GNOME.Asia Summit 2015 in Depok, Indonesia

I have just returned from the GNOME.Asia Summit 2015 in Depok, Indonesia.

Out of the talks, the most interesting talk I have seen, I think, was the one from Iwan S. Tahari, the manager of a local shoe producer who also sponsored GNOME shoes!

Open Source Software in Shoes Industry” was the title and he talked about how his company, FANS Shoes, est 2001, would use “Open Source”. They are also a BlankOn Linux partner which seems to be a rather big thing in Indonesia. In fact, the keynote presentation earlier was on that distribution and mentioned how they try to make it easier for people of their culture to contribute to Free Software.
Anyway, the speaker went on to claim that in Indonesia, they have 82 million Internet users out of which 69 million use Facebook. But few use “Open Source”, he asserted. The machines sold ship with either Windows or DOS, he said. He said that FANS preferred FOSS because it increased their productivity, not only because of viruses (he mentioned BRONTOK.A as a pretty annoying example), but also because of the re-installation time. To re-install Windows costs about 90 minutes, he said. The average time to install Blank On (on an SSD), was 15 minutes. According to him, the install time is especially annoying for them, because they don’t have IT people on staff. He liked Blank On Linux because it comes with “all the apps” and that there is not much to install afterwards. Another advantage he mentioned is the costs. He estimated the costs of their IT landscape going Windows to be 136,57 million Rupees (12000 USD). With Blank On, it comes down to 0, he said. That money, he can now spend on a Van and a transporter scooter instead. Another feature of his GNU/Linux based system, he said, was the ability to cut the power at will without stuff breaking. Indonesia, he said, is known for frequent power cuts. He explicitly mentioned printer support to be a major pain point for them.

When they bootstrapped their Free Software usage, they first tried to do Dual Boot for their 5 employees. But it was not worth their efforts, because everybody selected Windows on boot, anyway. They then migrated the accounting manager to a GNU/Linux based operating system. And that laptop still runs the LinuxMint version 13 they installed… He mentioned that you have to migrate top down, never from bottom to top, so senior management needs to go first. Later Q&A revealed that this is because of cultural issues. The leaders need to set an example and the workers will not change unless their superiors do. Only their RnD department was hard to migrate, he said, because they need to be compatible to Corel Draw. With the help of an Indonesian Inkscape book, though, they managed to run Inkscape. The areas where they lack support is CAD (think AutoCAD), Statistics (think SPSS), Kanban information system (like iceScrum), and integration with “Computer Aided Machinery”. He also identified the lack of documentation to be a problem not only for them, but for the general uptake of Free Software in Indonesia. In order to amend the situation, they provide gifts for people writing documentation or books!

All in all, it was quite interesting to see an actual (non-computer) business running exclusively on Free Software. I had a chat with Iwan afterwards and maybe we can get GNOME shaped flip-flops in the future :-)

The next talk was given by Ahmad Haris with GNOME on an Android TV Dongle. He brought GNOME to those 30 USD TV sticks that can turn your TV into a “smart” device. He showed various commands and parameters which enable you to run Linux on these devices. For the reasons as to why put GNOME on those devices, he said, that it has a comparatively small memory footprint. I didn’t really understand the motivation, but I blame mostly myself, because I don’t even have a TV… Anyway, bringing GNOME to more platforms is good, of course, and I was happy to see that people are actively working on bringing GNOME to various hardware.

Similarly, Running GNOME on a Nexus 7 by Bin Li was presenting how he tried to make his Android tabled run GNOME. There is previous work done by VadimRutkovsky:

He gave instructions as to how to create a custom kernel for the Nexus 7 device. He also encountered some problems, such as compilations errors, and showed how he fixed them. After building the kernel, he installed Arch-Linux with the help of some scripts. This, however, turned out to not be successful, so he couldn’t run his custom Arch Linux with GNOME.
He wanted to have a tool like “ubuntu-device-flash” such that hacking on this device is much easier. Also, downloading and flashing a working image is too hard for casually hacking on it, he said.

A presentation I was not impressed by was “In-memory computing on GNU/Linux”. More and more companies, he said, would be using in-memory computing on a general operating system. Examples of products which use in-memory computing were GridGain, SAP HANA, IBM DB2, and Oracle 12c. These products, he said, allow you to make better and faster decision making and to avoid risks. He also pointed out that you won’t have breaking down hard-drives and less energy consumption. While in-memory is blazingly fast, all your data is lost when you have a power failure. The users of big data, according to him, are businesses, academics, government, or software developers. The last one surprised me, but he didn’t go into detail as to why it is useful for an ordinary developer. The benchmarks he showed were impressive. Up to hundred-fold improvements for various tests were recorded in the in-memory setting compared to the traditional on-disk setting. The methodology wasn’t comprehensive, so I am yet not convinced that the convoluted charts show anything useful. But the speaker is an academic, so I guess he’s got at least compelling arguments for his test setup. In order to build a Linux suitable for in-memory computation, they installed a regular GNU/Linux on a drive and modify the boot scripts such that the disk will be copied into a tmpfs. I am wondering though, wouldn’t it be enough to set up a very aggressive disk cache…?

I was impressed by David’s work on ChorusText. I couldn’t follow the talk, because my Indonesian wasn’t good enough. But I talked to him privately and he showed me his device which, as far as I understand, is an assistive screen reader. It has various sliders with tactile feedback to help you navigating through text with the screen reader. Apparently, he has low vision himself so he’s way better suited to tell whether this device is useful. For now, I think it’s great and I hope that it helps more people and that we can integrate it nicely into GNOME.

My own keynote went fairly well. I spent my time with explaining what I think GNOME is, why it’s good, and what it should become in the future. If you know GNOME, me, and my interests, then it doesn’t come as a surprise that I talked about the history of GNOME, how it tries to bring Free computing to everyone, and how I think security and privacy will going to matter in the future. I tried to set the tone for the conference, hoping that discussions about GNOME’s future would spark in the coffee breaks. I had some people discussing with afterwards, so I think it was successful enough.

When I went home, I saw that the Jakarta airport runs GNOME 3, but probably haven’t done that for too long, because the airport’s UX is terrible. In fact, it is one of the worst ones I’ve seen so far. I arrived at the domestic terminal, but I didn’t know which one it was, i.e. its number. There were no signs or indications that tell you in which terminal you are in. Let alone where you need to go to in order to catch your international flight. Their self-information computer system couldn’t deliver. The information desk was able to help, though. The transfer to the international terminal requires you to take a bus (fair enough), but whatever the drivers yell when they stop is not comprehensible. When you were lucky enough to get out at the right terminal, you needed to have a printed version of your ticket. I think the last time I’ve seen this was about ten years ago in Mumbai. The airport itself is big and bulky with no clear indications as to where to go. Worst of all, it doesn’t have any air conditioning. I was not sure whether I had to pay the 150000 Rupees departure tax, but again, the guy at the information desk was able to help. Although I was disappointed to learn that they won’t take a credit card, but cash only. So I drew the money out of the next ATM that wasn’t broken (I only needed three attempts). But it was good to find the non-broken ATM, because the shops wouldn’t take my credit card, either, so I already knew where to get cash from. The WiFi’s performance matches the other airport’s infrastructure well: It’s quite dirty. Because it turned out that the information the guy gave me was wrong, I invested my spare hundred somewhat thousands rupees in dough-nuts in order to help me waiting for my 2.5 hours delayed flight. But I couldn’t really enjoy the food, because the moment I sat on any bench, cockroaches began to invade the place. I think the airport hosts the dirtiest benches of all Indonesia. The good thing is, that they have toilets. With no drinkable water, but at least you can wash your hands. Fortunately, my flight was only two hours late, so I could escape relatively quickly. I’m looking forward to going back, but maybe not via CGK ;-)

All in all, many kudos to the organisers. I think this year’s edition was quite successful.

Sponsored by GNOME!


It’s winter again and it was clear that FOSDEM was coming. However, preparation fell through the cracks, at least for me, mainly because my personal life is fast-paced at the moment. We had a table again, and our EventsBox, which is filled with goodness to demo GNOME, made its way from Gothenburg, where I actually carried it to a couple of months ago.

Unfortunately though, we didn’t have t-shirts to sell. We do have boxes of t-shirts left, but they didn’t make it to FOSDEM :-\ So this FOSDEM didn’t generate nearly as much revenue as the last years. It’s a pity that this year’s preparation was suboptimal. I hope we can improve next year. Were able to get rid of other people’s things, though ;-) Like last year, the SuSE people brought beer, but it was different this time. Better, even ;-)

The fact that there wasn’t as much action at our booth as last years, I could actually attend talks. I was able to see Sri and Pam talking on the Groupon incident that shook us up a couple of months ago. It was really nice to see her, because I wanted to shake hands and say thanks. She did an amazing job. Interestingly enough, she praised us, the GNOME Foundation’s Board of Directors, for working very professionally. Much better than any client she has worked with. I am surprised, because I didn’t really have the feeling we were acting as promptly as we could. You know, we’re volunteers, after all. Also, we didn’t really prepare as much as we could have which led to some things being done rather spontaneously. Anyway, I take that as a compliment and I guess that our work can’t be all too bad. The talk itself showed our side of things and, if you ask me, was painting things in a too bright light. Sure, we were successful, but I attribute much of that success to network effects and a bit of luck. I don’t think we could replicate that success easily.

GNOME’s presence at FOSDEM was not too bad though, despite the lack of shirts. We had a packed beer event and more talks by GNOMEy people. The list includes Karen‘s keynote, Benzo‘s talk on SDAPDS, and Sri‘s talk on GNOME’s impact on the Free Software ecosystem. You can find more here.

A talk that I did see was on improving the keysigning situation. I really mean to write about this some more. For now, let me just say that I am pleased to see people working on solutions. Solutions to a problem I’m not sure many people see and that I want to devote some time for explaining it, i.e. in s separate post. The gist is, that contemporary “keysigning parties” come with non-negligible costs for both, the organiser and the participant. KeySigningPartyTools were presented which intend to improve they way things are currently done. That’s already quite good as it’ll reduce the number of errors people typically make when attending such a party.

However, I think that we need to rethink keysigning. Mostly, because the state of the art is a massive SecOps fail. There is about a gazillion traps to be avoided and many things don’t actually make so much sense. For example, I am unable to comprehend why we are muttering a base16 encoded version of your 160 bit fingerprint to ourselves. Or why we must queue outside in the cold without being able to jump the queue if a single person is a bit slow, because then everybody will be terribly confused and the whole thing taking even longer. Or why we need to do everything on paper (well, I know the arguments: Your computer can be hacked, be social, yadda yadda). I did actually give a talk on rethinking the keysigning problem (slides). It’s about a project that I have only briefly mentioned here and which I should really write about in the near future. GNOME Keysign intends to be less of a SecOps fail by letting the scan a barcode and click “next”. The rest will be operations known to the user such as sending an email. No more manually comparing fingerprints. No more leaking data to the Internet about who you want to contact. No more MITM attacks against your OpenPGP installation. No more short key ids that you accidentally use or because you mistyped a letter of the fingerprint. No more editing raw Perl in order to configure your keysigning tool. The talk went surprisingly well. I actually expected the people in the security devroom to be mad when someone like me is taking their perl and their command line away. I received good questions and interesting feedback. I’ll follow up here with another post once real-life lets me get to it.

Brussels itself is a very nice city. We were lucky, I guess, because we had some sunshine when we were walking around the city. I love the plethora of restaurants. And I like that Brussels is very open and cultural. Unfortunately, the makerspace was deserted when we arrived, but it is was somewhat expected as it was daytime… I hope to return again and check it out during the night ;-)

GNOME at FSCONS14 in Gothenburg, Sweden

I was glad to be invited to FSONCS 2014 in Gothenburg, Sweden. Remember that this is also the place for next year’s GUADEC! This year’s FSCONS was attended by around 150 people or so. I guess it was a bit less. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s a very cool event with many interesting people and talks.

We, GNOME, had a presence at the event due to me bringing the EventsBox and T-Shirts to Gothenburg. It was quite a trip, especially with those heavy boxes…

The first keynote of the conference was given by Karl Fogel. He declared the end of copyright in 1993. He imagined copyright as a tree whose bottom has been chopped off, but the, the top hasn’t noticed that just yet. He put copyright on a timeline and drew a strong relation to the printing press. He claimed that in the United Kingdom, a monopoly used to control who prints and distributes books and it then transferred to a differently shaped monopoly which involved the actual authors. These could then transfer their rights to printers. He went on with ranting about the fact that nowadays you cannot tip the author for their (free) work. He appealed to the authors of f-droid or the firefox mobile app market to integrate such a functionality. Overall it was an interesting talk with many aspects. He is a talented speaker.

The second keynote was given by Leigh Honeywell. She talked about communities and community building. She said that she got most of the ideas presented in her talk from Sumana Harihareswara‘s “Models we use to change the world”. During her talk she referred to her experiences when founded the HackLabTO Hackerspace after having attended the CCCamp 2007. She basically shared models of understanding the community and their behaviour. The Q&A session was inspiring and informative. Many questions about managing a community were asked and answered.

Another interesting talk was given by Guilhem Moulin who went on to talk about Fripost. It is a democratic email service provider from Sweden. He gave a bit of an insight regarding the current Email usage on today’s Internet. He claimed that we have 2.7 billion internet users and that the top three email service providers accumulate roughly a third of this population. His numbers were 425 million for GMail, 420 million for Hotmail, and 280 million for Yahoo. All these companies are part of PRISM, he said, which worried him enough to engage with Fripost. In fact, he became a board member after having been a user and a sysadmin. As someone who operates a mail server for oneself and others with similar needs, I was quite interested in seeing concentrated efforts like this. Fripost’s governance seems to be interesting. It’s a democratic body and I wonder how to thwart malicious subversion. Anyway, the talk was about technical details as to how to create your own So I can only encourage to run your own infrastructure and found structures that care about running ecosystem. A memorable quote he provided to underpin this appeal is attributed to Schneier: “We were safer when our email was at 10,000 ISPs than it was at 10“.

My talk went sufficiently well. I guess I preached to the choir regarding Free Software. I don’t think I needed to convince the people that Free Software is a good thing. As for convincing the audience that GNOME is a good thing, I think I faced a big challenge. Some of the attendees didn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about their desktop which is great. But some others were more in the, what I would call, old school category using lynx, xautoscreenlock, and all that stuff from the 90s. Anyway, we had a great session with many questions from the audience such that I couldn’t even go through my slides.

I had a lightning talk about signing OpenPGP keys using GNOME Keysign. I probably need to write up a separate blog post for that. In short, I mentioned that short key IDs are evil, but that long key IDs are also problematic. Actually, using keyservers is inherently problematic and should be avoided. To do so, I showed how I transfer a key securely and sign it following best practices (thanks to Andrei for an initial version!). Bastian was nice enough to do the demo with me. We needed to cheat a little though, as currently, they key is transferred using the WiFi network you are on. The WiFi, however, didn’t allow us to create a TCP connection to each other. We thus opened a WiFi hotspot and used that. I think this would be a useful feature.

The last talk of the conference was given by Hans Lysglimt from Norway. He is, among other things, a politician, an activist, and an entrepreneur who founded an email service. His runbox has around 1000000 accounts and 30000 paid subscriptions, so it’s fairly big, compared to Fripost at least. Again, running email services myself, I found it interesting to listen to the stories he had to tell. His story was that he received a gag order for running his commercial email service provider. It remained unclear whether it was send because of his interview with Julian Assange or not.

Interestingly, he didn’t seem to have received many correct subpoenas in the sense that they were Norwegian court orders. However, in one case the American authorities went through the Norwegian legal system which he found funny in itself because the two legal system were not very similar. He eventually mentioned that every email service provider has at least one gag order, either an implicit or and explicit one. Ultimately, he concluded that you cannot trust a corporation.

FSCONS is an interesting event. Their manifesto is certainly impressive. I am glad to have visited and I am looking forward to visiting again. It is very atmospheric, very relaxed, and friendly. A very nice place to be.

mrmcd14 in Darmstadt – DOM-based XSS

After last year’s fabulous event, I was really looking forward to this year’s mrmcd in Darmstadt, Germany. It outgrew last year’s edition and had probably around 250 to 300 people attending. Maybe even more. In fact, 450 clients generated 423 GB traffic during the conference which lasted 60 hours or so. That’s around 2MB/s. That’s megabytes. Per second. Every second. I find that quite impressive. Especially as the outdoor area was very inviting to just hang around, grab a beer, and chat to your fellow hackers. So some people must have had an amazing demand of … updates…

This year’s theme was construction sites. As IT, and especially security, is a major, never ending, and dangerous construction site. It was well done, with a lot of warning tape, the people wearing helmets, hi-vis vests, some security boots, etc. Although it couldn’t excel last year’s aviation theme, but the watermark was set extremely high. Anyway, the speakers received cool gadgets, like a tool set, a level, and other very well done gadgets. The talks were opened by Unicorn who, as you can see, was wearing proper safety gear. We were given instructions as to how to behave in case of fire, flood, or lack of alcohol. A nifty feature of this event is the availability of carbo hydrates in form of various food stuffs. It’s very cool to always being able to walk up to the buffet and fill up energy reserves.

The keynote was involuntarily given by dodger who did not miss the opportunity to show us various constructions sites, such as the Utah Data Center. Ultimately, (now I am maybe over interpreting things), it’s also hackers like us who make those possible. We usually decide for ourselves where to go and what to do. It was a good round-up on how we as a community work or should work. Also with some political references which I think is important as I have the feeling that many people lose that focus too easily.

An interesting series of talks was given by Ange Albertini, who first presented the PDF file format. It was interesting to see how the format actually looks like. I knew already a little but I’ve never really cared about the details. This was a very interesting and visually appealing talk. Pretty much like his other presentations which were again on file formats and on crypto.

My own talk was scheduled after the second night. I was positively surprised to see a half-filled room on a Sunday morning, after two nights of demanding partying… Anyway, I had an interested crowd which I think I could entertain. You can find my slides here. I was talking on DOM-based Cross-site Scripting. I presented a modified Chrome browser which is able to stop all identified DOM-based XSSs. I will need a separate post to cover the details. As a brief summary: Both WebKit and V8 were modified to track taint, that is, to annotate strings with the information of the source. Such a source could be the document.URL or the This taint information is evaluated whenever it is about to be compiled to code. The simple approach of blocking every tainted string to compile is not followed as it breaks the Web. Instead, the compiler will notice which token is about to be generated and only allow generation if and only if the string is untainted or of a data type (String, Boolean, Number). If the tainted token is, for example, function call, assignment or pretty much anything else, then it is replaced with an illegal token in order to abort compilation. There is a video of the talk here:

As we are on videos, the video team is just plainly amazing. It released videos of the event pretty much after they finished. And in a quality that is hard to excel. You check the videos of this conference, but also others. You may find some gems that are well worth watching. Be aware though, some talks are also very much on the vapor-ware side of things… I guess I don’t need to point to specific talks as it should be easy to identify…

I am already looking forward to next year’s event. The watermark has, again, been set high and I expect the next year to be able to raise that bar. But I hope it will be able to stay small enough to not lose the cosy and comfy feeling. Maybe I shouldn’t blog about that fantastic event to not generate too much attention ;-)

LibreOffice Con in Bern, Switzerland

I was invited to give a talk in Bern, Switzerland, for the LibreOffice Conference. The LibreOffice people are a nice crowd with diverse backgrounds. I talked to design people, coders doing rather low-level GL things, marketing folks, some being new to Free Software, and to some being old farts. It sounds like a lot of people and one is inclined to think of boat loads of people attending the conference when having the community statistics in mind. But it has been a very cosy event, with less than a hundred people. I found that surprising, but not necessarily in a bad way.

I couldn’t make it to many talks, because the conference took place on week days. But judging from the schedule there were many interesting talks. The only thing I didn’t like about the schedule was the weird formatting. Seriously, who makes the track’s name more visible than the talk’s title..? Also grouping by room and not by time is a bit weird.

Anyway, my talk went well although it was in the first slot after the free beer party ;-) You can find my slides in the collection. I was talking about GNOME in general, but with a twist for those who migrate from proprietary software to Free Software. I hope I could convey that the GNOME desktop might be a viable alternative to proprietary products.

As this was a great, comfortable conference, I’m looking forward to visiting next year’s event.

GPN 2014 in Karlsruhe

The Gulash Programmier Nacht (GPN) took place in Karlsruhe, Germany. The local subsidiary of the Chaos Computer Club organised that event, which apparently took place for the 14th time. So far, I wasn’t able to attend, but this time I made it.

It’s a 200 to 300 people event, focussed at hacking, making, and talks around that. It’s very cosy and somewhat similar to the mrmcds. Most of the talks were held in German, a few in English, but I think that could easily change if there is a demand.

The conference was keynoted by tante, who talked about the political aspects of code and the responsibility every developer has. It was good to hear someone saying that you do create reality for people with the software you write and that you are indeed responsible for the view on the world the users of your software have. There were a few other interesting thoughts and I think I agree with the results of the analysis conducted to a great extent. But I think a few areas are not well covered. For example, he said that you limit the people with your software. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. If you provide your users with enough freedoms, i.e. by choosing a Free Software license, than I don’t think his argument is valid anymore.

On the more funny side, a chemist taught us about chemistry based on the stories of Walter White. It was a funny talk with many interludes of the TV series. She explained what the people in the episodes were doing and how close that is to reality. Turns out, it is quite close and at least stupid mistakes were not done.

We also learned about Perl 6. If you think Perl is ugly, he said, it’s not modern Perl. The new and shiny Perl 6 allows you to write short code while looking nice, he said. He showed some features that make it easy to write command line tools. You can simply declare an argument to your main function and Perl would expose that to the user, e.g. by presenting a help screen. It would also detect the types provided and do some magic fancy stuff like checking whether the provided argument is an existing (or empty) file.

A very interesting talk was given on the Enigma, the German crypto machine. He showed the machine that broke the crypto and now stands in Bletchley Park. He told stories about the development and operation of that machine. Very interesting indeed. Also well done on a technical level, the slides were really well done.

I was invited to give talk on GNOME. As you can see in the video, my battery didn’t even last the full 90 minutes slot I was assigned. Something is certainly wrong, either this Linux thing or my battery. Anyway, the talk itself went very well, and it was particularly well attended for that early slot. I was also positively surprised by the audience asking many questions and while I specifically asked for flames, I didn’t get that many.

GNOME.Asia Summit 2014

I was fortunate to be able to attend this year’s GNOME Asia Summit in Beijing, China.

It was co-hosted with FUDCon, the Fedora Users and Developers Conference. We had many attendees and the venue provided good facilities to talk about Free Software and the Free Desktop.

Fudcon Beijing Logo

The venue was the Beihai University somewhat north of Beijing. Being Chinese, the building was massive in size. So we had loads of space, anyway ;-) The first day was reserved for trainings and attendees could get their feet wet with thinks like developing a GNOME application. I took part myself and was happy to learn new GNOME APIs. I think the audience was interested and I hope we could inspire a few attendees to create their next application using GNOME technologies.

I was invited to keynote the conference. It was my first time to do such a thing and I chose to give a talk that I would expect from a keynote, namely something that leads the conference and gives a vision and ideas about what to discuss during the conference. I talked on GNOME, GNOME 3, and GNOME 3.12. I tried to promote the ideas of GNOME and of Free Software. Unfortunately, I prepared for 60 minutes rather than 45, so I needed to cut off a good chunk of my talk :-/ Anyway, I am happy with how it went and especially happy with the fact that I wasn’t preaching to the choir only, as we had e.g. Fedora people in the audience, too.

We had RMS explaining Free Software to the audience and I think the people enjoyed his talking. I certainly did, although I think it doesn’t address problems we face nowadays. People have needs, as the discussion with the audience revealed. Apparently, people do want to have the functionality Facebook or Skype offers. I think that addressing these needs with the warning “you must not fall for the convenience trap” is too short sighted. We, the Free Software community, need to find better answers.

The event was full of talks and workshops from a diverse range of topics, which is a good thing for this conference. Of course, co-hosting with FUDCon helped that. The event is probably less technical than GUADEC and attendees can learn a lot from listening and talking to other people. I hope we can attract more Asian people to Free Software this way. I am not entirely sure we need to have the same setup as with GUADEC though. With GUADEC, we change the country every year. But Asia is about ten times larger than Europe. In fact, China alone is larger than all of Europe. It makes it somewhat hard for me to justify the moving around. We do need more presence in Asia, so trying to cover as much as possible might be an approach to attract more people. But I think we should investigate other approaches, such as focussing on an annual event in one location to actually create a strong Free Software location in Asia, before moving on. I wouldn’t know how to define “strong” right now, but we have absolutely no measure of success right now, anyway. That makes it a bit frustrating for me to pour money over Asia without actually seeing anything in return.

Anyway, Beijing is fun. We went to see the Great Wall and enjoyed the subway ;)

I would like to thank the organisers for having provided a great place us, the Free Software community, to spread the word about the benefits of free computing. I would also like to thank the GNOME Foundation for enabling people like me to attend the event.

Sponsored by GNOME!

[Update: Here is the recording of the talk]

LinuxTag 2014

I attended LinuxTag 2014 in Berlin. The event reinvented itself again, after it lost attraction is the recent years. We, GNOME, couldn’t even get enough volunteers to have a presence there. In Berlin. In perfect spring time. Other projects were struggling, too. For this year, they teamed up with re:publica and AndroidCon. The venue changed and the new format of the event made it more attractive and made a good number of people attend.

The venue was “Die Station“, apparently used by those Web people for their Web conference for a couple of years now. It has much more character than the expo in the west where LinuxTag used to be located. But it’s also a bit too unpolished to have a proper conference there. It’s very nice for the fair or expo part of LinuxTag, but not so nice for the conference part. The problem is the rooms. The infrastructure does not really allow for a nice conferency feeling. E.g. many plastic chair made the seats for the audience, the rooms were right next to each other and not sound proof so that you could hear the other talk from the other room. Some lecture halls were actually not really separated from the corridor, so people were walking by and making noise. As for the noise: Except for two big stages, the audio was really bad. I can’t really tell why, but I guess nobody actually tested whether the microphones would sound alright…

While I was grateful to be invited to give a talk on GNOME, I think someone in the organisation team didn’t like me ;-) The conference party started at 18:00 that day and my talk was scheduled for the last slot at 21:30. So I had to compete with the beer outside and other talks in the slot that I wanted to see myself. At least I only had very motivated people in the audience ;-)

The LinuxTag deserves its name as it’s unusually kernel focussed for a “normal user” event. As in depth kernel session do not necessarily make sense for the every day computer user, teaming up with DroidCon seemed promising. But the two events were too separated. I actually have not seen any schedule for the DroidCon. And I couldn’t find a joint schedule anywhere on the Internet nor in the venue itself. I don’t think it’s bad intentions, though. It’s probably due to lacking resources to pull it off. A big thank thank you to the organisers. I think it’s an important event that connects many people, especially those from the Industry with the Community. Keep rocking, guys.

OpenSuSE Conference 14 in Dubrovnik, Croatia

I had the pleasure to be invited to the 2014 edition of the OpenSuSE Conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia. That event was flying under my radar for a long time and I am glad that I finally found out about it.

The first thing that impressed me was Dubrovik. A lovely city with a walled old town. Even a (rather high) watch tower is still there. The city manages to create an inspiring atmosphere despite all the crowds moving through the narrow streets. It’s clean and controlled, yet busy and wild. There are so many small cafés, pubs, and restaurants, so many walls and corners, and so many friendly people. It’s an amazing place for an amazing conference.

The conference itself featured three tracks, which is quite busy already. But in addition, an unconference was held as a fourth track. The talks were varying in topic, from community management, to MySQL deployment, and of course, GNOME. I presented the latest and greatest GNOME 3.12. Despite the many tracks, the hallway track was the most interesting one. I didn’t know too many faces and as it’s a GNU/Linux distribution conference which I have never attended before, many of the people I met had an interesting background which I was not familiar with. It was fun meeting new people who do exciting things. I hope to be able to stay in touch with many of them.

The conference was opened by the OpenSuSE Board. I actually don’t really know how OpenSuSE is governed and if there is any legal entity behind it. But the Board seems to be somehow elected by the community and was to announce a few changes to OpenSuSE. The title of the conference was “The Strength to Change” which is indeed inviting to announce radical changes. For better or worse, both the number and severity of the changes announced were limited. First and foremost, handling marketing materials is about to change. A new budget was put in place to allow for new materials to be generated to have a much bigger presence in the world. Also, the materials were created by SuSE’s designers on staff. So they are considered to be rather high quality. To get more contributors, they introduce formalised sponsorship program for people to attend conferences to present OpenSuSE. I don’t know what the difference to their Travel Support Program is, though. They will also reimburse for locally produced marketing materials which cannot be shipped around the world to encourage more people to spread the word about OpenSuSE. A new process will be put in place which will enable local contributors to produce materials up to 200 USD from a budget of 2000 USD per quarter. Something that will change, but not just yet, is the development and release model. Andrew Wafaa said that OpenSuSE was a victim of its own success. He mentioned the number of 7500 packages which should probably indicate that it is a lot for them to handle. The current release cycle of 8 months is to be discussed. There is a strong question of whether something new shall be tried. Maybe annual releases, or even longer to have more time for polish. Or maybe not do regular releases at all, like rolling releases or just take as long as it takes. A decision is expected after the next release which will happen as normal at the end of this year. There was an agreement that OpenSuSE wants to be easy to contribute to. The purpose of this conference is to grow the participants’ knowledge and connections in and about the FLOSS environment.

The next talk was Protect your MySQL Server by Georgi Kodinov. Being with MySQL since 2006 he talked about the security of MySQL in OpenSuSE. The first point he made was how the post-installation situation is on OpenSuSE 13.1. It ships version 5.6.12 which is not too bad because it is only 5 updates behind of what upstream released. Other distros are much further away from that, he said. Version 5.6 introduced cool security related features like expiring passwords, password strength policies, or SHA256 support. He urged the audience to stop using passwords on the command line and look into the 5.6 documentation instead. He didn’t make it any more concrete, though, but mentioned “login paths” later. He also liked that the server was not turned on by default which encourages you to use your self-made configuration instead of a default one. He also liked the fact that there is no pre-packaged database as that does not configure users that are not very well protected. Finally, he pointed out that he is pleased to see that no remote access is configured in the default configuration. However, he did not like that OpenSuSE does not ship the latest version. The newest upstream version 5.6.15 not only fixes around 25 security problems but also adds advanced AES functionalities such as keys being bigger than 128 bits. He also disliked that a mysql_secure_installation script is not run after installation. That script would put random passwords to the root account, would disallow anonymous access, and would do away with empty default passwords. Another regret he had was that mysql_config_editor is not packaged. That tool would help to get rid of passwords in scripts using MySQL by storing credentials in encrypted files. That way you would have to protect only one file, not a lot of scripts. For some reason OpenSuSE activates the “federated plugin” which is disabled upstream.
Another weird plugin is the archive plugin which, he said, is not needed. In fact, it is not even available so that the starting server throws errors… Also, authentication plugins which should only be used for testing are enabled by default which can be a problem as it could allow someone to log in as any user. After he explained how this was a threat, the actual attack seems to be a bit esoteric. Anyway, he concluded that you get a development installation when you install MySQL in OpenSuSE, rather than an installation suited for production use.

He went on to refer about how to harden it after installation. He proposed to run mysql_secure_installation as it wouldn’t cause any harm even if run multiple times. He also recommended to make it listen on specific interfaces only, instead of all interfaces which is does by default. He also wants you to generate SSL keys and certificates to allow for encrypted communication over the network.

Even more security can be achieved when turning off TCP access altogether, so you should do it if the environment allows it. If you do use TCP, he recommended to use SSL even if there is no PKI. An interesting advice was to use external authentication such as PAM or LDAP. He didn’t go into details how to actually do it, though. The most urgent tip he gave was to set secure_file_priv to a certain directory as it will restrict the paths MySQL can write to.

As for new changes that come with MySQL 5.7, which is the current development version accumulating changes over 18 months of development, he mentioned the option to log to syslog. Interestingly,
a --ssl option on the client is basically a no-op (sic!) but will actually enforce SSL in the upcoming version. The new version also adds more crypto functions such as RANDOM_BYTES() which interface with the SSL libraries. He concluded his talk with a quote: “Security is like plastic surgery. the more you invest, the prettier it gets.”.

Michael Meeks talked next on the history of the Document Foundation. He explained how it used to be in the StarOffice days. Apparently, they were very process driven and believed that the more processes with even more steps help the quality of the software they produced. He didn’t really share that view. The mind set was, he said, that people would go into a shop and buy a box with the software. He sees that behaviour declining steeply. So then hackers came and branched StarOffice into OpenOffice which had a much shorter release cycle than the original product and incorporated fixes and features of the future version. Everyone shipped that instead of the original thing. The 18 months of the original product were a bit of a long thing in the free software world, he said. He quoted someone saying “StarDivision a problem for every solution.”

He went on to rant about Contributor License Agreements and showed a graph of Fedora contributions which spiked off when they dropped the requirement of a CLA. The graph was impressive but really showed the number of active accounts in an unspecified system. He claimed that by now they have around the same magnitude of contributions as the kernel does and with set a new record with 3000 commits in February 2014. The dominating body of contributors is volunteers which is quite different when compared to the kernel. He talked about various aspects of the Document Foundation like the governance or the fact that they want to make it as easy to contribute to the project as possible.

The next talk was given on bcache by Oliver Neukum. Bcache is a disk cache which is probably primarily used to cache rotational disks with SSDs. He first talked about the principles of caching, like write-back, write-through, and write-around. That is, the cache is responsible for writing to the backing store, the cache places the data to be written in its buffer, or write to the backing storage, but not the cache, respectively. Subsequently, he explained how to actually use bcache. A demo given later revealed that it’s not fool proof and that you do need to get your commands straight in order to make it work properly. As to when to actually use Bcache, he explained that SSDs are cool as they are fast, but they are small and expensive. Fast, as he continued, can either mean throughput or latency. SSDs are good with regards to latency, but not necessarily with throughput. Other, probably similar options to Bcache are dm-cache, but it does not support safe writes. I guess that you cannot use it if you have the requirement of a write-through or write-around scenario. A different alternative is EnhanceIO, written originally by Facebook, which keeps hash structure of the data to be cached in RAM. Bcache, on the other hand, stores a b-tree on the SSD instead of in the RAM. It works on block devices, so anything goes. Tape drives, RAIDs, … It places a special superblock to indicate the partition is a bcache partition. A second block is created to indicate what the backing store is. Currently, the kernel does not auto detect these caches, hence making it work with the root filesystem is a bit tricky. He did a proper evaluation of the effects of the cache. So his statements were well founded which I liked a lot.

It was announced that the next year’s conference, oSC15, will be in The Hague, Netherlands. The city we had our GUADEC in, once. If you have some time in spring, probably in April, consider to go.

GNOME@FOSDEM 2014 – Stand and Panel

It is this time of the year again *yay*. The biggest and greatest Free Software conference took place in Brussels, Belgium. It’s good to see all those interested and passionate people care about Free Software. I hope that the (intellectual) gravity of the people gets more people interested and strengthens our communities. In fact, I feel it was one of the better FOSDEMs so far. Maybe even the best. We, GNOME, had a hand full (not kidding) of new members of our communities staffing the booth or just being available. I was very please to see new faces and to identify them as people who were very committed to Free Software and GNOME.

As indicated, we, GNOME, had a booth and a fun time entertaining people stopping by. With the help of many volunteers, we presented our most recent GNOME release, sold some t-shirts, and discussed our future ideas. It’s not necessarily a venue to convince people to use Free Software, or even to use GNOME. But I have the feeling we manage to get both messages across. Bar one case in which an unlucky fellah was angry about everything and especially that this Linux 20 we had installed wouldn’t ship Emacs by default. Other than that we showed people how cool the GNOME Shell extensions are, how to quickly launch applications, or how to access the notification area quickly. Or, yes of course, how to suspend. Or to shutdown…

I also had the pleasure of being interviewed by an Irish dude who produced episodes for Hacker Public Radio. I didn’t know about that but it seems to be a cool project. I don’t know when it will go live or whether it actually has been published already.

We also had panel with the governing bodies of GNOME and KDE. The intention was to debunk some myths and to make the work more visible. I was on the Panel (on behalf of GNOME) with Kat (from GNOME…) and Lydia from KDE. She was joined by Cornelius who serves on the KDE board for more than 9 years. We were lamenting about various aspects of our work such as where does money come from, where does it go to, what are the processes of getting rid of the money. But also why we were doing that, why we think it is important and what achievements we are proud of. Our host, Paul, was a nice and fun guy and did his job very well. I think it was a successful event. It could probably have been better in the sense that we could have focussed more on the audience and making them want to step up and take over responsibilities. But the way it went and the participation of the audience makes me happy nonetheless.

Update: The interviews have been posted: