LISA16 Build—The Spirit of Sysadmin

LISA16 Build - The Spirit of Sysadmin

It's the way of any power user: the network is never fast enough. Given the chance, I’m sure we could do better. So when we get to a conference with a thousand or so other people, and the wireless network stinks (or so we think), it's not the Way of the Sysadmin to just let it go.

That's where Branson “sandinak” Matheson found himself after LISA '13. He knew the network could be built better and also provide a valuable new opportunity for LISA attendees, so he grabbed an old friend Brett “THOR!” Thorson, went to the USENIX organizers, and told them so. And so in 2014, LISA Build was born.

LISA Build is now a regular part of the conference. A small core team works with the organizers to plan and prepare for Build not long after the conclusion of the prior LISA. During registration, Build is open to any LISA registrant who wants to apply to attend.

On Sunday, the first day of LISA, Build installs, configures, and tests the wired and Wi-Fi access points throughout the space. They cable and patch the APs to an open-air network operations center (NOC), often in a small conference room open for anyone to stop by and inspect and hopefully ask questions. During the rest of LISA week, the Build team works in shifts, monitoring and maintaining the wireless network, and even experimenting with the network. On closing day, they tear down and pack up the hardware for next year and reset all the software to let the next LISA Build class figure it all out for themselves.

Brett and Branson, LISA Build's fearless leaders, have set up conference networks for other computer security conferences (another place where people don't accept bad things as they are) in Washington, D.C., so they weren't coming in completely cold. According to Branson, the big problems were less technical than logistical: getting access to the hotel wiring closets and making space for the NOC.

That first year of LISA Build, Branson and Brett scrounged for leftover hardware, and with twenty or so other volunteers, they built the wireless network and also set up an open-air NOC. There were very few gripes about the network that year, nor have there been since. Last year, for LISA15, was the first year for what Brett called “The Metric Mile,” a complete hallway filled with metrics about how the network is functioning.

Brett and Branson also put to work the from-the-ground-up-model when organizing the work and the team. They start with the minimal requirements: connectivity to the hotel infrastructure, internal networking components, and the wireless coverage. Teams form on the fly, and they're done with a task "when it works." (Branson told me the performance criteria are, "It has to work, and it has to not be hacked"—I'll take that). Once the basics are finished, there's room for the volunteers to bring their own ideas and goals. Each year has seen new services, monitoring and visualizations, and a number of new improvements that the rest of the conference goers might not even notice. What they also notice is a wireless network that is better than what hotels can usually provide.

When I was writing up the questions for Brett and Branson, I asked what the participants could expect to get out of the Build process. I was expecting answers like, "They get to cross-train with cabling and access control configuration and high volume DHCP services," but Branson surprised me.

"[Once the setup is complete], many times, individuals within Build will take the time to “teach” a topic ... such as IPv6 or an ELK stack .... During the week, Build becomes both a base of operations for the team and a meeting/gathering point for us during the conference. It’s fair to say that many great friendships are built during this event, and so we enjoy spending time together."

This year I'm going to participate in LISA Build myself. For those already registered, there's no additional cost. You do need to have selected the LISA Build optional add-on during registration, and to have completed the Google Form to give Branson and Brett some background on your experience and reasons for wishing to join the team. Then, just show up at 8:00am on Sunday morning, November 4. If you didn't select the add-on, you can modify your registration (check your registration confirmation email for details).

I'm always telling people the best thing about LISA is the people you meet, the connections you can make. LISA Build is a great place to start your conference experience. Even if you didn’t register, please stop by and ask questions and look around. I hope to see you there.

- Mark