This is a general impression of the recent FLOSSUK event that I attended, I should point out that I do act as a member of the organising team and the FLOSSUK Council but this is a personal review of the experience.
The 2016 FLOSSUK Spring DevOps Conference was held in London at the historic Mary Ward House between 15th-17th March. This year’s conference could have held the subtitle of Configuration Management and Communities’ as there was a strong undercurrent of both.
The Spring conference is the central event in the organisations calendar as it is solely a FLOSSUK event. Many of the other events are small bar camps, one day conferences and companion events held with other groups. The Spring conference is also special as it is the oldest DevOps event of this type in the UK, in which we mean dedicated more to systems than programming alone though that is not a strongly defined prerequisite.
‘turn and face the strange…’
(David Bowie - Changes - Hunky Dory, 1971)
In the build-up to the event the FLOSSUK Council undertook a couple of new moves, which had varied success, as they continue a transition from supporting just Open Source Software to supporting openness across a number of disciplines such as data, hardware, rights, standards. This is reflected in their new tagline Open Technology and the notion that FLOSS has evolved to mean Free and Libre Open Source Systems to reflect the changing world.
The FLOSSUK Council also took the decision this year to have an ‘anonymous’ submissions system. This wasn’t advertised as the council wanted to test the process without being rigidly defined by telling people. It would also allow for the methodology to be tested for issues. Submissions were anonymised by a non-voting member and presented to the council as simple abstracts. The council weighted each submission with a score which was tallied by the non-voting member. They then ranked the submissions by order of score which gave them a selection group, from that there was a consensus as to which talks would make good plenary/keynote speeches.
There is a feeling from the council that this has resulted in a broader talk base, especially in the plenary talks, in comparison to previous years. There is some discussion as to how this is evolved for next year. One change will be that the anonymous submissions will be used again and will be advertised as such and the council hopes this will further encourage a variety of submissions.
Mary Ward House
The historic Mary Ward House in London’s central Bloomsbury district was financed by the wealthy philanthropist Passmore Edwards. It is named for Mary Ward, the novelist and social reformer, who was the inspiration behind the endeavour to provide a centre of training, care and entertainment for the less fortunate in society. One of the most stunning features of the building is the Dicken’s Library which is where the Sponsors and breaks took place.
Mary Ward House is one of the more unusual, and dramatic, conference venues in the country and as such has a small wealth of peculiarities. The historic nature of the building gave a wonderful taste to the atmosphere of the conference but I feel it also made for a number of issues that in the end overwhelmed the positive.
There are a number of elements that I think the event owners need to address if they wish to hold conferences of any size here in the future. If we were a limited event, say one day, in a single room then the venue is a pleasant meeting space, but for a three day conference there were a number of issues. My major gripes were:
- Projectors were long throw with low output. When the rooms have bright sunlight from huge windows that have no shutters, drapes or blinds many slides were hard to read.
- Still with projectors, old equipment. They had no HDMI input and very low resolution which for modern machines means a fight to display properly.
- Old projection screens that were not permanently fixed - this just is unprofessional for as conference venue.
- Floors were all wood with no mats so every sound echoed in the large rooms, and into adjoining rooms.
- Food was of a mediocre quality, the sandwiches uninspiring, the biscuits from a bargain biscuit assortment. For the price per head this was woeful.
- There was no sound system and what was supplied was a hand mike with a portable speaker for just one room, that crackled and meant speakers had to hod a microphone and a slide remote leaving their hands full.
- Staff had little knowledge of who we were and struggled with little information from their booking team.
- They promised powerful internet, they did not deliver such. It was embarrassing that my phone signal had a broader bandwidth than the whole of the event infrastructure, especially since they are central London.
- Conference dinner was palatable but fruit on skewers and cold pastries is not an acceptable dessert choice.
My general impression is that the venue mostly caters to groups seeking a small space for a half or single day event. There seems to be no conception of standard needed for a longer conference. This may be down to the event having restructure and refurbishment work, or just inexperience, but it hints also of a general lack of care and a feeling that was because we probably didn’t contribute much to their longer term financial expectations. The staff themselves were generally very pleasant if a little uninformed.
FLOSSUK Spring is a three day event. The main part of the conference takes place on two days but there is a workshops day which precedes these. This year we had two primary workshops, selected from 5 available by the attendees. Kimball Johnson did a whole day of Chef training and Paul Waring did a half day on Ansible with Git.
The talk seemed to be well received by the participants with a good mix of discussion on the two different systems. Paul had a slightly larger attendance list, which is generally the case as half day events are always more popular with an audience used to late starts.
The people I spoke to enjoyed the training, a particular bonus on the Chef training was the running of virtual machines on AWS which circumnavigated the sluggish internet connection. Paul’s Ansible talk was well attended for a workshop (10+) which was very encouraging.
The main part of the conference was two days with two tracks of talks. The talks themselves were mostly 50 minutes long with a few 30 minute talks to allow lunchtime to be slotted into the schedule.
A new element for this year was the inclusion of BoF (Birds of Feather) Sessions into the main schedule. These are aimed at structured discussion on particular topics, a formalised version of the hallway and social tracks. They are run at a number of conferences as they allow casual conversation but in a structured environment on a dedicated subject. They went well and plans are in place to run them again next year.
As always some of the best talks were the lightning talks. These are always fun and frivolous. I chaired the session this year and I kept everyone on their toes with a strict 5-minute time slot to present. My particular favourites were Paul Waring and Matt S. Trout. Though I agree with the audience who selected the talk on river, home and Mother automation and observation.
The plenary, or keynote, talks at the conference this year were given by Mandi Walls and Lameck Amugongo. Mandi gave the opening talk called ‘Always be Learning’ aimed as a lesson about being in an open source life. Lameck Amugongo closed the conference with ‘Data Revolution Catalyst’ when he spoke about the empowerment of using open data in emerging economies, in particular how in Namibia they are using ‘open data’ to help communities gain access and enablement.
It is always nice to see Sponsors at any event and particularly when they bring along such great swag for us to play with. This year was a great bonus with awesome notebooks, toys, pens, t-shirts, flash drives and power packs from the wonderful chaps at Chef, Suse, Google and Eligo.
A special thanks to Roger and SUSE who have been with FLOSSUK for a long time and constantly give strong support and present talks. Also to Rick at Eligo who sponsored, attended and gave a talk on ‘Developing Your Brand’.
One Step Beyond
Next Year’s Spring Conference was announced at the end of the event. As usual the conference will move to a new city, this time it will be in Manchester, once again in March. The venue has yet to be announced though it is in negotiation/discussion, there will be workshops.
On the way to DevOps 2017 there are a number of FLOSS events this year. There will be barcamps, in London, Birmingham and maybe Manchester. A conference, or unconference, connected to open languages and the council have been asked to participate in OGGCamp in both the organisation and management. More of that will be announced in the coming weeks.
Tickets for FLOSSUK 2017 will be on sale before Easter as a special ‘blind’ package that will grant full access to the event, workshops and conference dinner, for a very low cost. These will only be available for a very limited time and in few numbers.
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 I took a look at other reviews on popular sites and many praised the food and the equipment, I am not sure if what we experienced was unusual or that I have a higher set of expectations from attending so many other conference venues.
 I intend to cover some of the talks that I attended in more detail in later blog posts.