Visit to FOSDEM 2016

Screencapture from the FOSDEM home page
Screencapture from the FOSDEM home page

Here’s my report on visiting FOSDEM in Brussels last Saturday. The “Free and Open Source Developer European Meeting” is basically a mix between a 10.000 geeks, Free/Open Source Software projects, enterprise solutions and a sense of community descending on the Universite Libre Bruxelles (ULB) for a weekend. I really like FOSDEM for the atmosphere, interesting talks and it’s of course close by. I usually go for a single day to check out what’s happening. The talks range from showcases of:

  • Open source projects, (both large and small)
  • Using, designing and creating Open Source Software
  • Open Source protocols
  • Communities amongst projects and users
  • Maintenance of ancient hardware and software
  • Hardware, Internet of Things
  • Licensing and legal
  • Configuration management
  • Testing and Test Automation
  • Business aspects of Open Source Software
  • Lightning talks (You get 15 minutes of fame, answer 1 question and next.)
  • And a whole lot more.

You can also view all the lectures via the video archive, but it wouldn’t be the same.

IMG-20160130-WA0003This year FOSDEM occurred on Saturday 30 and Sunday 31 January 2016. I went together with 4 other people from hackerspace TDvenlo (Tjeerd, Gijs, Harm, Panos and Me) The main observation of the event was that the event is getting quite packed for a weekend, but still is loads of fun. We needed to drive to Brussels at 07:00h from Venlo because the introduction already started at 09:30h. The opening used to occur an hour later and this year there were 28 DEVrooms and almost 700 talks. (On twitter @FOSDEM and #FOSDEM) View photos for #FOSDEM on twitter via this link.

FOSDEM has grown quite a lot the last couple of years. It used to be 5000 visitors, I think it’s now more than 10.000 over the whole weekend. Maybe it should scale to more days. But then the University of Brussels (ULB) would probably stop hosting the event. It’s a really old building, but with a lot of atmosphere. Really like a Belgian organisation would take care of it. The scene looks crummy, but the event is great. More on future visits later.

My favourite talks for the day that I was able to visit:

  • Alidron: A distributed control system for the Internet of Things
    A nice talk about creating an autoconfigurable control system for IoT devices. With nice demonstrations and examples for hardware platforms. The really liked the Spirit 1 platform from ST. And they look like a good start if you don’t want to ess on the 2.4 GHz bands.
  • Inside H2O: Nice lecture on how to create a big MapReduce implementation based on Java across several JVM’s for really large datasets. I guess that H2O focusses on the researchers that need a simple interface and can afford extra hardware to run all their data in several JVM’s. Also keep everything as simple as possible. Because the people using it, do really complex stuff with H2O.
  • GNU Radio for Exploring Signals: A good technical in depth talk on GNU radio and processing FM radio. Brought back a lot of memories from University. What it can do and why it’s cool. I still have the rad1o from the Chaos Communication Camp 2015 lying around. Looks like a nice project to mess around with.
  • Libreboot – free your BIOS today!: This was quite an interesting talk from a free software approach. The most famous open source BIOS currently available is called Coreboot. But according to the Libreboot guys it has 2 problems. You need to build it from sources and it isn’t packaged. The other problems concerns that it uses binary blobs. The speakers was quite militant on using only Free software. Which limits the number of available hardware considerably. The speaker talked a bit like a sort of proto Richard Stallman. Which always reminds me: In the end Stallman was right. (But you didn’t have a working solution in the mean time.)
  • How to run a telco on free software: This was an interesting talk by Red Hat on how they try to use modern aspects of networking and virtualisation to replace the old big iron hardware that’s currently used by telecom operators. It is interesting because Open source is now invading telecom from the corporate and hacker side. The hacker side consisting of OpenBTS and creating a GSM network using pico cells and Ethernet. The talk also featured the “Value Trumpet”. Price and service used to scale linearly, but in the last 20 years they’ve moved apart. People expect more delivered value, for a lower price. Which makes this a really competitive market. So creating a new solution using virtualisation to replace all the old servers across different vendors and telco’s becomes a big deal.
  • TLS and SIP – what works and what doesn’t?: This talk became a really nice surprise. Although it came at the end of the day at 18:00h, it had an interesting speaker, interesting topic, small devroom where there was lots of interaction. The gist of the talk consisted of: SIP and TLS don’t work together because the client has different domain names via NAT and it would need a new certificate for each different subnet. XMPP does a better job of this by keeping the established connection open. WebRTC looks like how it should be done. There is still a lot of work to do, in order to get secure calls via internet on an open protocol that does not go via a telecom connection.

These where the talks that I visited and are worth going back for. However a lot of the most interesting rooms were occupied. It looks like ULB is becoming too small for doing this and keeping the event free/gratis. However, if you look beyond the talks and go for the ambiance, people, stands, obscure projects and lighting talks. It really is a one of a kind event.

I really like the smaller devrooms from time to time. You really see the interaction between people that normally meet online and now meet face to face. People don’t start calling each other names. Occasionally you have funny interesting interaction with the audience, because it’s half the project in a single room.

The stands were also great to visit. The Owncloud stand showed the fruits of their collaboration with Western Digital in making a home made kit using a Raspberry Pi and a 2.5″ 1TB drive for your own home server. There was also a stand with a home built laptop using 3D printed parts, and Allwiner A10 or A20 mainboard and cardboard.

IMG_20160130_131630
Owncloud home server kit.
3D printed, Allwinner A10 module and cardboard laptop.
3D printed, Allwinner A10 module and cardboard laptop.

One of the other things I missed was Bitcoin and Blockchains. Only 1 of the 700 lectures mentioned bitcoin. On the other hand, decentralization, databases, high availability, privacy and communication were represented at FOSDEM a plenty. (View my presentation on the subject for more info.) With 10 billion USD pouring into Bitcoin and Blockchains, I think this will catch FOSDEM’s attention next year.

The main tracks are also cool, if they have an interesting topic and a great speaker. FOSDEM occasionally drops the ball by putting a mediocre presenter in front of 1500 people or the audio is crap. Which I think wastes a lot time for a lot people. The opening speech on Systemd was quite interesting, but the audio was too quiet. Which made it quite hard to follow the presentation. The talks by Andrew Tanenbaum and Eben Moglen from a couple of years ago remain engraved inside my memory. (Now I see on Twitter, that Stallman was present at FOSDEM. Too bad that I’ve missed it.) But FOSDEM shows that Open Source software is doing really well, growing and can do everything.

To accommodate the growth of FOSDEM and optimize our experience, this will probably become our strategy for visiting next year. Go to the devrooms that make FOSDEM great, enjoy yourself with other people and watch the rest on video. So that basically means go to the main tracks, obscure devrooms, the bar and the stands. Also try to avoid the material that you work with on a day to day basis. That makes sure that you learn new stuff. Sometimes I’m thinking: “We used to do it this way 10 years ago.” When the videos are online, organize a viewing event with the local hackerspace with some of the other people there.

All in all, we had a blast of a time at FOSDEM. We will surely visit next time in 2017.

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