USENIX 2005: Unix in Southern California

This 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

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

  • 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

I find that it’s best to sample talks from each track. After the
keynote, I headed to a Guru Session on the topic of ‘Configuration’,
hosted by Mark Burgess and Alva Couch. Guru sessions are much smaller
than standard talks and are much more interactive. You’re guaranteed
to learn something interesting at a guru session. Since I’m a Linux
System Administrator, I always try to attend any system
administration-related guru session.

You may know Mark from his work on Computer Immunology and the
cfengine configuration management tool. I’ve used cfengine on and off
for years and I’ve always tried to follow the rule that all computers
you manage should be as similar as possible. I think Mark said that
but I’m sure others have said it too.

My particular interest in this session was the issue of configuration
management for network devices such as routers and switches.
Although there are many tools to standardize the configuration of
servers and workstations, it is currently virtually impossible to
extend this to other devices. The result is that you end up manually
configuring each one.

Alva had some good advice on this, in particular that people at Great
Circle were working on it (here’s their blog
). This was a popular topic. Another big discussion centered
on why the people researching system automation don’t talk much about
cfengine (answer: they are concerned with the systems, while sysadmins
are concerned with the people).

Mark is from Oslo and I’m always amazed at how much he travels. In
fact, there were quite a few Scandinavians at the conference. I don’t
know why – is USENIX well-advertised over there?

All of this led to lunch and on to the afternoon’s presentations. Now
my notes get a little thin here. I’m going to blame that on a big
lunch and a need for an afternoon nap. I did check out a couple of
talks but they turned out to be too academic and the speaker weren’t
very engaging. One note I left myself: Where is Richard
. I.e., you need passionate and inflammatory speakers to
keep people awake in the afternoon. Oh well, that happens at these

Luckily, I had recovered in time for the 3:30 coffee break. Two
things I learned at the coffee break:

  • if you’re late to the coffee break, all you get are really dry
    peanut butter cookies.

  • You also don’t get any coffee!

Luckily there is a Starbucks in this Marriott. USENIX is always held
in a Marriott and in general they are pleasant if somewhat generic hotels.

The next presentation was a talk on Online Gaming by Mark Wirt, CTO
of This is one area where USENIX really shines: it
attracts some top-notch industry speakers.

Mark had a lot to say about the MMOG (massively multiplayer online
gaming) world. His company produces an online gaming engine (I
apologize in advance if I’ve over-simplified). Mark’s previous
experience was in weapons research. Is there a connection there? I’m
still not sure.

When I was at the Configuration guru session, about eighty percent of
the laptops were Macs. At other talks, it was more like forty
percent. Why do Sysadmins like macs so much? I need to research that
some more.

I learned that the first MMOG (or maybe MMO? I’m confused about the
acronym) was Spacewar, developed on the PDP-1 at MIT in 1962. You can
see how ‘old-school’ this conference is when Mark stated that he was
sure someone in the audience had worked on a PDP-1. To quote Mark, in
1962 the PDP-1 was “the cat’s pajamas.” He noted that games have
always pushed hardware to the limits, even all the way back to

Mark traced out the evolution of online games, through the MUD
(multi-user dungeon) invented in the late 70s, and through the first
‘modern’ MMOGs, Meridan 59 (released in 1996) and Ultima Online a few
years later.

Mark is obviously very knowledgeable about this field. He pointed out
that isomorphic (overhead) MMOGs are very popular in China today due
to limited hardware power. In contrast, you have to do full 3D for a
game in the US. He also pointed out that persistent connections are
what makes broadband appealing for online games. Bandwidth is a
secondary consideration because if you try to fill up everyone’s cable
modem, you quickly end up paying huge bandwidth bills on the server

And that brings us to the end of the first day of USENIX. Actually
now is where the real meat of this or any other tech conference
occurs: after-hours Birds of a Feather meetings. It’s amazing what
you learn from the experts after they have a couple of beers. I hope
to attend a meeting with Great Circle to learn more about automatic
network configuration.

I have to note that I did all my note-taking today on a little
hotel-supplied notepad with a pen. I think tomorrow I might try
taking notes on my PowerBook. All the typing in these conferences
does seem a little distracting, though. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s

About the Author:
Phil Hollenback is a System Administrator at a financial company in Manhattan. When he’s not taking care of computers, he
spends his time skateboarding and working on his website.

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