A View on the LOTS Conference

Last week three Infrae people – me, GuidoW, and Eric – went to the LOTS Conference (Let’s Open The Source) in Bern, Switzerland: http://www.lots.ch/2005/


Snow had covered Munich. We were supposed to transfer there, but ended up rerouted through Vienna, flying in a cushy business jet to Bern airport.

Bern is lovely. Reminds me of the Hague, our capital city. Although, while the Netherlands has land, Switzerland has a landscape, which goes steeply up and down. The scenery was decorated with fluttering snow, making everything sparkle and turning edges into curves. It was cold; soft clouds of breath heightened the enchantment.

The conference was held at the University of Bern. It occupied two floors of the stately main building. To get to the premises from our hotel, we walked deep underground into the train station, and took an elevator up through the hill. The Swiss are like dwarfs, they love tunneling through rock.

The conference was divided into three theme days: Workshop, Professional, and Community Day.

Day 1: Workshopping

Workshop Day was not very busy. We attended an Apache Lenya session for the morning, given by Andreas Hartmann from Wyona. We were glad we went, because it was educational, inspiring, and gratifying. Lenya is a powerful system, and seeing how it works ‘under the hood’ was good for us. Some aspects triggered ideas about how we can improve Silva, and the telling realization was we could see the Lenya people dealing with the same fundamental problems Infrae is: scalability, performance, code base maintenance, etc. Steering an enterprise-class CMS demands a structured methodology. It ain’t rapid prototyping no more.

The afternoon was more granular. We ran into some clients we knew, like Benno Luthiger from ETH, and consultant Philipp Schröder. We looked at various sessions: Apache2, a Vida CMS framework built with PHP, software metrics. We wondered why the names of so many CMS’s end in ‘a’. Sounds female, we supposed. GuidoW’s laptop died. The screen said: “Fan error”. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. It followed his expired passport charade at Schiphol airport.

Day 2: Professionalizing

Professional Day was full of activity. Numerous sponsor companies had stands in the passages of the two floors. Big names included Novell with Suse in tow, Sun, and Microsoft, who furnished a CD of open source UNIX tools. A lot of local companies were present: Puzzle ITC, Leanux.ch, and others I didn’t recognize. From the Python/Zope world, 4teamwork had a stand, with Bernhard Bühlmann and team, who just launched Plone-based bern.ch. Eric manned the Infrae project booth most of the day.

The keynote was from Stefano Mazzocchi of Cocoon fame. He told a story about “What if...” open source had never developed. It was scary and effective. Stefano always adapts his presentations to context, and uses fast tools (Apple laptop) to create them. This one had a handwritten font that developed the tale line by line. A while back I saw a completely different talk, where he used gorgeous photos to trigger visionary musing about the future. See him.

I did presentations for the Railroad and Silva, and Guido did a Kupu presentation. After Guido’s talk, he told us he was totally nervous. It didn’t show, which means he’s broken through to where talking to a crowd is provocative. Like trying to pick up a girl (he’ll understand that) (not that he did anything of the sort, Suus ;-)

The Silva and Railroad presentations, well, all of them, were underattended. The worst case was Michael Wechner, who did a talk on OSCOM. Two people showed up. Then two more, one of which turned out to be a journalist and the other his photographer. They took pictures and left. Michael found the positive: obviously most of the people at the conference already knew about OSCOM.

The Railroad Repository talk provoked some smart questions. Railroad solves a fundamental load problem, common to all high-performance installations, and the talk was effective, since the questioners were from different technological camps. It proved the repository has potential for various application servers.

A half hour talk zooms by. Always treat your presentation like a newspaper article, with the most important stuff first. Then you can bail out if circumstances demand it. For the Silva talk I skipped the low-level technical stuff, which probably wasn’t news anyway (model/view/controller architecture, flexible layout system, bla, bla). During the presentation one guy downloaded and installed Silva on his PowerBook. Nice to witness Silva’s “out of the box” experience.

Low turnout on Professional Day was a disappointment to everybody. The organizers expected far more people to show, because they did triple the marketing this year. LOTS is not the first open source event I’ve seen with an excellent program but relatively poor attendance. There seems to be a threshold, where developers hear the message and show, but high level decision makers don’t take it seriously.

The same content at a major trade show would have packed the presentation rooms. This may point to packaging, where holding the conference under the auspices of a university doesn’t promote confidence. However, a university is often the only cheap venue with proper facilities. With their limited funds, open source organizations can’t compete with convention centers. But this leaves a gap in operations where, to build business, big investments are required, but small investments don’t produce a return. I suppose the situation is the same for decision makers: the investment of going to LOTS didn’t seem worth their time.

Maybe next year’s Professional Day should try and better focus on the problems professionals face. Here I don’t mean developers, but the professionals developers want to do business with. There were a host of small open source companies present, both in stands and in the Projects area, and they were actively looking for customers. Many potential clients are concerned about integration and support – since they already have an existing IT infrastructure – and transitioning, where they are considering turning over proprietary systems to open source solutions. If we can showcase subjects like these, more business might happen at the conference.

Next year the conference will be called FOSS Days. Better, although acronyms can fall short. Maybe a good tag line will fill it in.

Of course, developers can be professionals too. Maybe the Workshop Day should be called Developer Day, to differentiate the content. My two centimes for the LOTS crew :-)

In the evening a speaker’s dinner was organized at a classic Swiss fondue restaurant. Fondue is an icebreaker, delicious social lubrication, a central melting pot.

Day 3: Communing

Community Day was fun, and “Fun matters”, to quote the title of Benno’s research/talk about the open source development process.

Although the keynote, from the president of FSF Europe, was not fun, it was so painful I wanted to crawl out of the hall. “It’s not open source, it’s not FLOSS....”, yeah, yeah.... I fell asleep and dreamed about long ago in the Age of Aquarius, when Timothy Leary thought LSD would change the world. Shudder.

Wyona Pictures’ FUD movie had torrented onto various laptops, circumventing the copyright problem with the music. Some of the people in the trailer, like Bertrand Delacretaz, were present, playing their roles. (I just did ;-)

Bertrand played multiple roles. He was an organizer, and went live at LOTS with his band at the end of the day.

There was a presentation about Zope 3 from Dominik Huber. We didn’t see it, because the room was full (heh). Previously I didn’t know Dominic, but after talking, I realized I’ve seen his work, and he’s sharp. He once built some Silva extensions for WSL, a Swiss research institute, and I was amazed at the depth of what he’d done. Meeting him confirmed the good impression.

The icing: Dominic has user interface running for Zope 3. That means there’s something to see. Wow. That’s not just a milestone, it’s a breakthrough. Words, wikis, and source code are just vapor. Guess the cold in Switzerland made it finally crystallize.

GuidoW got a major ego boost. We had an inkling about it already, but at the conference a guy who’s involved with JSR-170 showed him Kupu running, integrated into one of the world’s top content management systems. I haven’t asked permission to cite it yet, thereby the cryptic public key.

There’s not much more to report besides valuable networking. I met Robert Rottermann of RedCor, who’s name I’ve heard for years. He’s motivated, doing two long presentations on two days, sharing knowledge and obvious experience.

Ah, upstairs in the social area of the conference, a PainStation game from etoy.Corporation graced the premises. GuidoW and Eric got burns, increasing electric shocks, and bruised hands from the black rubber hose that whipped them incessently. Eric had the high score until some 13-year old kid came along.


The LOTS team gets the closing kudo. We were totally impressed. Those guys, a couple girls too, worked really hard to make it all happen, and pulled it off. From a visitor’s standpoint, everything flowed. Well done.

I talked with most of the organizers. They’re all busy with various endeavors, and took time out from studies or working/running a company to produce the conference. Good people. I’d like to do business with them.

That’s part of the challenge small software enterprises face. How can you retain your agility, yet compete with giants. Some company/communities are looking for a way to band together, share knowledge, realize economies of scale, and keep the competition open. Create a networked Emilia Romagna. OSCOM and ZEA are two examples of this. I’d like to see LOTS more.