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DebConf7

I am sitting at Frankfurt airport in between flights home from Edinburgh (not anymore, but that's where this post was born). It's been an intense 2.5 weeks of DebConf7, which has been unlike other DebConfs for me in two respects: this was the first time I actually went to DebCamp, the week leading up to the conference, which is designated to teams and individuals with development goals to achieve during the week. And I was also actively involved in the organisation of the conference, which was unexpected, but a very good experience I am not going to miss next year.

Well, it wasn't unexpected. When I booked my flights in January, I had decided to arrive a day early and leave a day late to be able to lend a hand. In between then and the conference, my life turned somewhat upside-down and I had forgotten everything about these noble goals of mine.

So when I arrived at the conference venue on Saturday morning with thoughts of netconf circling my head, I was surprised to find everyone buzzing about (how naïve of me) and somewhat clueless as to how I should merge in: my wrists didn't really hold up to heavy lifting, and my knee certainly didn't enjoy stairs, of which there were plenty on the way up to the top floor, where DebCamp was taking place.

After trying and being mostly ridiculed by the other organisers ("friends"... ha!), I set out to accomplish some other tasks more suited to my bodily condition, such as wiring the hack lab to accomodate 40 geeks for the first week. That took me most of the day, but at least the space was ready for Sunday morning and the official start of the camp.

My goal for the week was `netconf`_ and I made good progress until I ran into a wall on Tuesday and had to back off and rethink my design. Reinhart Tartler and Enrico Zini dedicated their time to listen to my design and the problems and helped me clear the mess up and helped me reduce complexity and converge on a straight-forward, event-based design.

As the newly appointed DebConf press officer and one of the organisation volunteers, I did not get any further for a few days, as I was manning the front desk or preparing and releasing my first press release (with the help of several others), which lead to a lovely story on The Register and doubled the number of attendees that preregistered for DebianDay (which marks the end of DebCamp and the start of DebConf). I blame the geeks in skirts, actually. Silly bunch, but not quite as silly as those attendants who could get a laugh out of the underwear question for two weeks in a row.

Up to this point, I had managed to keep a perfect balance between netconf, orga-team, and sleep. So good, apparently, that when the orga-team t-shirts arrived, Uncle Steve made it quite clear that I should be getting one, even though I had spent considerable time on netconf, am sure some of the others must have worked twice the amount, and I was still quite well rested then. But they gave me a shirt and thus I became part of the orga-team. And even though it was rough at times, running around during the day, filling spare minutes with netconf brain-work, and enjoying nights that got longer with every day of the conference, I am glad and proud to be a member of this team now.

It took me until after the official start of the conference to return to the netconf code, but with the new design, I got most of the framework to a point where it could obtain static and dynamic addresses from configuration files as well as DHCP servers in time for my presentation on Tuesday (the recording of which shall be linked from the netconf homepage as soon as it's available). Of course, nothing worked on screen in front of the audience, but noone really expected that anyway.

… and then I took it all apart for further simplification, so by the time night fell, the slides from the talk had already become outdated as I moved to yet another design, which is even simpler and which allowed me to sketch complex scenarios, such as DHCP after WPA. For two days, I made good progress, but the time available for hacking decreased noticeably, as I kept volunteering for more tasks that needed doing, and more and more people turned up.

Somewhere in between, Keith Packard took hostage of (and fixed parts of) my broken X40 laptop, but that's the meat of another story.

And on some other night, our leader Sam, in his official capacity as DPL, presented me with the instantiation of my innermost desires as consolation for my hosital stay: a pony. Just look at that smile!

With 400 attendants, this year's DebConf continued the trend of immense growth of the event, and while it's great to witness this increase in popularity among attendees and sponsors, who make it possible each year to fly more people to the destination, I am also rather sceptical. The problem is less the additional load on the organising team — the next 100 people are going to be easier to accomodate than the previous 100 were. It is more that the conference is losing focus. More people make you spend less time with the same folks, and as the number of non-contributors increases, the social element starts to outweigh the technical element. I am not condemning the social element, but to paraphrase the words of my favourite Debian developer, it's painful to come to DebConf or even IRC with a project and questions just to find that the people are generally more interested in being social, even to the point of preventing technical discussions.

I realise that this is a sensitive subject as the issue of various cabals keeps coming up frequently and it does not seem right to start limiting the audience to this conference, but unless we consider the matter, DebConf might deteriorate similarly to other conferences, which have enjoyed enormous growth as well before it was too late. I think we must make sure that people understand that we are, after all, a technical project and must not lose touch with out roots. Of course, I may also be overreacting, after a week of intense coding and many other stress factors…

I continued working hard on netconf and helping with the organisation throughout Friday, briefly taking time off to prepare a presentation on my Ph.D. research, which was very well received, as well as a workshop on Debian packaging with modern (distributed) version control systems, which yielded around a dozen new subscribers to the vcs-pkg mailing list.

But now, back to netconf. All things considered, I was making good progress, but not getting netconf into a releasable state just yet. I can parse /etc/network/interfaces files and get data from DHCP servers, even configure interfaces with those, but it's all still work in progress as I have not yet bothered to implement such basics as default gateways or DNS servers. But the framework is in place, and I am very happy with it as everything I keep adding falls into place beautifully.

To mark the end of my netconf development sprint at DebConf7, I scheduled a code introduction session on Friday, where around 15 people turned out to get a walkthrough of the code and explanation of some of my design decisions. The session was recorded and will be available on video shortly. I think it turned out to be a very good idea; I found myself intrigued by someone else's code before until that someone took the time to explain what was going on. I sincerely hope that this introduction helps bootstrap a few people's experiences with the code and yields more contributors!

Even though we ended almost every single evening of the two weeks in one of the surrounding pubs, the last few nights were definitely the most enjoyable. On Thursday, the local team had organised a Ceilidh with a band teaching us geeks how to dance the Scottish way, and the venue stayed open for two hours longer than before, causing most people to come out for beer or bouncing about. On Friday and Saturday, the folks of InfoSeed let us use their comfy couches (in the basement of the conference night venue) and we chilled to music and massages, while on Sunday, after a very tiresome day of cleaning up, the noticably lesser number of survivors hung out at the Forest Cafe for some so-so live music, few beers, and an early journey to bed, where a Dutch Muppet kept us entertained for at least another hour.

The best about Monday, my day of return, must have been that the airline lost my backpack, which saved me from having to lug it around in Zurich, and made for a great moment on the phone with the baggage tracing service, who announced that my bags would be delivered in about 6 hours between 20:00 and 22:00 just as the door bell rang and the courier dropped off my bag.

I'll be back in Argentina, unless something goes seriously wrong. And I'll be on the orga-team again. If you guys stop holding your meetings on Monday night.

Thanks to everyone who made DebConf7 possible. I am proud to have been able to contribute, but the real work was done by a few others. You know who you are.

NP: Solar Project: Five