Back from the Debian Conference

New blogger in XRDS!

I should introduce myself before jumping in with my first post here in the XRDS blog. I am a long time Free Software enthusiast and developer, and that might be the single item that has most influenced my professional life. I am 41 years old, and have been a systems and network administrator for over half of my life.

As a consequence of my job, I have always been interested in information security. Particularly I’ve interested in the question “how the end user perceives security?” This fragments into more detailed questions such as: How can I implement services securely without it being a major inconvenience for my users? How can I help my users adopt reasonable practices security-wise? How can we as computing professionals influence our societies so that their expectations on security, privacy and reliability are met?

That prompted me into starting a Masters degree on Information Security at ESIME Culhuacán, Instituto Politécnico Nacional. And, in turn, being a graduate student led me to XRDS. So it’s all connected in the end.

Having said that, lets get this blog started!

DebConf: A community-run free software conference

Group photo for the 2017 Debian Conference, held at Montreal, Canada, August 6-13

Fig. 1: Group photo for the 2017 Debian Conference, held at Montreal, Canada, August 6-13

I have recently arrived back home after attending DebConf17 — The Debian Conference, which was held this year in Montreal, Canada. For many of the regulars to DebConf, this is the high point of the year, the two weeks of high bandwidth communications with our online colleagues we eagerly look forward to, and its nearness is easily felt in the different communication channels the project uses for its day-to-day development.

Why is DebConf so special for us? Were this a regular academic conference, the answer would surely lie in the numbers. But saying a conference had 400 attendees, that it spanned seven days of academic program, or that it consisted of 169 talks does not really stand out. What is there so special then?

Debian: A social project with technical consequences

Lets take one step back. I say DebConf is the Debian conference; lets begin by talking about the Debian project. Debian is a project started back in 1993 by Ian Murdock, then a twenty year old college student, aiming to create a polished, professional Linux distribution (group of packages built and tested to work together in harmony). The Debian Manifesto he wrote a few months after starting the project, the insight he had on what the future had in store for the still quite immature and hobbyist Linux ecosystem, and how his project had to work for that future to arrive, is simply astonishing.

What is Debian? Debian is its people!

Fig. 2: What is Debian? Debian is its people!

So, Debian is first and foremost a project. Of course, it is best known for its main technological product, the Debian GNU/Linux distribution, but –as several other Debian Developers– I see it as the consequence, not the reason, for the project’s existence. The distribution is by any measure the largest among Linux-based distributions; more than 25,000 independent software packages, ten hardware architectures… All put together by a force of volunteers, each attempting to create something good enough to fulfill their own needs.

But, interestingly, both insiders and outsiders agree that what really defines Debian is its Social Contract: A mission statement outlining what goals the project sets for itself, which has led the project’s path since 1997. It includes the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG), which back then were the first document of its kind, providing precise and clear definitions of what requisites the project sets for a software license to be qualified as Free Software. The DFSG have been a fundamental driving force in the Free, Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) communities throughout the years.

How is DebConf different from traditional, academic conferences?

Debian is a very horizontal project; it does have the figure of a Project Leader and of a Technical Committee, but barring extraordinary cases where mediation is needed, the developing work happens in a most organic way. And that is one of the most recognizable traits of DebConf: Some people find it odd that we devote many hours of work to curate a talks schedule, a quality academic program, only to implement ad-hoc talks: Anybody can submit a talk a day before it is to be held, and it is accepted and scheduled (only it is not video recorded, due to the logistics it would imply). Over thirty such sessions were held. Many conferences take pride in having a high rejection rate; DebConf is basically the opposite: As most participants are contributors to Debian, and Debian is such a wide project, it is almost impossible to decide a talk is “worth accepting”. All talks are interesting to some contributors!

One third of the sessions are not presentations of work done on a topic, but opportunities for people interested in a given topic to sit together and hack on the ideas, what we call “BoF sessions” (short for Birds of a Feather). Such sessions are structured around a short explanation as to how the current situation on a topic is and what needs to be done, and the bulk of the session happens in the form of a brainstorm.

As I mentioned, Debian is a volunteer-run project. So is DebConf. At the same time, Debian is known as the strictest Linux distribution, with the toughest stability requirements — Being volunteer does not mean forgoing professionalism. One of the clearest ways to show this is to invite you to look at the amazing work of the video team: Go to the DebConf17 schedule. Find a session that interests you in any of the rooms with video coverage. You will find it is recorded and mixed with professional quality.

The Video Team is a devoted group of volunteers that ensures talks are available not only for those lucky to attend the conference

Fig. 3: The Video Team is a devoted group of volunteers that ensures talks are available not only for those lucky to attend the conference

But I keep talking about the talks program — That is what most people can look at from the outside. But the core of DebConf is its social side. DebConf is usually organized in a venue that includes accommodation, often in the form of a university campus and its dormitories. This is important because it plays a big part in weaving the social fabric of the Debian project: The working time is as important to the conference as the informal time spent chatting, playing, ensuring healthy and long-lived social relationships.

I could continue talking forever about DebConf without reaching real conclusions. I will close by saying that our conference is held at a different place every year; for 2018, we will work for the first time in Asia, in the National Chiau Tung university in Hsinchu, Taiwan. We are very excited about growing our community in this region of the world, so important to technology.

Keep in mind that Debian is a very big, welcoming community. I hope with this post to present interesting aspects of the project, to interest some of you into contributing and eventually joining!

This entry was posted in conferences, Welcome and tagged , , , , by Gunnar Wolf. Bookmark the permalink.

About Gunnar Wolf

Gunnar Wolf recently obtained a MSc degree in Information Security at IPN (Escuela Superior de Ingeniería Mecánica y Eléctrica), and teaches at the undergraduate degree of UNAM (Facultad de Ingeniería). He is a free software advocate, and a developer in the Debian project. Systems and network administrator for the Economics Research Institute (UNAM), has had the opportunity to do research on topics that include the social aspects of free software projects.

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