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Tom Limoncelli and Doug Hughes Interview

Tom Limoncelli and Doug Hughes are the LISA’11 program co-chairs, and it was my pleasure to interview them for the USENIX Blog readers:

Marius Ducea: Tom, Doug, could you please introduce yourselves for our readers, and give us some details on your background, and how you got involved with LISA?
Doug Hughes: I currently work at D.E. Shaw Research, and past jobs include system administrator at Global Crossing, at College of Engineering at Auburn University and prior to that at GE Aerospace. I've been doing system administration in one form or another for quite a few years, going back to the early 90s. My first LISA experience was in Chicago 1997 where I actually submitted a paper titled "Using visualization in network and system administration" and it was accepted. I enjoyed it so much that I've been to every LISA since then. This is the first time I'm a program co-chair and this takes LISA to an entirely new level.
Tom Limoncelli: I've been a system administrator for about 20 years, I've started in Solaris and then moved to FreeBSD and now I work mostly a Linux system administrator. I've worked at companies such as Bell Labs and a couple of small startups and I currently work at Google in the New York City office. My first LISA was in 1989 and at that time I felt really isolated. I didn't knew any other people that used UNIX and system administration was very different back then when the Internet didn't have us all connected and going to the conference was exciting and liberating just to meet so many likeminded people. I don't think that I've made all LISA since then, but for sure almost all... Beginning with 2000 I also started teaching various tutorials at LISA, mostly related to time management for system administrators.

MD: I love the theme of this year LISA: "DevOps". How did you choose this theme and why?
TL: when Doug and I volunteered to co-chair this year conference we decided that we wanted it to be 'extra special' and we wanted to make changes that lasted beyond this year, and one of those ideas was to have a theme, something LISA usually doesn't have. I was thinking what is the one thing in system administration that has the most energy and most passion right now, and DevOps came to mind immediately; and the feedback I received from various people in different circles about this was that DevOps is a great theme for LISA, a conference that is considered traditional and mostly academic and business oriented, and the values and lessons from the DevOps world that can benefit in academia and business and viceversa. These groups are overlapping, but there is not a lot of information exchange and we want to encourage that.

MD: Any special quests that we will have this year?
TL: definitely. we have many important people in the DevOps movement like Ben Rockwood, Avleen Vig, Patrick Debois, Kris Buytaert, Ian McFarland and Erik Kastner. We also have the creators of all major configuration management systems: Mark Burgess (CFEngine), Narayan Desai (bcfg2), Luke Kanies (Puppet) and Adam Jacob (Chef).

MD: Organizing a conference like LISA is for sure a big challenge. Can you share with us some of the challenges and problems you faced so far?
TL: being a co-chair of a conference like LISA is difficult but there is no better organization to do it with then USENIX, because they deal with all the hotel negotiating, all the advertising and all the other stuff, and this allows the chairs to focus on the content and finding the best speakers for the conference.

MD: Who should come to LISA and what will they get out of it?
DH: everybody. Honestly, there is something for everybody. We have tutorials from beginner level to very experienced. For example we have Tobias Oetiker, the creator of RRDTool and he has a beginner tutorial "RRDtool First Steps" but he also has an expert level one "RRDtool Advanced Topics". And this is true for most of the topics. We have workshops, tutorials, invited talks, interesting topics for everybody regardless if you are a system administrator, network administrator, database administrator or even a manager.
TL: LISA is a conference for all system administrators, from the very beginners to the most experienced ones. You learn a lot just from standing in line for lunch with other peers as much as you do from sessions. For me LISA is the conference where I learn about the stuff everyone will be talking 2 years from now; people think I'm all cutting edge and stuff, but really my secret is that I go to this conference and I know about all the new technologies before my coworkers.

MD: This question was received from twitter: why does LISA cost so much? (compared with other conferences).
TL: one reason is that it is a 7 day long conference, meaning you can't compare it with a one day conference. Another reason is that we have technical sessions, but we also have training sessions (tutorials) and most of the time we have the person teaching who invented the technology teaching the tutorial; if you look at the price of that kind of training anywhere else it is a tenth of the cost. Also I want to point out that we have a great student grant program and no student should feel that they can't come to LISA because of its cost.
DH: also, we have to keep in mind that USENIX is a non profit organization.

MD: What are some new technologies or tools you find interesting these days?
TL: Solid state disks. Everything a sysadmin knows about tuning and optimizing disks is obsolete with SSDs.
DH: Agreed, this is a game changer, a revolutionary technology.

MD: Tom, you have been promoting LISA and writing a series of great blog posts on your own blog to educate people about LISA; this is great and thank you for doing that. How can people in the sysadmin community help promote LISA?
TL: I would love if everyone who has a blog would mention LISA at least once between now and the conference, also we are on twitter and people can use the hashtag #lisa11 but most importantly I think people come to LISA if they know someone that has been to LISA before and enjoyed the conference. I think it is about the one-on-one connections, and that is the best way to increase the LISA community. So talk to your coworkers and friends and tell them about LISA and help them join the community.

MD: Tom, Doug, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for our readers. I know you are very busy, and we really appreciate it.

Besides being co-chair of  LISA11, this year Tom is also teaching 3 half-day tutorials, "Time Management for System Administrators", "Advanced Time Management: Team Efficiency", and this year he is adding a new tutorial "The Limoncelli Test" based on his blog post:; everybody will take the test and then will talk about the different questions and how to convince people in the organization to adopt these new policies. Register early, as there will fill up quickly.