OSCON 2013: The Source Must Flow

July 29, 2013 at 12:59 am (No Comments)

OSCON 2013It’s summer in Texas, which means one thing: It’s time to get away.  Last week I got away to OSCON, O’Reilly’s annual Open Source conference, in lovely, Portland, Oregon.  Herein is the account of that trip.

OSCON is a two and a half day conference preceded by two days of related tutorial sessions.  HP was a Diamond sponsor this year, so I finagled a free badge, and decided to go to the whole thing.  We didn’t have extra travel budget in my team, though, so I paid hotel and airfare out of my own pocket.  More on whether that was a worthwhile expense or not at the end of this post.

OSCON takes place at the lovely Oregon Convention Center across the river from downtown Portland, Oregon.  I lived in Portland for a year when I was in elementary school, and took a turn on the stage as Mr. Tumnus in Hinson Memorial Baptist Church’s production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I remember it being a lot larger than it apparently was.  That was a long time ago, and Portland’s a very different city now.

OSCON Networking RibbonsOSCON is a pan-technology conference.  As long as the project is Open Source, it’s welcome at OSCON.  Therefore you get a lot of variety, which is evidenced by the gigantic array of networking ribbons.  I didn’t stick one on, but I saw a few people with displays that would have made a Texas High School homecoming corsage maker jealous.

When I was picking tutorials I tried to focus on things I hadn’t gotten into before, but things I’d heard of, and wanted to know more about.  I ended up going for the R Predictive Analytics Workshop, Introduction to Go, Building a Distributed Sensor Network (with Arduino and XBee), and Erlang 101.  Some weren’t so great, some had unfortunate supply issues with parts.

Arduino AssemblyThe Distributed Sensor Network tutorial seemed really promising, but unfortunately we were missing the micro USB cables we needed to power our Arduinos.  Oh, and the Adafruit XBee Adapters we got were supposed to be pre-soldered, but weren’t.  Not an easy problem to solve when you have no soldering irons and only two and a half hours to do the whole tutorial.

The intent was to have an Arduino based sensor mote with temperature, humidity, IR-based movement and volume (sound pressure) sensors, which transmitted its data to a remote computer via the wireless XBee system.  Unfortunately we didn’t have the XBee adapters, and until half way through the class we couldn’t even power our Arduinos.  Fortunately one of the volunteers managed to run to Radio Shack and get us USB cables, but by then half the class was over.  We did manage to rig up a sensor to our Arduinos and get the data appearing via serial, and we have all the parts and the book with instructions to finish the project, but it was feeling like two and a half strikes in a row before I went to the Erlang talk…

Which was awesome!  Erlang is the weird friend you never knew you needed.  She does all the things that your other friends are terrible at, and after a long heart to heart at the local brewery, you totally get her.  Conference saved.  If multi-actor, highly scalable, multi-core programming is interesting to you, there are some great resources on its page, including Francesco Cesarini’s slides.

Erlang and Go seem to be two different implementations of similar ideas, trying to solve the massive concurrency problem in a structured, production-ready, robust way.  Go’s the hot new kid on the block, while Erlang has been in production for nearly 20 years.  Erlang seems to be a more interesting solution to me, though if you really like writing Java, C or C++, you might prefer Go.

You might have used Erlang if you’ve used CouchDB, Couchbase, Riak, Facebook Chat, Chef, RabbitMQ, voted in any of the UK Big Brother style SMS voting events, or ever sent data over a mobile phone network.  It grows across cores beautifully, and seems like it’ll be a really great solution when 64+ core processors hit the big time.  So, Erlang = Awesome, Conference Tutorials = Very Risky, Arduino Sensor Motes = Someday.

OSCON Space Party

Thursday’s opening party was space themed (I heard that last year it was Camp OSCON with merit badge activities and the like).  They had a jumpy balloon rig, space themed arcade games, interactive art, an indoor inflatable planetarium, a make your own space helmet craft table, and laser tag.  It was fun and loud, but the food options were limited for those on a diet, and as a non-social person, I soon wandered back to my hotel.

Every year OSCON has a nerd-oriented competitive activity.  Beat the game, win a prize.  This year the game was to collect 20 puzzle pieces (which you got from visiting booths, attending keynotes, having lunch, etc), and the prize was an OSCON 15th anniversary hoodie.  As a puzzle oriented and easily obsessed person I got my hoodie Wednesday morning, a few hours after the last piece had been made available.  I was somewhat disappointed to see that there were still hoodies available the last day, but I guess it’s good that those slackers were able to win, too.

Juju on HP Cloud at OSCONWednesday morning kicked off with keynotes, which were presented in an interesting, 10-20 minutes per speaker format.  One of the opening talks was by the president of Canonical, the company that produces Ubuntu and the cloud-oriented app orchestration system Juju.  He demoed Juju’s graphical cluster creation system running on top of HP Cloud, which was nice for us.  Juju looks like a neat system that compliments the existing solutions well, and it’s high on my list of things to look into.  There was also a great keynote about ‘My Robot Friend’ by Carin Meier, where she bravely did live hardware demos on stage, including a Clojure controlled quadcopter.

The most interesting keynote, though, was from Numenta.  Numenta’s keynote was presented by Jeff Hawkins, one of their founders and the guy who started Palm and Handspring.  Their technology simulates the neocortex, the part of your brain that remembers things and predicts patterns (specifically in their software, a 64,000 synapse slice of one of the layers).  They call it the Cortical Learning Algorithm, and they’ve open sourced it in the form of NuPIC (Numenta Platform for Intelligent Computing).  You feed data into this thing, and over time it builds up a map of the patterns in the data and can start to predict what will happen next.  The science is beyond me, but the demo and keynote was great, and you can (should) watch it on YouTube.  I went to their panel later, and they recommended Jeff’s book On Intelligence as a primer for those interested.  There are code samples (in Python!) with the NuPIC library up on their github account.

HP MoonshotThe keynote was impressive, and provided a nice start to the real meat of the conference.  While walking in I also happened to run into Pete Johnson, formerly of HP Cloud and now with ProfitBricks.  It was nice to see a friendly face.  HP also happened to have a booth in the trade show, doing demos of HP Cloud and showing off the oh-so-drool-worthy Moonshot Server.  (Drool worthy server shown at right.)

HP covered lunch for everybody on Wednesday, but I can’t remember what it was.  (I started doing a DietBet last week, so I only ate salads the entire conference.)  The conversations at lunch, though, were great.  On Wednesday I sat at a table with a Wisconsin lo-power FM radio and wholesale ISP guy, someone doing Hadoop at Disney (who’d previously worked at AWS), someone running a private cloud in Vancouver doing simulation-based pharmaceutical discovery, some guys from BlueHost (one of Code for America’s biggest sponsors) in Orem, and a guy who worked for an Apple accessory manufacturer in Portland.

The other panels I went to on Wednesday were one on the temporary cell phone network they setup up during Burning Man, a walkthrough of the parts and software needed to build your own cell phone with an Arduino (did you know that cell phone brains like the SIMCom SIM900 operate with an AT-command derived control setup, like your old 28.8 modem, including AT+HTTP commands to fetch web urls?), a talk on discreet math, and then one on getting kids to code (check out drtechniko.com, a robot language for kids to ‘program’ people, and Alice, a programmable machinima generator).  The last panel of the day was An Overview of Open Source in East Asia, with some really interesting insights into the Open Source community in China, Korea and Japan (and they gave us all free fans!).

OSCON OpenStack 3rd Birthday Bash

OpenStack Birthday Bash3 years ago at OSCON the OpenStack project made its debut, so that means it was time for a 3rd birthday bash.  Fellow HP Cloud-er Rajeev Pandey and I walked over, enjoyed some gazpacho shots, picked up a t-shirt or two, and marveled at their giant paella (seriously, they were like 3 feet wide).  We ran into a few other HP Cloud folks there, including Monty Taylor.  There was a cute birthday cake and lots of cupcakes, but after nibbling and conversing and drinking lots of water (it was surprisingly warm in Portland), soon it was time to go.  Happy Birthday, OpenStack, in software years you’ve almost hit puberty.

The Thursday morning crowd was a bit more subdued, with a fair number of attendees probably partying a little too hearty the night before.  Keynotes were good, with a great talk about Technology diversity by Laura Weidman Powers, co-founder of CODE2040. Licenses were a hot topic as well, including a talk about licenses effecting communities from HP’s own Eileen Evans.  It’s hard to top brain simulation and flying robots, though.

Docker StickerThursday I attended Tim O’Reilly’s talk on Creating More Value Than You Capture (and as an aside, I felt both sorry for Tim in only getting 30-40 attendees, but also better about the 15 my talk pulled in at SXSW), and a great intro to Docker from dotCloud.  If you haven’t looked at Docker, check it out.  The way they bundle up app binaries on top of base machines is awesome.  Then came lunch, with another great group of folks including someone managing DevOps for Disney.com (the entire thing on 60 VMs!).

After lunch was a really great talk on Kicking Impostor Syndrome in the Head by Denise Paolucci.  If you ever feel insecure about your skills, dig up a video of her giving that talk, it was really great.  After that was Designing the Internet of Things with the 3 Laws of Robotics, and then From Maker to China, where Brady Forrest described the challenges and pitfalls of taking a concept from prototype to small-scale manufacturing in China.  One book he recommended for those interested in the product design and manufacturing process was From Concept to Consumer, which now rests on my Amazon wishlist.  After that it was Hardware Hacking with Your Kids, with some funny slides and interesting anecdotes from Dave Neary, and then we were done for the day.  That night I worked on my SXSW panel proposal, and went to bed early.

Trade Show Caterpillar Head

OSCON SwagThe trade show went on Wednesday and Thursday, and had a good mix of big companies, lots of non-profits, and some interestingly unexpected exhibitors (League of Legends maker Riot Games).  There were some great shirts, including this Cloudera one: Data is the New Bacon, and its sister, Data is the New Tofu, one from the Kenyan data mapping non-profit Ushahidi, and plenty of other knicknacks and stickers for the kids back home.  PyLadies was there, Wikimedia was there, Craigslist was there, FSF, EFF, and the Linux Foundation were there.  Everyone was hiring.  The Tizen folks are giving away $4,040,000 (that’s four, count em four… million…) dollars in app development prizes.  There were more hosting and big data software companies than I have fingers and toes.  It’s a good time to be in technology.

Friday was only a half day, so after a keynote exhorting us to join the ACM, one noting that everything important has already been invented, and some group singing, we settled down to business.  First up was Cryptography Pitfalls with John Downey of Braintree.  That was a great talk, and though I knew a lot of the gotchas he mentioned, it was still nice to hear them laid out by a professional.  In short: Use a slow one-way hasher for passwords, don’t build your own crypto implementations, and always check SSL cert validity in your application code.  The slides are up, you should take a look at them.

OSCON ChalkboardAfter a break we headed into Open Source Social Coding for Good, with Benetech.  I’d run into the folks from Benetech in the trade show the day before, and was really excited to learn that they were doing hackathons already with HP’s Office of Global Social Innovation through their SocialCoding4Good project.  I’m really hoping to connect both of them to HP Cloud and do a hackathon in Austin.  The panel was great, and it was good to hear about nonprofits getting traction from corporate hackathons and volunteers.  We need to do more of that.  After that it was Polyglot Application Persistence, and then the conference was over.

So, back to my original question, was it worth it?  Would I go again?

If you’re in Portland, or the Portland area, I think it’s a no-brainer.  It’s a great conference, the attendees are sharp, it covers a ton of stuff, the keynotes are good, and I’m sure there’s something interesting every year.  The trade show’s great.  If you can’t snag a speaking slot or a super-discounted badge, you could get a lot of the value by getting an expo badge and watching the keynotes online.  If you’re paying for it yourself, and traveling to do it, it becomes a much murkier question.  So many conferences are putting everything online these days, what you’re really paying for are the networking opportunities and the experience: That conference euphoria of anything is possible.  That has a lot of value, but if you’re on a budget, maybe local conferences, hackathons, or meetups are good enough.  I hope I’ll be back at OSCON next year, but if I’m not, you’ll all just have to have fun without me.

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