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Posted in July 2008

Breakthrough technologies: Apache and my hardrive

One of the cool things of studying in the Netherlands is the opportunity to attend all sorts of conferences and events that are hosted here or close by in Germany, Belgium or the UK. For me it started with an Apple Tech Talk in Amsterdam back in November, in which Apple engineers detailed the latest developer information for Leopard, Apple’s most recent operating system. Soon after I found out about ApacheCon Europe, a conference that has been hosted in Amsterdam for several years. 

I signed up for the conference and was fortunate to be accepted as a staff volunteer. This included being able to attend the conference sessions. To put it shortly, I had a blast! In the mornings I was handing out t-shirts and conference programs, then i’d be doing session monitoring, introducing speakers, in summary I was helping with the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes it all happen. This way of attending a conference definitely beats the hell out of going as a normal participant. Because you have a badge that says you’re staff, people walk up to you to ask questions. Later on its very natural to start conversations with those people. For instance, I met a developer that is actively working on my current Google Summer of Code project. By the second day of the conference some conference attendees were already greeting me on a first name basis.

The conference opened up with a keynote from Cliff Schmidt: "Using Audio Technology and Open Content to Reduce Global illiteracy, Poverty and Disease." As part of Literacy Bridge, a team of volunteers including Cliff are developing a talking book device for knowledge sharing and literacy learning to be used in the developing world. I’ve always wanted to help out in a project like this, more so now that I’m here thanks to a scholarship, and so I decided to volunteer directly with Cliff. In doing so, I suggested Cliff to try out my home country, Guatemala, as a next stop for implementing the talking book device. The project is really doing great things, you can read more about it on their website at http://literacybridge.org/.

For the first day of the conference I was assigned to the ‘Community and Business Room’ to do session monitoring. There I met Karl Fogel and was amazed by his talk on the myths behind copyright. Karl is a famous open-source developer turned copyright activist, he now runs a foundation called QuestionCopyright which promotes the understanding and betterment of copyright. Karl’s ease of handling the business aspects behind open-source software gave me the idea to ask him for help with my upcoming MoT thesis. Karl was more than happy to help and asked me to contact him by email with the details. First off he advised me to read his book "Producing Open Source Software" which I’m now actively studying for my thesis. Already on this first day the conference had payed off hugely!

The second day was just as fun, I attended some talks on the inner workings of the Apache Software Foundation and an interesting keynote on research performed here in the Netherlands about collaborative innovation. At the end of the day was very excited to attend Roy Fielding’s REST talk. I studied Roy’s PhD thesis for an assignment on the Influence of Architecture on Design, so as you can imagine I was pretty much happy to get the concepts and applications of REST directly from the man who came up with it! Towards the end of the conference I walked up to Roy to thank him for a great talk and ask him some questions about REST. 

The last day of the conference featured the closing keynote on the history and future of the Apache project, given also by Roy Fielding, one of the founders of the Apache HTTP server project and of the Apache Software Foundation. The keynote was amazing. Roy detailed the project from its beginnings and pointed out that a major change was needed as interest in the Apache project has been steadily declining. During the keynote, Roy also presented general trends in the collaborative development of the Apache HTTP server. Several insights into the nature of open-source software development were given, including for example how project goals are determined and how decision-making occurs. Additionally, Roy was very keen on pushing his own protocol, the waka protocol, for the new version of Apache. I was also impressed to see how the keynote was serving as a staging ground to propose a new version of Apache: version 3.0. Roy was proposing major changes in focus, like only supporting a limited number of platforms and features and having the Apache HTTP server use configuration defaults, like Ruby on Rails does Roy said. In essence, decisions were being made during the conference and new courses of action proposed during the keynote with regards to the future of the Apache project.

This left me interested in how the project had developed and what might happen in the future. Coincidentally, a week later, the assignment for the course on R & D management was presented in class. We had to investigate the development and diffusion of a breakthrough technology. Special care, our professor advised, should be given in choosing the breakthrough technology. The Apache HTTP server was the perfect subject for such an assignment: it was a technology that delivered new to the world functionality causing a major shift in price/performance for the software and Internet industries.

A couple of months passed and the time came around to hand-in the assignment. I would’ve never imagined that my hard drive would crash just the day before! Just as I was doing the finishing touches my computer crashed and wouldn’t boot up again. I hastily consulted with friends and colleagues, even experts in the field of data recovery. I was desperate and even tried to freeze the hard drive and see if that would somehow revive it. I wasn’t lucky, all my data was lost and the latest backup I had was a couple of months old. Fortunately, our professor gave a 2 week extension to turn in the assignment. While this was good news, it meant doing almost half of the assignment again. This meant that hard work was needed. The phoenix version of my assignment had to be at least better than the previous one. Two weeks after I turned an improved and mostly re-done version of the assignment.

A few days ago, I was very happy to see that our assignment had been given a grade of 9! Attending ApacheCon Europe had payed off, again! It’s amazing to see just how many things came from the simple act of attending a conference: I made contacts for my thesis, started research on it as well, met people that I’m now working with, learned more about interesting technologies, became a volunteer, and performed research on the development and diffusion of a breakthrough technology. I was so pleased with the outcome that I’m now attending the RailsConf Europe in Berlin this coming September. It’s going to be hard to match the experience for ApacheCon Europe, but it will undoubtedly be lots of fun. 

Those interested in reading more about the development and diffusion of the Apache HTTP server, will enjoy reading our final research assignment. The keynotes for ApacheCon Europe are also available for free.

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