Behind open DORS – Conference organizers share their thoughts on Canonical, Ubuntu, snaps, and open-source
by Igor Ljubuncic on 5 July 2022
A Linux conference almost as old as Linux itself. In mid-May, DORS/CLUC hosted its 29th event at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing in Zagreb, Croatia. With a long history of participation and contribution to open source communities, Canonical was one of the sponsors at the conference, with a busy schedule that included a presentation on snaps, an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session, and several interviews.
Typically, at conference events, the conference presenters (and attendees) are the ones who get interviewed. This time, we decided to add a spin. I interviewed the event’s organizers. For a good hour and half, I spoke to Svebor Prstacic, the president of HrOpen and Vedran Lebo, the co-chair of the conference and president of HULK (an aptly acronymized organization that translates to The Croatian Linux Users Association). We discussed the origins of DORS, the value and importance of Linux and open source, the relation with Canonical, and the future.
Tell us more about DORS, its mission, its origins.
DORS/CLUC is a 30-year tradition.
The easiest way to get a rough feeling of what DORS/CLUC is, is to look at this year’s recordings.
In the early nineties, engineers had a hard time getting their hands on new tech. It was also hard to get services and knowledge, so non-profit organizations and universities played a big role in pushing progress. One of such organizations is HrOpen (and HULK came into existence just a bit later, as well). The goal was to follow what the west is doing, and try to find ways to bring progress home. In that context, the concepts of open and free are very important, because it makes knowledge and tools accessible.
It started in 1992, when many things seemed more important than software in a war-torn ex-Yugoslav Republic of Croatia. HrOpen was formed, based on ideas that everyone should have access to the internet, www, email. Consequently, HrOpen set up the necessary infrastructure, with the help from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, and Croatian Academic Research Network. All the members were given a user account on a Unix server, email, and for a time, HrOpen was one of the first dial-up providers in Croatia.
IPromoting information sharing, connecting to the open world and the west, and improving and sharing knowledge of open computing, HrOpen was quickly attracting interest from engineers, until 1994, when it became unavoidable that a conference should be created. It was called “Days of Open Systems”. With the help from across Europe, various foreign and Croatian lecturers and speakers contributed with talks, workshops, and there even was an equipment expo.
Until 1999, topics were mostly focusing on open technologies, internet, www and their application in new fields like multimedia, commerce, etc. But in 1999 things changed, and for the better! This change was an indication of the success of one of the most important pieces of technology in the world today – Linux.
That year, HrOpen and HULK joined up and finally, what we know today as the oldest European Linux and free and open technology conference was born – DORS/CLUC.
Since then, many successful conferences have been organized, and many prominent names from Linux and the free software world have visited and shared their knowledge and experience, including Mark Shuttleworth’s opening keynote in 2011 (the recording is still available online)!
Mark’s visit to Zagreb and DORS/CLUC was in fact the cherry on top of the golden age of HrOpen. Until 2011, HrOpen established four expert working groups and implemented a number of projects, popularizing free software, Linux, open standards and open source software throughout the local and regional society.
It might be interesting to note that during that time, we had expert working groups for GNU/Linux, for open educational technologies and content, for software engineering of open systems, and for KOHA.
With time, the growth of popularity of GNU/Linux and free software, and with emergence of better tools for free software developers’ collaboration, outputs of these working groups were largely deprecated, but people that were making DORS/CLUC history, were at the same time writing great online Linux magazines, localizing free software (we had hackathons to localize KDE, KOHA, Moodle, OpenOffice …), promote and educate the use of Moodle and KOHA, and migrate institutions and faculties in Croatia to use those tools. As a consequence, I truly believe that Moodle is the standard LMS in education in Croatia today. In fact, the University Computing Center (traditional DORS/CLUC partner) is hosting and maintaining a central Moodle instance for all faculties and schools in Croatia, integrated with a central national identity provider (based on LDAP and free software).
Since then, a lot was done, and also a lot was changed, both for DORS/CLUC, but also for Linux, and free software in the world. The mission of DORS/CLUC has also been slowly morphing, especially in the last 10 years. With open source and Linux gaining traction in various fields and niches, becoming the de-facto standard, so did the conference shift its focus and message. We think we’ve done this more or less intuitively and didn’t really plan it. For example, there was a time when we thought political support would help change things. But we have been seeing politicians come and go, the community in the end doing its own thing, and big money and politics getting mixed up. Sometimes we tried solving too much, and looking back now, we think when we had the chance, we tried to set up a framework in which politics could standardize on free software and open source.
One such example was an attempt to establish a nation-wide office for application of open source and open standards for the public sector. One of the first steps to make that happen was a pilot project with the Ministry of Croatian Veterans. The Ministry was interested, the aid to the minister was in constant dialogue and planning with us, and we even were part of the government-established body made up of IT professionals tasked with planning out reasonable and effective IT development of the public sector of Croatia.
However, over time, we realized we weren’t providing enough of an incentive and reason for politicians to act on our behalf, and we were missing key elements to make our proposition viable. Usually, pilot projects are launched by public bodies themselves. In our case, they were asking the Government to formally start the pilot project within the Ministry, which wasn’t an option. And we were left in an endless loop. We later realized that the reason for this was because we had no enterprise backing. We did plan out installation of dozens of Xubuntu machines, with LibreOffice, manuals and educational workshops for the Ministry’s employees, for desktop and office use cases. But, we had no clear path to commercialization, no clear maintenance and support “machinery” that would jump in to help us out in making sure the pilot was a success. Such machinery would also jump in with enterprise support contracts, or at least back up local partners for support. In this respect, I think it would have been so much different if we had cooperated and coordinated with Canonical. And I really hope we can change that in the future.
So, we shifted to better catering to the community, which was there all along. Our goal today is to bring that community together at least once a year, push them to connect, share and create things together. Through this, we remind each other that our businesses thrive because we have open source to support us, but we also get to show each other what cool things we’ve built.
How do you view open source?
It’s a great thing, pervasive…which is kind of cynical.
In the Linux and free software community, we shouldn’t be happy that open source has won. We have always been about freedom, and large non-free software vendors have eagerly adopted open source. By doing that, we think we partly lost the will to fight for freedom. We think that is because we believe that we have fewer arguments or causes for friction, but actually, that is not true.
Using the term open source provides non-contributors a convenient way to talk about the “same” thing, and brag about doing the “same” thing, while not actually doing anything to increase freedom and knowledge of users. It’s a cynical, marketing-oriented approach, doing the opposite of what free software is supposed to do.
So, yes. Open source has won. But is it actually a victory for Linux and free software? Or do we need to actively work on distinguishing that – free software, open formats, open standards?
Svebor also added:
In my opinion, accepting that “open source has won” is leading us towards a cliff, towards exploitation of developers. It also pushes us towards trivialization of the importance of meaning that needs to be there when a person does any kind of work.
It provides a way for any company to earn massive amounts of money, while not giving back to the community or to free software projects that made those margins possible. It also makes the whole business/startup community and culture blind to an unsustainable model, one that we all have accepted.
Linux and free software isn’t about open source. It’s about meritocracy, and open and free technologies, and we all should prioritize promoting that. Big businesses should prioritize that, because it’s their livelihood as well. Employers should prioritize that and form standard operating procedures that enable their employees to contribute to free software projects.
There’s also a question of funding free software projects, and I think this is the main question and challenge for the Linux and free software community. Many people seem to think everything is fine, but a lot ends up on the shoulders of project maintainers that do something in their spare time. Many commercial projects also stand successfully on the shoulders of projects that are done by volunteers. As a business owner who also believes and cares about free software, this is something that we need to change. I worry. This is not maintainable, and I do believe this is a problem. We, the IT community, talk a lot about startups, successful IT companies and finance startups, but free software projects that they are building upon aren’t even considered or discussed as viable targets for financing. We need to start talking about this and solving this.
Why is Canonical important for you?
Canonical is Ubuntu, and Ubuntu was a great hope, source of dreams.
Many colleagues and friends, both from our local FLOSS and DORS/CLUC open source community, and the business circle used to have high hopes for Canonical (and Ubuntu). We were all expecting big things in terms of native Linux devices, Ubuntu phones, and desktop market penetration.
I think we all felt somewhat let down after all that ended. We expected to see the birth of an ecosystem that would challenge Apple, one that is better both conceptually (freedom) and technologically (based on Linux).
Fortunately, we still do feel that Ubuntu and Canonical are more than that. Ubuntu is the distribution that we choose to do work with, and run the servers we deploy. All the developers and most of the DevOps people in our companies use Ubuntu on their laptops… that’s 10 out of 13, plus dozens of production servers and dozens of development VPSs!
We also feel Canonical could and should be instrumental in supporting conferences like DORS/CLUC, which can sprawn out initiatives towards governments, and the public sector, especially in emerging markets and rising economies.
Going back to my earlier example, when we tried to run a project with the Ministry of War Veterans in Croatia, we did a lot of planning and lobbying for free, and we had positive opinions from various officials. We were doing a PoC with workstations powered by Xubuntu and LibreOffice, but unfortunately, the project eventually collapsed.
Looking back, it failed because there was no funding available to prepare a complete project specification, we had no resources to fund a pilot project and conduct a system migration for a number of departments, and we couldn’t provide warranties from a big vendor (such as Canonical), while neither the government nor the ministry was prepared to fund and risk such a project.
We would like to dare hope that Canonical would be willing to strike up a conversation on how to jointly approach opening up leads like that. In my opinion, this could be an instrumental step to enable the broader community to start pushing Linux more aggressively onto desktops and into the public sector.
What kind of engagement do you see, or think would work?
We would like to make DORS/CLUC an unavoidable part of Canonical’s yearly schedule. Since DORS/CLUC takes part at one of the best and most well-known regional faculties, University of Zagreb, Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, we also believe there is an opportunity to engage with undergraduate and graduate students. We would also like to collaborate on organizing Canonical-run workshops, certifications, etc.
On another note, we do get very positive feedback from existing partners, companies that visit DORS/CLUC, especially sponsors that report good levels of engagement towards potential employees or collaborators.
We would also like to expand on that and the DORS/CLUC success, and would like to plan a business-oriented Linux and free software event, with a current project codename “Cropen for Business”. We would love to hear any ideas and inputs from Canonical, as well as the broader community. We see it as a place where vendors like Canonical and SMEs could partner-up, do certifications, present case studies, and coordinate as an interest group, so that large tenders, that are usually swept away by non-Linux and non-free software companies, become attainable.
Have you used snaps and would they be useful in your workflows?
We have used snaps on the desktop, mostly on Ubuntu 22.04. We sometimes have a feeling that some of the apps are a bit slow. For example, Firefox no longer starts in a second (ed: this is being worked on!), but the overall experience with various tools and applications is very good and stable.
I’ve personally had bad experiences with various video editing tools, especially getting KDEnlive to work correctly on Ubuntu or any other distribution, if I wasn’t using a KDE-based distribution. With snaps, this problem is now gone.
The same is true for apps that would originate from their own PPAs. What I’ve experienced a number of times would be if I updated a lib from one PPA, or initiated a system update, I would immediately brace myself for problems with another package, and accept the risk to my system stability in general. The fact that this no longer is an issue with snaps is greatly appreciated!
So, we do love that with snaps, we are getting a package format for apps that already works on all major distributions. In fact, we actually checked, and 40-ish distributions in total are supported. That’s impressive.
Our subjective feeling is that this effort should be pushed forward, so that we finally get to a point where application installations on the Linux desktop are as reliable and as simple for regular users as on other operating systems. For example, on Mac OS, one can either install through an App store, or download a package and one-click install it. After all, it’s been a long time dream of the broader Linux community.
Where do you want to go next?
We want to grow DORS/CLUC. We want to do an open-for-business event. We want to bring more smaller events under DORS. We call these Days of Open Systems.
We want to transform HrOpen into a hub that helps entrepreneurs and SMEs. We want to be able to track and analyze tenders in the region, and we want to have the ability to notify our members when we recognize a tender that would suit what they do. We want to be able to help our members partner-up for tenders, and we want to be able to condense those same tenders into easy to follow documentation, like a checklist for applicants. If we achieve this, we hope to be able to push more Linux and open source into the region, and also grow DORS/CLUC by increasing engagement from a larger community.
I’d like to thank Svebor and Vedran for their candid words and a great piece of Linux and open-source history!
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