrators. LOPSA is dedicated to advancing the profession and gaining recognition for systems administrators as the professionals they are.

LISA’s 20th iteration was a hit. A plethora of information was available, like-minded individuals exchanged business cards, and everyone got free t-shirts. Having too much good stuff to choose from is definitely a problem, but a welcome conundrum for attendees wishing to receive maximum benefit.

I, for one, am pleasantly exhausted.

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