LISA Labs: Learn by Doing

I'll tell you a secret: I have a weakness for clever. If it's new, if it's smart, if it's a clever hack I've never seen before that makes me raise a toast to my fellow tool-using primates, then I'm in.  And this sort of thing happens all the time at LISA. That's one of the reasons I love it.

But sometimes I need to slow down, ask some questions, figure out what the clever means. Is this my next configuration management tool? Let's throw clients at it 'til it starts to slow down, see where the bottleneck is. Git hooks are the answer to deployment race conditions, you say? Cool, let's try one written in Lisp. ICMP over HTTP to manage distributed clusters? You've got my attention, but I need to know how it compares to Zookeeper or Serf.

You know what happens next. You start looking around for a place to work, but it's a conference. Your laptop could run a VM but downloading an image will take hours. An expert could back up your argument about tail recursion, but they're all three coffee tables down scarfing muffins between tutorials. You'd KILL for a whiteboard but then you remember it's illegal in most places. So what do you do? 

Same thing I do: scribble "ICMP over HTTP - Markov chains for state machine flow?" on a napkin, you go on to the next talk, and you never, ever remember what you were going to show. Another wonderful insight derailed by simple friction.

Last year, the LISA Lab was introduced for exactly this sort of thing: VMs, whiteboards, demos, experts ready to consult. This year it's even better: open 24/7 the length of the conference, office hours with speakers and gurus, and more. Paul Krizak is in charge of it all; he's LISA Lab Chair by night, and by day a Staff IT Engineer at Qualcomm, working on the Unix Configuration Management team.  That team manages tens of thousands of *nix systems in a complex, heterogeneous environment. He's been an IT systems engineer and a configuration management geek since 2003. All told, you couldn't pick a better person to put in charge of the Lab. Paul was good enough to talk to me about abut the Lab, how it got here, and what's on tap for this year's iteration.

Q: What's your background at LISA? When did you first attend, and what keeps you coming back?

A: I've been attending LISA since 2007. My work since 2003 has involved managing large deployments of Linux and Solaris systems. This was a natural fit for the conference, and in fact many of my first work mentors and colleagues were avid LISA attendees. One (Travis Campbell) participated in the program committee for LISA '08, and was partially responsible for the pushes and prods I needed to submit a paper, accepted for LISA '10.

I keep coming back because of the people and the papers. The hallway track is the best in the industry: nowhere else have I been able to sit down with so many experts and discuss the science and practice of large scale system administration. The papers accepted into the LISA proceedings are wonderful -- while often in the realm of pure research (and thus rarely with direct application in the corporate environment), they introduce novel ways of doing things that influence my decisions as I build and deploy stuff back at the office.

Q: What's unique about the Lab? How does it fit in with the rest of LISA?

A: The LISA Lab is unique because of its resources. Nowhere else at LISA will you find wired high-speed Internet access, virtual machines, giant whiteboards, big monitors, and everything else a motivated group needs to go beyond just talking about new technology. We feel the lab is a perfect complement to the rest of the conference, an extension of the other tracks. Attended an interesting talk? The speaker might be holding Office Hours in the Lab so you can chat with them one-on-one. Learned some new shell programming techniques in a Tutorial? Visit the lab, firew up a hosted VM, and experiment without risking your own laptop. Come up with a good idea over lunch with some other attendees? Swing by the lab and use the whiteboards to refine the idea and collaborate. It'll double as a "Super-BoF" room for BoF's that would benefit from the Lab's resources. And it even extends the Vendor Expo: we've invited vendors and attendees to provide "worksheets" - brief, one or two page documents that walk LISA attendees through a new piece of technology, without the pressure and noise of the sales floor. 

Q: What can people expect from the Lab, and what do you want people to take home from it?

A: The LISA Lab isn't there to give anything to attendees, as much as it's there for attendees to take what they need from it. We look forward to people using it to extend, enhance and improve what they learn throughout the conference, and we hope this makes for a bigger impact when they return to the office. Rather than hearing about some great new technology then promptly forgetting about it, attendees will be able to actually try out what they learn, surrounded by some of the brightest people in our industry to help them along.

Q: How did the Lab start? What feedback did you get, and what can we expect this year? 

A: Last year was the first for the Lab. The idea came out of a brainstorming session, and originally centered around the concept of a "hack space" -- something that a number of other conferences have had for quite some time. The Program Committee was excited to see how it would go. 

As with any new component of a conference, it had a bit of a bumpy start, and attendance was somewhat sparse. But despite this, the response from attendees was unanimously positive. We redoubled our efforts for LISA14 and are planning the best Labs experience yet! These are the changes we've made:

  • Central location: the LISA14 Lab will be located directly across from the main conference rooms, and will be co-located with LISA Build (which itself has a Lab-like atmosphere).
  • Longer hours: The Lab will be open 24 hours a day!
  • Clearer definition of purpose: We refined the definition of what the Lab "is", and narrowed down the content we'll be showcasing. There will be four principal uses for the Lab: an extension of the Hallway Track, for brainstorming and developing with fellow attendees; self-guided learning and development with the Worksheets; one-on-one discussions with speakers, authors and gurus during Office Hours; and super-charged BoF sessions that can take advantage of all the Lab has to offer.

Q: LISA has a lot going on -- is it hard to convince people to come to the Lab?

A: By positioning the Lab as an extension of the conference, we hope attendees won't feel like they're leaving anything behind -- rather, they'll be selecting the very best of the conference, and amplifying it as much as they like.

Q: Was there anything that came out of the Lab that surprised you?

A: What I was truly surprised and happy to see last year was whiteboards completely covered with evidence of brainstorming and design notes by the end of the event. It was a major "Aha!" many people at LISA have these big ideas -- too big to fit into the tenuous atmosphere of a conversation. Being able to quickly get access to a big whiteboard and a bunch of markers greatly enhanced the conference for these folks. We took that core idea and tried as best we coulde to foster this same behaviour in LISA14.

Q: Other than the Lab, what are you looking forward to at LISA 14?

A: I always look forward to the Configuration Management Workshop. I'm thrilled that I'm going to have the opportunity to co-chair the workshop this year!

Our thanks to LISA Lab Chair Paul Krizak for taking the time to answer these questions.  You can read more about the LISA Lab here.