OSCON 2014: Is Open Source Dead?

August 6th, 2014

After visiting OSCON this year, I have to ask myself: is open source dead?

I don’t mean open source software. Software published under licenses approved by the OSI is booming. What I mean is the ideal of open source software, that people would get together to build collaborative applications that would be given away for free.

I’ve never been a fan of software in an of itself. I’ve always looked toward software for what it can allow me to do. I don’t care about spreadsheets unless they help me manage my company. I don’t care about word processors beyond their ability to allow me to express my thoughts. Even games can be judged on how well they allow me to escape into them. So I don’t see “software” as a product – it’s the thing that helps me make the product.

It seems that open source applications have all but disappeared. What’s doing very well are open source libraries and languages that allow people to build proprietary products. Take a look at the biggest sponsors of OSCON. There’s Bluehost, a hosting provider “built on open source technologies”. There’s Paypal, “using open source foundations in their technology stacks”. The list continues: Citrix, Google, HP, Github, Microsoft and Rackspace. Of all of those, only Github strikes me as an open source company. The others are using open source technologies but to build closed products. The “open” has come to mean “open protocols” more than “open source”.

Is this a bad thing? I really don’t know.

If you look at the sponsor page, you’ll see “We’re Hiring” banners next to the names of many of the companies. Being fluent in open source technologies is a good way to get a job, and seems to be the primary reason many of the companies were there in the first place.

The only large truly open source company I know of, Red Hat, was there, but in a little bitty booth. There are still a lot of “open core” companies represented: those companies that provide a feature limited version of their products under an open source license but charge for the full featured one. While I think this is a bad thing, they seem to be doing well.

Is it because no one cares anymore? This saddens me.

There seems to be a lack of concern about the lock-in that comes with proprietary software, even more so than in years past. There is a huge gold rush to provide software as a service (SaaS) offerings, but no one is caring about security or portability. A lot of the business models of these SaaS companies directly involves analytics of their users. Was anyone in the tech world really surprised when it was revealed that Facebook was experimenting on its user base? Yet people seem to be in a rush to turn over their most important information to third parties. Even at OSCON, the premier open source conference, most of the people wandered around with Macbooks and iPhones.

So, open source is really succeeding in core technologies such as libraries and languages but fails at the end user application level. I think part of it is the lack of a good business model. People are more than willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for software licenses but are loathe to pay for an open source support contract. I also think that it fails when it comes to usability. Without the business model, there just aren’t the resources available to make a lot of the software accessible to the casual technical user and much less to the Muggles. Heck, even Apple, which did such a good job with Time Machine, has pretty much moved backup from the user space to iCloud.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on open source. I still use a Linux Mint desktop and an Android phone running OmniROM. Almost all of the software I use is open source, but even I have to admit that in many cases the stuff I use isn’t ready for the basic user. But I may have to rethink my relationship to the term “open source”.

This post may sound like I’m really down, but I’m not. I’m actually kind of upbeat overall. And I really enjoyed the short amount of time I spent at OSCON. While not as open source-y as I might like, this is one of the few times a year I can be assured of running into a lot of cool people I’ve met over the years. When I arrived at the exhibit hall, I made a beeline for the unfashionable booths in the back and toward the left known as the “Nonprofit Pavilion” or as I like to call it, the “Geek Ghetto”. It’s pretty cool that some commercial shows like this offer free booths, but one must realize that they don’t include things like carpet padding, power or Internet access. I know a couple of projects that got booths next to each other so they could share.

The first booth I stopped at was the Software Freedom Conservancy booth where I got to see Bradley Kuhn and Karen Sandler for the first time in over a year, and I got to meet Marc Delisle, the maintainer of phpMyAdmin. They seem to be doing well and the list of Conservancy projects keeps growing. While I was there, open source guru Stormy Peters stopped by, as well as Deb Nicholson from the Open Invention Network.

I also was happy to see the LibreOffice booth. That is one project that really does try to do a fully open source application and they seem to be succeeding (I use it every day). Back when I was a Mac user I started using Keynote and Pages until I realized that the stuff I was creating was going to be tied to Apple forever. To my knowledge none of the Microsoft Office or iWork stuff support an open format, but maybe that will change now that the UK government has formally adopted ODF as their standard.

While interest in open source applications is waning, it is fun to see the open source spirit is still alive in projects other than software. I met Kevin from Free Geek, a non-profit that started in Portland but has grown to over ten other cities. Free Geek recycles technology and provides training for a variety of disciplines including computer hardware, software and even lock picking (who knows when you’ll get locked out of the server closet).

Something I don’t believe they had at OSCON last time was an “open hardware” section. I got to play with a beagleboard which is used by Prof. Thomas Bewley in his robotics classes as UCSD. I’m kind of jealous at all the new toys college students get to play with these days, for credit even.

One project is to create a balancing, two-wheeled robot. The one I played with was managed with a radio controller, and it was quite robust, even when I purposely drove it into other things (people, other robots).

On the opposite corner of the hall from the Geek Ghetto were the booths of some of the smaller open source projects with more commercial backing. The Red Hat booth was over there, and it was nice to run into Greg DeKoenigsberg at the Anisible booth. I met Greg when he was at Red Hat and it was also nice to see a local face (he’s nearby in Durham). Anisible seems to be a pretty cool project and I loved the tweet from an emphatic user who said “If a vegan, Crossfit, Anisible enthusiast meets you, what do they talk about first?”.

Speaking of meeting people, I got to chat with Erica Brescia over at the Bitnami booth, and later on ran into Jono Bacon and Stephen Walli. We ended up at Baileys along with Chris Aniszczyk from Twitter and some others, but as they say, what happens in Portland stays in Portland, so no pictures.

Plus, you really, really don’t want to know about that evening’s particular discussion. Ah, good times.

Order of the Blue Polo – Southway Housing Trust

August 4th, 2014

I’m back a few posts, but since I always enjoy hearing from our users I thought I’d post this latest Order of the Blue Polo submission from Keith Spragg of the Southway Housing Trust in the UK.

I work for Southway Housing Trust – a Didsbury (Manchester, UK) based, Not-for-profit Housing Association, looking after approximately 5,900 properties throughout the South Manchester region.

Southway Housing Trust operates a small ICT team, split between business applications and just two people on Support and Infrastructure.

When I started at Southway, there were several paper based methods of looking after the assorted systems and the only way we knew something was wrong was when users piped up to report a problem. I went looking for a free solution to my problems, and came across OpenNMS. I was very impressed with what I saw, and because of the size of our network (approximately 120 nodes) was able to take one of our old servers and repurpose it for this application.

Installation was quick and simple – I didn’t have to learn much more than I already knew, and because the system is very extensible, I was able to add bespoke monitors very quickly.

As soon as I had got OpenNMS set up, I was rapidly able to ditch the paper based systems, and trust that not only was OpenNMS going to record the history of this information, but that if there was a problem, my team would know before the users did. I equate it to putting a whole extra member of staff in the ICT team, as it’s always got its eyes on the systems on my behalf.

The only money we’ve spent on this project is my time – but we’ve lost count of the amount of money we’ve saved because our systems are not going wrong as often because we’re pro-actively monitoring them.

I love using OpenNMS, and would recommend it for any sized business – even a small network can benefit from an extra pair of eyes.


July 30th, 2014

Last week I was delighted to return to Portland, Oregon, for the annual OSCON conference. While I had a fun time at OSCON, I was only there for Wednesday and this post is about Tuesday. I’ll talk about the conference itself next. So this post contains little OpenNMS content but might be interesting to those of my three readers who like travel.

I got to PDX around noon and took the MAX into the city. My plan was to drop some stuff off at the hotel and then head to the conference, but as usual my life was overtaken by events. By the time I dealt with my various e-mails and other obligations, it was fairly late in the afternoon so I opted for a nap before dinner instead of trekking over to the Convention Center.

Dinner included me, our OpenNMS guru extraordinaire Ken who was up from Salem, and Greg. Greg used to be an OpenNMS client before he changed jobs to work for a non-profit, but like all OpenNMS users he is super intelligent and amazing to be around. I never miss a chance to spend some time with him.

Ken showed up in his cool, new BMW diesel wagon and drove us across the river. A friend of mine who is also a chef recommended we try a place called Pok Pok and Greg seconded the recommendation. He was worried that it might be crowded, but it being a Tuesday night we figured we’d take our chances. It was also a little earlier than I usually eat dinner, but even then our wait for a table was an hour.

In the meantime we went across the street to the Whiskey Soda Lounge. Greg told us that when Pok Pok started to get popular, people would migrate to nearby bars to wait for their table. Sensing a business opportunity, when a building close to the restaurant became available, they opened up the Lounge.

While we didn’t order much food, we did have a couple of drinks waiting for our table. I really enjoyed the Tamarind Whiskey Sour, which is something of a signature drink. They also had some decent drink specials. The only food we got was a bowl of peanuts, but in keeping with the Thai style cuisine of Pok Pok, the peanuts came mixed in with mild chilis. While the Lounge was nothing out of the ordinary, it was nice to unwind before dinner and catch up.

Our table was ready in an hour as promised, and the wait staff in the Lounge were the ones to tell us about it (which I thought was pretty convenient). Now Pok Pok is one of those places that seems to have grown organically, and our table was in a section that was basically outdoors with a covered roof. Considering how nice the evening was, I preferred our table to the ones downstairs in the main restaurant which struck me as a little claustrophobic.

The food was good and unusual. Greg and I are pretty much “pescatarians” so we stuck with fish. We had catfish (Cha Ca La Vong)

as well as whole tilapia, which was a special.

Afterward, for dessert Greg suggested that we go to an ice cream shop called Salt and Straw.

Now I am an ice cream nut. I make it at home. I go to classes to learn how to make better ice cream. And my favorite ice cream is Jeni’s from Ohio which is simply fantastic.

How do you describe something that is nearly an order of magnitude better than fantastic?

I’m not sure if it is the creaminess, the wonderful flavor combinations or just high quality ingredients, but this stuff is good.

Greg told me that the long line was actually pretty short for this place but I still I felt bad when I got up to the front and wanted to try every single flavor as the line got longer behind me. I limited myself to five, and received a heaping tablespoon of each one to taste.

The first was the signature Sea Salt with Caramel. Wonderful. I’ve just been introduced to salted caramel as a flavor and I’m quite fond of it.

Since I couldn’t just stop on the first one, I also tried their Double Fold Vanilla and Chocolate Gooey Brownie. Both were superlative.

The fourth flavor was Lavender and Honey. When we walked in another customer was walking out with a big purple scoop, so I just had to try it and this was almost my choice but I had to try one last flavor: Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper.

As the youths like to say: OMG.

I love strawberries and this flavor combination just caught my eye. One of the issues with making great ice cream is to limit water. Water forms ice crystals which ruin the texture on the tongue. This makes working with fruit difficult due to its high water content. Usually when I make strawberry ice cream, I roast the fruit to get rid of some of the water, and then I puree it and mix it in with the cream. You don’t want chunks because they screw up the texture when they freeze.

Salt and Straw gets around this by not only pureeing and mixing in the fruit, they have made a type of jam that they swirl into the ice cream. So you get amazing amounts of fruit flavor without sacrificing the texture. This was a softer ice cream than the others but it was so, so, good.

Both Ken and Greg thought the ice cream as good as well. Greg pulled a “native” by also purchasing a pint to go. You can skip the line and head straight to the to go freezer, but I wanted to get back in line to try some more flavors so I doubt I could do that.

Anyway, it was a great “soft landing” for my trip. I also got a few laughs when talking to the locals. I’d tell them, in my deepest southern drawl, that I knew all about Portland from watching that documentary on the city: Portlandia.

What makes that show funny is the deeper truths it parodies, but that’s one of the things I love about that town.

♫ It’s Hard Out Here for a (Free Software) Pimp ♫

July 23rd, 2014

In thinking about a title for this particular screed, I almost went with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Phone” but that didn’t really encompass what I was after as much as a play on the Oscar winning “Best Original Song” by the Three 6 Posse.

When I first got involved in free software, I thought it was too good to be true. I thought “free” implied “no work” but I was confusing free (gratis) with free (libre).

Sometimes freedom takes work.

It takes effort and no small commitment to run as much free software as possible, and no where is that more evident than when it comes to choosing hardware.

I used to be a big Apple fanboy, and thus my personal technology decisions were easy: buy the newest shiny from Apple. When I decided to divorce myself from them, it took awhile to adjust to the fact that, quite frequently, the new shiny is not the best choice for a free software advocate.

But I’ve been stymied time and time again. When looking for a new laptop, I bought the latest Lenevo X1 Carbon and ended up sending it back. It was just too new to support my operating system of choice, whereas my old, second generation Dell XPS 13 “Sputnik” runs Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) just fine.

So I tried a new tact.

When I was in the market for a new phone, I figured the best bet was to work backwards.

I had been using a Samsung Galaxy S3 running Cyanogenmod. However, right after I upgraded the baseband to run Kit Kat, the phone would constantly and randomly reboot. I tried everything I knew of to fix it and tried out just about every major ROM there was but it would still crash. Only by running Jelly Bean could I mitigate the issue somewhat. Then instead of bouncing every hour or so, it would only reboot once or twice a day.

Now I play a game called Ingress … a lot. It is a heavy user of the display, the CPU, the network and the GPS. While these reboots might have been acceptable to a casual user, they were killing me. While I may have somehow corrupted my S3, it was probably due to some other hardware problem, so I decided to get a new phone.

One of the pluses about putting in the time to use free software is quite frequently you learn how things work. I would never have even known about baseband versions, bootloaders, recovery, etc. if I hadn’t played with my phone. I also get a lot of options, such as which ROM to run. In all my research I decided that my philosophy matches up best with the team behind OmniROM.

OmniROM doesn’t have as many options as, say, AOKP, but they are dedicated to keeping it as open as possible and I admire that. Plus they have a pretty decent OpenDelta update application that makes staying on the latest release pretty simple.

Once I decided that I wanted to run OmniROM, I just worked backwards to pick out a phone.

Here’s where I had to make a choice about freedom.

What I loved about my S3 was that it had a replaceable battery and a microSD slot. Some days I’m a heavy user of my phone and even the best phones can’t last the day on a single charge. The microSD slot made it easy to transfer data from my phone to my computer as well as easily and cheaply expanding the available memory.

Not many phones have these two features. In fact, the only modern phones I could find were both from Samsung: the S4 and the S5.

The S5 is not supported by OmniROM, so my choice was simple: get the S4. I ordered an unlocked S4 from Amazon and got ready to enjoy the new-ish shiny.

It was not to be.

While the description on Amazon said that it was “unlocked” it turns out that Samsung has decided to block third party bootloaders, even on the S4, with an update issued last November, so it is impossible to replace their default operating system with a free one. While there are some ways to “dual boot” the phone, this was unacceptable to me, so I sent it back with the reason “item did not match web site description”. Just being carrier unlocked is not enough to merit the term “unlocked”.

In looking over the remaining options, I ended up settling on last year’s HTC One (m7). And I do mean settle: the One has no microSD slot nor does it have a replaceable battery. But these are things I can work around in the pursuit of freedom. I got a microSD to microUSB connector and an external battery pack that can keep my phone running for days. It also has a somewhat lo-rez camera at 4 megapixels, but it seems to take pictures just fine.

You do have to jump through an extra hoop in order to unlock the bootloader, but HTC made it pretty simple. You just have to log in to their developer site and post a code and they’ll send you back a file to run to unlock your particular phone. Not as easy as, say, a Nexus phone, but it isn’t too much extra work.

Now I have the latest Kit Kat running flawlessly on the phone. I’m able to remove the Google search bar, which in my case just takes up space, and I can modify the number of icons displayed per page.

It’s pretty awesome.

Is the HTC One a perfect phone, especially for playing Ingress? No – it is not perfect. But it is pretty darn good. At the Gettysburg anomaly it held up all day with zero reboots, whereas other people were reporting them with usually stable phones such as the Nexus 5. Note that if I didn’t have any other considerations I would have gotten a Nexus phone, but since I play Ingress with my spouse and she has one I wanted another brand in order to diversify the radio technology. In some places her phone gets signal where mine does not, and vice versa, and thus we can tether if needed.

I like to vote with my wallet and I buy products from companies that support freedom. I don’t understand why Samsung felt the need to lock down their devices. In part I think it is Apple-envy, but they just lost out to those of us who want to truly own their hardware. I’m not sure if it is enough to affect the bottom line, but it has soured me on Samsung products as a whole and I do buy a lot of technology.

So, remember that freedom takes work, but it’s worth it in the end.

Oh Nos! My Wireless Stopped Working!

July 23rd, 2014

I just had something a little scary happen, so I thought I’d share it in case anyone else hits this problem.

I’m in Portland for OSCON and suddenly the wireless networking on my laptop stopped working. The wireless status showed as “off” but it wouldn’t turn on. I’m running Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) and no interfaces were showing up.

Now, one thing I like about open source is I always tend to learn something when trying to solve a problem. A quick search on my phone introduced me to the “rfkill” command:

# rfkill list
0: phy0: Wireless LAN
	Soft blocked: no
	Hard blocked: yes

For some reason, the interface was “Hard blocked”. I then figured out what must have happened.

I was trying to bring up a shell to diagnose another issue. On Linux this tends to be ALT+CTL+Fx where the function key chosen is the virtual terminal you want (i.e. F1 for the first one, F2 for the second, etc.). On my normal keyboard, which is an old Apple keyboard, the function keys default to softkeys and you have to hold down the Fn key to actually trigger F1, F2, etc.

This is not the case with my laptop, so when I hit Fn+F2 it turned on “airplane mode”. This was causing the hard block.

I hit it again:

# rfkill list
0: phy0: Wireless LAN
	Soft blocked: yes
	Hard blocked: no
1: hci0: Bluetooth
	Soft blocked: no
	Hard blocked: no

And then turned off the soft block:

orcrist interfaces.d # rfkill unblock 0

And it fixed my issue:

orcrist interfaces.d # rfkill list
0: phy0: Wireless LAN
	Soft blocked: no
	Hard blocked: no
1: hci0: Bluetooth
	Soft blocked: no
	Hard blocked: no

It would have really sucked to be on the road and have some serious software issue to repair with no network access, so I was extremely relieved to figure this out.