Soundbyte 30: FOSDEM stories


The boss of the University Libre de Bruxelles opened this edition of FOSDEM by looking back at its 12 year history, concluding that nowadays, open source is everywhere, so either the whole world is now smoking marihuana, or there is actually more to it! On the way back from Brussels we brainstormed a bit about what song to choose for this soundbyte. In the end, I settled with a classic by Jimi Hendrix from his Blues album: Born under a bad sign, an instrumental song with so much soul and authenticity it should be immediately obvious why this fits the theme!


First of all, since our website is now available in both dutch and english, I’ve taken the opportunity to write the first soundbyte in english, so the non-dutch speaking part of the world can also get some insight into who we are and what we’re about.


Let’s start by going back to Friday, when the country woke up under the threat of a huge amount of snow that was slowly but surely coming in from the north. So far, our winter had been extremely soft, with sunny spells and temperatures that we would settle for in spring. Not this week though. A couple of months ago we were promised one of the coldest winters ever, and it looks like we’re in for some serious cold over the next couple of days.

Late in the afternoon, when the snow had almost stopped falling, I had a rendezvous with Gerard, whom I met almost two years ago just before he was leaving for China. He was back for FOSDEM now and needed a ride, so we drove to Brussels together whilst trying to catch up and summarize our lives over the last years.

Gerard, who is very active in the Fedora community, learned a lot so far from living in China, and he’s a great story teller so by now I have a reasonably clear picture of life and the open source community over there. In the mean time, we had not exactly been sitting still at Luminis, something our regular soundbyte readers already know. So even though it took us about five hours to finally reach our hotel, we had plenty to discuss.

I probably don’t need to explicitly introduce FOSDEM and what it’s all about: it’s the largest, completely free open source conference I know worldwide, and based on my experience of going there the previous years, it has some of the most interesting talks about a broad spectrum of topics.


Saturday morning started with a series of keynotes. Some highlights from those included the insight that probably by now, most software could easily be open sourced. Microsoft Windows was taken as an example. Let’s assume it would be available as open source: would you then get it for free and build it yourself, download a free copy built by some hacker, or buy a copy off of Microsoft for 20 euros with included support and security patches? If you care about your privacy and data, probably the latter, right? Another talk made the analogy between crocodiles and companies: when interacting with a crocodile, you don’t talk about empathy, trust or ethics. Your relationship with it is built on two things: food and fear. If the crocodile is neither hungry, nor afraid, chances are good you can stand right next to it and pretend to be friends. But don’t expect it behave in an ethical, empathic, reasonable or predictable way when it is hungry or afraid. Now replace the crocodile with the average company, and you have a good starting point as an open source community to interact with that company (anybody know about the Halloween Documents?). The final keynote speaker talked about the complexity of modern Linux distributions. In the early days of Linux, a typical distribution would consist of a couple of hundred packages. Nowadays, that’s a factor 100 more. This poses huge challenges, as it’s impossible to test all permutations of the packages even if you eliminate the ones that would not resolve. A new way of grouping packages was introduced to eliminate a lot of the possible combinations by looking at the tasks users would like their computer to perform. It reminded me of the discussions we had some time ago about ACE and the multiple layers of grouping to get from software artifacts to distributions and targets and we came to the conclusion that another level between artifact and distribution would be welcome to make this more manageable. In fact, because ACE knows exactly what permutations of the artifacts have actually been installed in the field, we can use that information to greatly reduce the number of permutations we need to test.

I started the afternoon by attending a random session after the lightning talk I wanted to attend was full. To give you an idea of scale, over 5000 developers visit the conference every year. After that I attended a talk about Forge and Arquillian, because Paul is involved in those projects and because we will get a student who will be doing his graduation assignment at Luminis this week about distributed testing in the cloud and especially Arquillian is an interested candidate to use and leverage. Koen Aers did the talk and demos and in general gave a nice insight into the tools.

Up next was a talk about LibreOffice on mobile devices. Their strategy for this is based on two very important principles: First of all, do not rewrite your software from scratch for these platforms, but leverage the codebase you already have. Big companies have tried rewriting their office suites and failed miserably (Corel Office anybody?). So they’re actually taking the whole codebase they have on the desktop and recompiling it for, for example, Android devices. That actually benefits the codebase as they try to find and eliminate hotspots at startup and while running. The second part of the strategy is to run the actual user interface in the browser, using the Canvas that HTML5 provides with a bit of Javascript and WebSockets. The actual rendering is done on the server side, so the updates that get sent are small and highly compressed bitmaps of areas that needed repainting. They actually demo’d this and I was amazed at the performance. We even got a sneak peek at a very early alpha for Android, and as early alpha’s tend to do, after a few operations, it crashed. But this is really food for thought. On the one hand, you can forget about special touch specific user interfaces that adapt to the smaller screens and multi-touch capabilities of a device. On the other hand, you get a full featured application that, when run in a browser on a big screen, works off-line and has all the features your desktop version has. In fact, it is your desktop version. To prove that, some of this technology will actually make it into the next LibreOffice release next week.

Towards the end of the day, I ended up in the Java room, where the highlight for me was a library called Byteman which could do run-time code manipulation using a Java agent. Originally developed by JBoss they actually used this to inject all kinds of test probes in a running production system when trying to diagnose problems. The possibilities of these techniques are very interesting, also when diagnosing cloud deployments!


Sunday started with a talk by Microsoft, telling us about CoApp, an effort to create standardized components and builds on Windows, much like autoconf and cmake do on Linux. They need this to keep up with current versions of libraries like PHP, and they actually seem to be doing a good job doing that now.

Next up was a talk about the Internet of Threads, which was pitched as the software side of the Internet of Things. Demos showed how IPv6 can be used to create virtual network stacks on clients and servers that allow you to give every application its own, unique address, or even to use temporary IP addresses to avoid being tracked. Looks like the longest times for traditional methods of tracking users are over, as this was not the only talk about defeating ways to track users.

Talks about Puppet and Lua as scripting language to create kernel drivers filled most part of the afternoon. Puppet is a system to setup nodes in a reproducible and convenient way, allowing developers to exactly mimic production environments, and even to consistently setup those. Lua is a small and interesting scripting language, used in Oce and Olivetti printers, as well as World of Warcraft. Using it to build kernel drivers for hardware that has incomplete documentation is an example of how creative this community can be.

The closing keynote was delivered by Bdale Garbee, of the FreedomBox foundation. Last year I already reported about this device, and this year we got a status update on their progress. In short, they still needs lots of volunteers to get things done, but the first release is imminent and will include a chat application and a way to authenticate people. For those who don’t know what the Freedom Box is, it’s a device that can build a mesh network that cannot be controlled or turned off by governments or companies, and allows users to participate in all kinds of social networks without giving up their personal data. In times where even dutch internet providers are being forced to turn off certain websites, we are in my opinion crossing a free-speech border and giving in to rich and powerful corporations. Having an infrastructure that simply does not make that possible anymore is very worthwhile. So, this is one of the best efforts I’ve heard about in a long time, so if you agree with me, get in touch with them and see if you can help! They were specifically looking for interaction designers!