posted by Phil Hollenback on Thu 14th Apr 2005 06:08 UTC
IconThis is the 30th anniversary of USENIX, the Advanced Computer Association. USENIX was started in 1975 as 'The Unix Users Group' and has been holding regular conferences ever since (along with many other activities, of course). USENIX focuses on the Unix world, including unix-like OSes like Linux. The USENIX conference is the place to go if you want to find out about topics such as advanced system administration or the latest filesystem research projects. USENIX is a blend of academic presentations and socialization. If you want to ask Andy Tanenbaum what he thinks of Linux, you can do it at USENIX.

At the same time, there are problems with USENIX. Is it relevant to modern computing? I know that when I look around the presentations, I see a lot of gray hair and wrinkles. Where are the fresh new faces and new ideas? Is membership in USENIX important for your professional development? While I can't answer all these questions, hopefully this small insight into this year's conference will give you an idea of what goes on at a USENIX conference and what you might be missing because you aren't here.

This year the conference was moved up to the middle of April instead of the usual mid-summer timeslot. The justification for this is that USENIX now conflicts with fewer other conferences. I don't know whether this is true, but from what I've seen attendance is down from last year (that's just based on looking around, not counting the attendance list). I wonder if the early date didn't catch a lot of people by surprise.

I've been interested in USENIX since I started my career back at SCO in the mid nineties (the old SCO, not the lawsuit-happy one of today). At the time, the open source movement was just gathering steam: Linux was popping up everywhere and big software projects like GNOME and KDE were starting up.

I was idealistic and fresh out of college back then. I had become involved in the SCO project called Skunkware to port open-source software to their OSes. A number of other Skunkware contributors were going to the '97 USENIX in New Orleans so I convinced my boss to send me too. What an experience. Between the party atmosphere of New Orleans and the technical discussions, I was hooked. I still remember Richard Stallman discussing free software and "GNU/Linux".

After that I attended the '98 USENIX and was planning on attending '99 until the company I was working for collapsed, leaving me without corporate sponsorship. I finally found someone else to send me to USENIX 2004 in Boston. Some things were different: the conference was smaller than in the late 90s, and there was not such a huge emphasis on the open-source world. Still, I enjoyed it enough to attend this year's USENIX in Anaheim, CA. I'm here for the three days of the technical sessions. Every day I will try to take some notes and describe the experience for Now that all the background is out of the way, on to the conference.

I'm going to start with the night before the conference. I arrived in Ontario, CA at 11:20pm on a direct JetBlue flight. I expected a prearranged airport shuttle to pick me up. However, it never appeared and I was forced to hire a taxi at the last minute. I believe the $80 taxi ride was the most expensive I have ever taken. I knew I was in California and not New York because there wasn't a bulletproof divider between the driver and passengers. Still, I can't complain because I made it to the Anaheim Marriott before the hotel bar closed.

The next morning (this morning) was the start of the conference. Actually there were tutorial sessions on Monday and Tuesday, but that is separate from the main conference. The keynote speaker was George Dyson, a historian who is writing a book about Von Neumann and the birth of the digital computer at Princeton. A few interesting tidbits that I learned:

  • Kurt Godel's office was directly above Von Neumann's in Fuld Hall at Princeton.
  • The real purpose of the computer work at Princeton in the 1950s was the development of the hydrogen bomb.
  • Hardware used to be very unreliable and programs were very reliable. Now the reverse is true.

Also I looked George Dyson up in Google and he is Freeman Dyson's son (and Esther Dyson's brother). Sometimes I think the Dysons are the Wayans of the computer world: they keep popping up everywhere!

All in all this was a very informative and enjoyable speech. Of particular note were the original documents that George had discovered at Princeton, including computer operator logs with humorous scribbles and memos protesting the excessive use of sugar by the computer folks (during WWII sugar rationing).

After the keynote was a coffee break where I did a little geek stargazing and found the following individuals:

  • Andrew Tannenbaum (creator of MINIX)
  • Bill Cheswick (author of the computer science classic, "Repelling the Wily Hacker")
  • Longtime Linux developer Theodore T'so.
  • Security guru Marcus Ranum, showing off his usual sartorial flair.

USENIX is split into multiple 'tracks'. This year's tracks are:

  • General
  • Invited Talks
  • Freenix
  • Guru Sessions
Table of contents
  1. "Usenix, Page 1/2"
  2. "Usenix, Page 2/2"
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