“They’ve all got penguins on their T-shirts,” one of the tourists remarks to her companion. “Maybe it’s a baseball team or something.”
“No. That doesn’t quite seem right,” her companion answers. “They don’t look like baseball players.”
Upstairs, in the Four Seas reception room, keyboards are clacking, hardware is booting up, beer is flowing, people are meeting. No, this isn’t a baseball team. This is BALUG — the Bay Area Linux User Group, and its monthly meeting is about to start.
When I started using Linux in 1996 I was the only person that I knew who was. Hell, I was the only person I knew who ran Unix on a PC. In the small town where I went to college, there was no Linux User Group; when I had a technical question, I turned to the Internet. It never even occurred to me that I might some day meet with other Linux enthusiasts.
My enlightenment occurred when I went to my first installfest, hosted by the Colorado Linux Users and Enthusiasts (CLUE) group. Installfests are a sort of community outreach program that many Linux user groups organize. They’re usually day-long events where Linux gurus volunteer their time to help anyone who needs it to install and troubleshoot Linux. Pulling out your hair trying to get Linux installed or running on your network? Find your local LUG, see if they have an installfest coming up, and haul your computer down there. Odds are, you’ll leave with your problem solved. Now if only that were the case at CompUSA…
One of the things that surprised me at the installfest was the friendliness factor. Though I didn’t know anyone there when I arrived, I went home with some great ideas for tuning my Linux boxes and the names of a few people who knew a heck of a lot about this cool new operating system. From that point on, I was hooked. I’ve missed only one meeting since (I was at the Atlanta Linux Showcase, arguably one of the largest and longest LUG meetings held), and the CLUE meeting every month is one of my favorite habits.
Lego Of My Tux: Members of the East Alabama Linux User Group hanging out with their Lego penguin.
The Granddaddy Of Them All
Linux User Groups have been around almost as long as Linux itself. As open source grew organically over the Internet, LUGs just started spontaneously appearing.
Probably the oldest Linux user group around, the Silicon Valley LinuxUser Group (SVLUG), began as a group devoted to the use of Unix on personal computers. In a way, SVLUG has been around longer than Linux. Its roots go back to 1988 — three years before the first Linux kernel was released — when it sprang up as a splinter group for PC Unix enthusiast sat the Silicon Valley Computer Society.
SVLUG is one of the more high-profile user groups. In February of 1999, members of the SVLUG marched on the Bay Area Microsoft office (the building, that is, not a box of the software…) to demand refunds for the unwanted Windows operating system that they were forced to buy when they purchased their computers. Despite the fact that Microsoft closed its doors and basically hid out from protesters, the event garnered some very favorable press for Linux.
SVLUG has also been the source of a number of other events, including the Silicon Valley Tea Party, where they crashed the opening of Microsoft’s Silicon Valley Development Center and handed out Linux CDs (I’d like to see the day that Bill Gates crashes the opening of a Red Hat office to hand out Windows CDs), had their own Windows 98 Launch (on a toy rocket), and performed many other shenanigans.
The Atlanta Linux Enthusiasts (ALE) is a busy group as well. Founded in December of 1994, ALE is responsible for the excellent Atlanta Linux Showcase (ALS) event that has been taking place since 1996 and getting bigger every year. Now put on in conjunction with USENIX and Linux International, ALS is the most technically oriented of all the Linux shows that have been cropping up — a testament to the amazing amount of work that volunteers are willing to do to help promote Linux.
Will LUG life always be as vibrant as it is now? SVLUG’s President Chris DiBona suspects not. “In the early stages of any technology you’ll see the crazed zealots be more active. But once you win, then you’re back at home playing with your computer. The technology can get along without you.” But he says that the upswing in LUG attendance has been so dramatic in the last two years that it’s hard not to be impressed. “I think we’re in the glory days of the LUGS right now. No doubt about it.”
Extreme Linux: Members of three Colorado user
groups at their November 1999 Linux “hand out day.”
It’s all about getting together
Back in San Francisco, the BALUG meeting is about to begin. About 100 people, still chattering, take their seats. Some opening announcements are made, and plate after plate of Chinese food is laid out, family style, on the large round tables of the Four Seas. At $10 a plate, the dinner alone makes the meeting worthwhile.
There is no standard meeting format for LUGs. Meetings range from well-organized, professionally catered events, to informal get-togethers at the local pub where people talk about beer almost as much as they discuss Linux. The most popular format generally involves 20 to 30 people taking over a restaurant and talking Linux. But LUGs can (and do) meet just about anywhere.
According to Don Marti, publicity director of the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group, most SVLUG meetings begin with “a long, boring series of lucrative job announcements” and the scheduling of the next meeting, then segue into the speaker for the event.
Colorado’s CLUE meetings are generally comprised of a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) session of about thirty minutes for very basic technical topics. Then, after announcements and door prizes, there is a second speaker who talks about something more complex. Generally the speakers are from within the group, although we were fortunate enough to have Scott Draeker from Loki Entertainment speak at a meeting.
A large amount of the meeting involves socializing, pure and simple, like finding out what distribution others are using that month or explaining how to get Linux to do something new and exciting. LUGgers are into Linux, and if you go to a meeting, that is what you can expect.
A number of LUGs have monthly installfests in addition to, or in conjunction with, their regular meetings. But it is the monthly meeting that is the staple of the LUG member’s diet. Some LUGs meet on an irregular schedule, others meet every second week. There are even a few hyperactive LUGs that meet every seven days, without fail.
Bills, Bills, Bills: SVLUG’s Chris DiBona
at his group’s “Windows Refund Day.”
The LUG Type
At the BALUG meeting, kernel hacker Larry McVoy is about to take center stage. He’s going to give the first public talk about the work he’s been doing with the Linux Cluster Cabal — a group of top developers working on a new clustering architecture for Linux. The story will appear in the trade press within 24 hours, but when he gets to the podium, McVoy seems more intent on cracking jokes and enjoying himself than making news. He takes a sip of beer and begins an ad hominum mini-tirade on the way Linus Torvalds is adding clustering to Linux. Relaxed and enthusiastic, McVoy acts like he’s among family.
One simple reason that many users have never been to a LUG meeting is that the LUGs tend to attract a special breed: “the epitome of geekhood,” according to Dan Yocum of the Argonne Area Linux Users Group.
This special “LUG type” of person is what attracted Chris DiBona to his first SVLUG meeting three years ago. “Linux user groups members are the first line of people who will try the new kernels, the new window manager, whatever’s on the cutting edge. They are like the test pilots,” he says.
For DiBona, the reason to return to LUG meetings was simple: Spend more time around the people who know Linux best and it will eventually rub off on you. “It’s just like skiing,” he observes, “If you stay on the same old hills, you’re not going to get any better.” The same holds true for Linux. “If you surround yourself with people who know more than you, you are going to learn from them.”
But LUG meetings are definitely not geek-only events. Ismet Kursunoglu, of the Linux at LAX, the Los Angeles LUG, reports a diverse contingent of users, including “all kinds, network, programmers, hackers, an attorney, multimedia and computer-graphics folks, film industry, database and library scientists, physicians…our youngest member is four years old, and he loves his Linux box!”
One thing you can say about LUG attendees: They’re mostly guys. Old guys, young guys, four-year-olds…doesn’t matter. There has been a conspicuous absence of women. These days, more women than ever before are showing up at LUG meetings, and groups like LinuxChix (a group for women who are into Linux) are making the LUG scene more diverse, but still, men invariably outnumber the women. Even at a recent LinuxChix meeting in Bloomington, IN, the men outnumbered the women, according to LinuxChix’ Kim Spilker.
Not surprisingly, the majority of LUG members are computer professionals. Many of them are also lucky enough to be Linux professionals, but a good percentage of LUG members are actually Unix or NT sysadmins. It would probably terrify Microsoft to know the number of MSCEs (Microsoft Certified Engineers) who are enthusiastic Linux users and who delight in every opportunity to replace NT boxes with Linux boxes running Samba.
But if it sounds like you need to be a Linux guru to attend a LUG meeting, relax. Most knowledgeable LUGites take a great deal of pleasure in helping newbies. It lets them share what they’ve learned. According to Marti, the best thing to come out of SVLUG is “the ability to make contacts with people who have made mistakes for me. I can talk to people about things they’ve tried and failed…and get access to many more years of use of Linux than I could ever get on my own.”
All you really need to get something out of a LUG meeting is a healthy interest in Linux. Depending on where you live, there’s probably a LUG near you. There are more than 305 Linux User Groups in 52 countries registered with the Linux User Groups World Wide Web site; 130 of those are in the United States with at least one LUG in every state.
If you can’t find a group within driving distance, you can always start your own. The main goal of a Linux User Group is to educate others about Linux, advocate Linux, and help support others using Linux. If you’re starting a LUG, be sure to check out Kendall Grant Clark’s Linux User Group HOWTO for an overview of how to kick-start a Linux group in your area.
It doesn’t have to be a big group or one that’s into massive activism like some of the other LUGs; just being around and helping people when they have questions is better for Linux than you might imagine. As Clark puts it, “LUGs are the silent partners, the foot soldiers of the Linux Revolution.”
The BALUG meeting is winding down. After McVoy’s talk there are 20 minutes of announcements and unabashed recruitment as one person after the other takes the microphone, begging for people to come and work at their new open source-based startup. The room begins to empty. Some people are going home. Others look for a local microbrewery. After all, this is Linux, and there’s always something more to discuss.