The Future of USENIX: A Report from the Annual Membership Meeting

Given the global pandemic this year, the USENIX annual membership meeting was held via Zoom on September 25. The discussion mainly centered around the effects of the pandemic on the organization, and its future outlook.


The Current Situation

USENIX, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is dedicated to supporting the advanced computing systems communities and furthering the reach of innovative research. We are known for organizing conferences and publishing research, but our greatest strength lies in building communities in computing systems.

We are funded primarily by the corporate sponsorship of our events, with additional support coming from event registration and membership fees. At the end of 2019, USENIX was in healthy financial condition, having completed its third consecutive year of financial sustainability after fully recovering from the 2008 recession. Our reserve fund was in good shape, and we anticipated continuing to operate in the black.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the first two sources of income have been significantly affected this year, and we have needed to withdraw from the reserve fund for daily operations. While we are fortunate to have this option, it is not a sustainable solution. We currently face three key challenges: 

  1. reduced corporate sponsorship of events

  2. the lack of revenue from in-person event registration

  3. the threat of venue cancellation charges 


Much of our reserve fund is already earmarked in anticipation of paying penalties for cancelling large hotel contracts that we needed to book years in advance. So far, we have managed to avoid these penalties by negotiating force majeure cancellation terms or rescheduling future events with the same venues. Nonetheless, if hotels are ready to host events before we deem it is safe for our staff and conference attendees to attend in-person conferences again, we could end up owing substantial fees. 

The Board and staff have already formulated a plan that we believe will ensure that we return to sustainability within the next several years. Even considering the changes we are making with this plan in 2020 and 2021, though, we estimate a budget shortfall of three million dollars over the next two years. It’s also likely we’ll need to make further adjustments to this plan as the global situation continues to unfold and we gain more clarity in the coming months.


USENIX’s Revised 2020/2021 Plan

The Board is focused on five key areas to ensure USENIX’s continued health:

  1. Donations: We are seeking charitable donations from individuals and larger corporate supporters. (This is the one with which you can help the most.) 

  2. Virtual Events: We are adapting our business model in light of the reduction of in-person events.

  3. Office Closure: We are closing our physical office in Berkeley and moving to fully distributed working arrangements for staff.

  4. Program Reduction: We are reducing the overall number of programs that USENIX supports.

  5. Staff Reduction: We are reducing the size of our staff by 25%.


Let’s dig into each of these in more detail. 



To help make up for our anticipated $3M budgetary shortfall, we are seeking donations large and small from individuals and corporations. Your USENIX membership dues help contribute to our financial well-being, but we also need your help in finding donors and sponsors. If your organization has an interest in supporting and furthering open access to advanced computing research or to our diversity and inclusion initiatives, please facilitate an introduction for us. We welcome new members to our Supporter program.


If USENIX has published your work, if you have met a valuable collaborator at one of our events, or if USENIX has helped further your career in some way, consider helping with this effort so that these opportunities are available for generations to come. While we are focused on soliciting large donations, we gratefully welcome donations of any size.


If you are interested in contributing, providing contacts for possible donations, or work for an organization in a position to provide support, please contact our Development Director, Camille Mulligan, at


Virtual Events

We have held fourteen virtual events in the past few months, including USENIX ATC and USENIX Security. Virtual events cannot completely replicate in-person events, so we have focused on our primary goal of information sharing. To date, we have used a combination of Zoom webinar, Slack, and Sched, and we continually explore additional options. At SREcon Americas in December, we will also offer a vendor expo.


Our virtual events have already garnered record registration. Over 400 people registered for events during the week of USENIX ATC, the highest registration for that event since 2008. The week of USENIX Security saw 1400 registrants, the highest ever, exceeding last year's sold-out record. We realize that registration is never the same as attendance, and virtual events offer a more complicated pattern of behavior to track. Nonetheless, our peak attendance rates were gratifyingly substantial at these virtual events.


We have offered low registration fees for all virtual events, basing them on the cost of membership. Our goal is to encourage people to join USENIX and support us while taking advantage of our extensive online content. These low fees and the virtual model have allowed people to attend our events who might not have been able to do so otherwise. However, they do not cover our costs and are not sustainable. As we move forward, we will continue to evaluate our revenue model and modify it as necessary.


Our 2021 events remain scheduled as in-person events due to our aforementioned contractual obligations to the hotels. Cancelling venues far in advance comes at a high penalty, so we collaborate with them on a go/no-go decision in the most financially agreeable way for both parties. Depending on this negotiation, we can plan well in advance for some events to be virtual, while others must wait for a decision closer in time to the event. We refuse to compromise the health and safety of anyone involved in our events, and appreciate your understanding as we work to limit the financial risk to USENIX in these delicate negotiations.


When it is possible to hold in-person events again, we anticipate having hybrid events that allow us to take advantage of the benefits of the remote attendance model. Of particular value is participation by those who would not be able to travel to an in-person event, even in non-pandemic conditions.


Office Closure

To further reduce our expenses, USENIX is closing its physical office in Berkeley, California, and all staff will continue to work remotely. Not only does this reduce overall costs for USENIX, but it results in a more sustainable lifestyle for our employees as well. This effort was already underway before the pandemic and will reach completion in the coming year. We migrated our systems to the cloud before the pandemic, so we were well positioned to work remotely when shelter-in-place orders were issued earlier this year.


Program Reduction

To reduce operating expenses, we also need to focus our efforts on the programs that provide the most mission impact and serve the greatest number of people in our community. To this end, we have decided to suspend our support of 11 smaller or co-located workshop events in 2021 and will revisit this decision in future years as we are able. 

The suspended events are: 

  • Vault: Linux Storage and Filesystems Conference

  • HotCloud: Workshop on Hot Topics in Cloud Computing

  • HotStorage: Workshop on Hot Topics in Storage and File Systems 

  • HotEdge: Workshop on Hot Topics in Edge Computing

  • CSET: Workshop on Cyber Security Experimentation and Test 

  • FOCI: Workshop on Free and Open Communications on the Internet 

  • HotSec: Summit on Hot Topics in Security

  • ScAINet: Security and AI Networking Summit

  • WOOT: Workshop on Offensive Technologies 

  • OpML: Conference on Operational Machine Learning

  • PEPR: Conference on Privacy Engineering Practice and Respect

We believe in the goals of each of these events and support their Steering Committees if they choose to self-host or partner with a different organization to hold their event in the coming year. If you are interested in helping with one of the affected events, please contact the steering committee listed on the event’s 2020 website.


Staff Reduction

Due to the inability to hold in-person conferences and the reduction in the number of events we are hosting, we have also made the difficult decision to reduce our staff by 25% as of December 31, 2020. Our entire team is aware of these changes, and we’re grateful for the continued dedication of the four people who are departing later this year. Over the coming months, they’ll participate in building a succession plan so we may continue our essential work in their absence.



We appreciate the support that you provide and anticipate that these measures, in conjunction with your response to our call for donations and corporate sponsorships, will allow USENIX to continue serving the advanced computing systems communities for years to come.


Addendum: ;login: Enters a New Phase of Its Evolution

We have an additional update following the annual membership meeting, which we sent to our members today.

For over 20 years, ;login: has been a print magazine with a digital version; in the two decades previous, it was USENIX’s newsletter, UNIX News. Since its inception 45 years ago, it has served as a medium through which the USENIX community learns about useful tools, research, and events from one another. Beginning in 2021, ;login: will no longer be the formally published print magazine as we’ve known it most recently, but rather reimagined as a digital publication with increased opportunities for interactivity among authors and readers.

Since USENIX became an open access publisher of papers in 2008, ;login: has remained our only content behind a membership paywall. In keeping with our commitment to open access, all ;login: content will be open to everyone when we make this change. However, only USENIX members at the sustainer level or higher, as well as student members, will have exclusive access to the interactivity options. Rik Farrow, the current editor of the magazine, will continue to provide leadership for the overall content offered in ;login:, which will be released via our website on a regular basis throughout the year. 

As we plan to launch this new format, we are forming an editorial committee of volunteers from throughout the USENIX community to curate content, meaning that this will be a formally peer-reviewed publication. This new model will increase opportunities for the community to contribute to ;login: and engage with its content. In addition to written articles, we are open to other ideas of what you might want to experience. If you have feedback about this change, we encourage you to fill out this survey to help us lead ;login: into its newest form.