USENIX Wrap-Up: FreeBSD-Linux Rivalry Apparent

SAN FRANCISCO (07/07/2000) - The 25th annual USENIX Technical Conference kicked off June 21 in San Diego, following three days of tutorials which began on the 18th. Over 1,700 attendees were in Mariott Hall to hear the opening remarks and Bill Joy's keynote address.

The USENIX show is put on by the Advanced Computing Systems Association (aka USENIX). It is a nonprofit organization of systems and software professionals, made up almost exclusively of people working on Unix platforms. This year's conference had three technical tracks: the general track, the FREENIX track, and the invited talks track.

The general track was about traditional Unix platforms, vendors, and concerns.

The FREENIX track (originally the Linux track) was about open source versions (or clones) of Unix. The invited talks track was made up of outside speakers invited to participate by USENIX, just as you'd expect.

In addition to the various tracks, there were also BOF (birds of a feather) sessions and WIP (works in progress) sessions. Linus Torvald's evening session on the 22nd took on the air of a minikeynote.

The USENIX conference has a rich history; it's been held annually for the past 25 years. I believe that the birth of the Linux catch phrase "world domination" is often attributed to a talk given at USENIX. Another year, a fellow named James Gosling did a WIP session on something called Oak, which you may be familiar with today under its current name, Java.

Opening ceremonies

Good humor was evident in many of the remarks made prior to Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Bill Joy's keynote. There were quips about nearly everything, including the glitches that blanked the TV projection screens during the Joy's remarks.

The best one-liner I heard was a description of the range of speakers for this year's event: "We have everything from security to Microsoft."

Though the crowd was definitely geek in nature, there was an especially heart-tugging tone to the opening ceremony. Following remarks by the speakers in the technical tracks and a few cash prizes for the best papers, USENIX awarded a few other prizes, including a lifetime achievement award for noted teacher and author Richard Stevens. Not being Unix wise, it took me a moment to understand that something special was happening in the hall. As soon as Christopher Small, the program chair, announced the name, people began to rise to their feet. At first, people just stood in ones and twos, clapping as they rose; then, more and more joined them, until the entire ballroom was giving an ovation, just as if Linus Torvalds had walked in to a Linux conference. Then Richard's family appeared onstage to accept his award, and I learned that he had passed away during the year. There was genuine compassion and emotion in the hall as the award was presented and accepted. I was struck by the seeming contradiction of warm human feelings in a crowd of geeks.


The FREENIX track was a major part of the conference. BSD was everywhere. There were booths selling CDs and t-shirts and a "terminal room" where folks could check email and get an Internet fix; it seemed that every third person in the crowd was wearing the horns of the BSDaemon on his or her head.

The proceedings for the FREENIX track this year weighed in at 311 pages, while those of the general track took 350. The open source phenomenon is alive and well at USENIX.

But all was not love and joy in the FREENIX camp. There still seemed to be a lot of disharmony between supporters of Linux, which enjoys all the buzz, and BSD, which is generally given the nod for being more robust and secure. But in spite of the almost constant bickering, there was hope.

One of my first conversations at the show was with a USENIX (and FreeBSD) regular. He showed up the morning of the 20th with his arm in a cast (he got off his motorcycle the hard way) and had been up for 24 hours getting to the conference. He told me in a very straightforward way that any animosity between Linux and FreeBSD was more likely to be childish and uninformed than substantial. I hope he is right. Licensing wars and sniping between various parts of the open source world do no good for any free OS.

The Dr. Dobb's Journal team was present in the press room each day, taping interviews with various USENIX luminaries, and I caught some good exchanges between Dr. Dobb's host Philippe Lourier and his guests.

Lourier interviewed Peter Salus, an author and fellow Austinite, on the morning of the 21st. Like many of the USENIX attendees, Salus was personally acquainted with all 25 years of USENIX and Unix history. He spoke in the interview about how the early "editions" of Unix were very much open source, similar to Linux and BSD today. Salus talked about how Unix first began to spread by sneakernet and by car, stored on tapes and driven from New Jersey and elsewhere. I was reminded of a cliche I had once heard: "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon loaded with reels of tape."

Edward Felten, an associate professor of computer science at Princeton University and director of the Secure Internet Programming Lab there, also spoke this year. Felten is currently serving as a technical advisor to the Department of Justice in the ongoing Microsoft antitrust case and has testified twice at the trial. He was still bound by Justice Department NDAs, as Judge Thomas Jackson's orders had enabled him to view Microsoft source code, so he had to be very careful about answering questions. But Felten definitely provided a unique perspective on the historic case.

Felten favors breaking up Microsoft Corp. He believes that such a move will not harm innovation or entrepreneurs if the DOJ prevails -- that would be completely the wrong lesson to take from the case, he said. He believed the case was about business practices, not technology, and that it would have been possible for Microsoft to maintain a monopoly almost in perpetuity, unmolested by the government, had it not chosen to break the law while doing so. He pointed out that Microsoft still insists it has done nothing wrong and that it will not modify its business practices on its own. In contrast, other large firms like Intel voluntarily set up antitrust compliance organizations to keep themselves from making all the mistakes that Microsoft insists on continuing to make.

If you are geek like me, USENIX is a real treat. There are so many well-known names and faces packed into a relatively small crowd that it is hard to miss them. I was able to finally meet and thank Theodore Ts'o for his assistance on my stories about Kerberos. I saw Jon "maddog" Hall and Miguel de Icaza walking by -- oh, yeah, and Linus Torvalds, too. If you can make the next USENIX show, do it.

About the author

Joe Barr is a contributing editor at LinuxWorld and a recovering programmer.

Visit Joe's Linux Desktop discussion in the new Linux Forum, hosted on

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