LinuxCon Europe 2014

02d November 8, 2014 -- (in the flesh tech)

As a change of scenery, I spent most of the 12th-18th October week in Düsseldorf, Germany, at the LinuxCon Europe conference held at Messe Congress Center. Since I'm not into this kind of (rather tiresome) experiences and I don't do them very often, I think it would be very useful to write about a part of what I've seen there, as I don't think I have the time nor the space to cover absolutely everything.

The time I spent there was unfortunately pretty short: I arrived in Düsseldorf on Sunday and left on Thursday, which means I barely got to see a few parts of the town. I spent most of the time at the conference, where the organizers attempted to pack a shitload of smaller events into just three days. This is, from what I've heard, not uncommon, it's like the whole thing is designed to turn you into a zombie as you try to face the fatigue, leaving you with little time to do anything else but go to sleep, waiting for tomorrow's even more interesting presentations. That aside, I'll share my thoughts on the conference itself and on my overall experience with Germany so far.

The conference

Leaving aside the more "meta" keynotes, LinuxCon in fact consisted of three conferences, namely the main track (LinuxCon), CloudOpen and Embedded Linux Conference. The "Cloud" aspect of it was in fact very widely spoken about, both in the presentations and at the booths, as many providers, either of distros or of other solutions, focused on the large-scale stuff. This honestly didn't interest me very much, so most of the presentations I've been to were from ELC. I'll give a very brief summary of the most interesting stuff that I've seen.

The first non-keynote presentation I've been to was Ron Birkett's Enhancing Real-time Capabilities with the PRU. Although mostly a marketing presentation, the talk gave me a really good insight into Texas Instruments' orthodox approach to providing support for real-time applications. This makes a lot of sense for applications where that microsecond (or less than that) really matters, so you don't want caches and pipelines and other such nasty stuff to interfere with what you're doing. As someone who's looking into running real-time stuff and Linux side by side, I found the presentation really, really interesting.

The second interesting presentation, this time not so marketing-related, was Dave Anders' ARM vs x86. Despite what the title suggests, the talk was less focused on the architectures themselves and more on the difference between and the pros and cons of ARM and x86 platforms and development boards and intellectual property producers, manufacturers and so on and so forth. If you've worked with ARM in the past and wonder whether you should give an x86-based environment a try, then you'll find this interesting. Similarly, if you've worked with x86 stuff in the past and wonder whether you should use the same architecture in the embedded world, you should certainly take a look at the slides if you haven't been there.

At the beginning of the second day I've had the pleasure of watching Jono Bacon's Building Exponential Communities presentation. I've been reading Bacon's stuff since he was with Ubuntu, and despite the fact that he's not technically-oriented, I really enjoyed the talk and found many similarities between the problems he described and the ones that I often face in the (way smaller) communities that I'm involved in.

Also in the second day, Brendan Gregg from Netflix gave a talk on Linux Performance Tools. Although the approach of his presentation might have come as "too high-level" for some, I found the extensive overview to be very enlightening. To my shame, I haven't used ftrace or sysdig or pcstat before, in scenarios when I would have found them possibly helpful. Indeed, his Linux Performance page is now a reference in terms of performance analysis of Linux subsystems.

In the same day, Karim Yaghmour, the guy who wrote the Embedded Android book, talked about the ins and outs of Android Security. Although I'm not an Android programmer and I'm only vaguely familiar with its architecture, I'm well aware of how Android relies on not having root in order to provide security; also, of how it relies on TrustZone for some of the more dubious stuff, and how this causes problems even for some of the legitimate system programmers. The parts about the lack of security features in Binder and the otherwise useful pain in the ass that is SELinux were however mostly news to me.

I had heard of Jailhouse before watching Jan Kiszka's talk on it. Much to my surprise, the guys at Siemens that are working into getting Jailhouse up and running are using a very pragmatic approach: Jailhouse doesn't really have a scheduler, so it simply dedicates processors for real-time tasks. This should, at least in theory, make it much easier to get a certification, which sounds like a much more realistic goal than that envisioned by some of the other embedded hypervisors out there, say, the "exotic" stuff that are the L4-based ones.

Of the other technical presentation, I'll only remind Porting Linux to a New Architecture, rtmux and Mastering the DMA and IOMMU APIs, plus Josh Triplett's Linux Kernel Tinification, which I missed. Other than that, the most interesting stuff from the third day were the opening and closing sessions.

Torvalds' keynote discussion was fun to watch, although the Linus Torvalds I've seen was very different from the throat-cutting Linus Torvalds from LKML. Clearly, the guy is a technical guru who now has an enormous marketing pressure on him, so he spends most of his time resisting that pressure, just for the sake of keeping the Linux tree clean and neutral. The talk, moderated by Dirk Hohndel received a lot of publicity over Linus' statement that he regrets some of the harsh language he's been using in the past; for his sake, I hope he reconsiders that, because yes, no matter how political incorrect this might be, being harsh is an integral part of running such a huge project, and no, project management isn't a democracy.

There was also the closing game, but I'll pass describing this particular event for the sake of brevity.

Bottom line, the conference was interesting, informative and gave me a good insight on the "trends" and whatnot. I don't have the space to write about the booths, but I've watched BMW's PandaBoard/Wayland demo, and I've also watched prpl's PowerVR demo. The attendees were mostly from corporations and smaller companies and only a small number of people came from universities or research institutes.

Düsseldorf, Germany et al.

Despite this being my first time visiting Germany, I've found the view and atmosphere to be somehow familiar, which is pretty weird, considering that I live in the Bucharest shithole that most sane people are running away from. For one, Düsseldorf is a big town, but not at all agitated. I was accommodated quite near the city's center, in a multicultural zone consisting of Chinese and Turkish restaurants, along with a few of my Romanian friends. Interestingly enough, we were about fifteen Romanians at LinuxCon, most of us having some tie or another to UPB, although we've met a couple of people coming from Cluj.

The best thing in Düsseldorf, except the beer, of course, is the orderliness. Walking through Altstat, I've had the chance to see the people carrying on with their lives, running, walking, going to the opera house and so on. In contradiction to Romanians' arrogant assumption that Romanian women are the most beautiful beings in the whole wide Universe, Germany has some really cute girls, although it also has some damn ugly women, so there, nothing new here. Germans are pretty boring until you get to interact with them, when they're either your best friends, or arrogant enough so that you'd give them a punch straight in the fucking nose. However they are, they're keeping their public places clean, a fact which I wholeheartedly appreciate.

The worst thing in Germany is without doubt the food. Sorry guys, I'm pretty sure you enjoy your wursts and schnitzels and overly salted and condimented french fries there in the bubble you're living in, but really, go taste some Spanish, Italian, Bulgarian and Romanian food, you'll see what I mean. The Türks on Graf-Adolf-Straße had decent kebaps, but even those are nothing compared to the stuff in Bucharest's old center.

All in all, a nice experience, although I don't think I'm doing this again until next year. I hear they're planning to do the next one in Dublin. We'll see, I guess.