[TUHS] How to Kill a Technical Conference (was: Zombified SCO comes back from the dead, brings trial back to life against IBM)

Clem Cole clemc at ccc.com
Mon Apr 5 07:11:00 AEST 2021

typo:    OSDI on alternate years because ACM was just not going to do it

On Sun, Apr 4, 2021 at 2:22 PM Clem Cole <clemc at ccc.com> wrote:

> Note: These are my opinions/experiences not necessarily those of the
> association or my employer.   And, yes, I am a former BOD member as well as
> ex-President of same, as are a number of folks on this list.
> On Sun, Apr 4, 2021 at 1:30 AM G. Branden Robinson <
> g.branden.robinson at gmail.com> wrote:
>> I'm too young to know--did USENIX follow the trajectory of reorienting
>> its focus from engineering and research to sales?
> Actually, quite the opposite, USENIX was getting more and more academic
> and research-oriented and less 'trade show.'  The key is that USENIX and
> ALS should have been an excellent match, unfortunately, some of the
> personalities involved were at odds with each other.  IMO: it was more of a
> crash of personalities/control issues - the details do not need to be
> repeated or aired again. Note: I was on the BOD at that time and in fact on
> the PC for that specific conference.  Ted may have been on the BOD at the
> same time.
>> Why does it no longer occupy the premier place it once did?
> As they say on Quora, "*never ask a question based on a false premise*."
> Sadly, this is  a false statement.
> USENIX is extremely well respected in the systems research and security
> community in particular.  And even during these Covid times has continued
> to have some of the premier conferences on the same; al biet virtual (more
> in a minute).    An issue during the time you are discussing, USENIX had
> evolved into "two foci" between the practitioners (which included both FOSS
> community and LISA types) and the more academic-oriented folks looking for
> respected places to publish papers/develop their tenure files.
> USENIX had moved from its earlier (anything goes) - pure practitioner
> origins - which were also researchers, so at a meeting in a classroom at
> NYU, you told people you had something to say and came and did it, to a
> more structured (research) approach with program committees, submitted
> papers, and vetting and a hotel.  Along the way, because it had both types
> of people and these were the folks that influenced the buying
> patterns, vendors started to show up to show off what they had.   At the
> time of the ALS conference you mentioned, the things happening in the FOSS
> community - was much more like the origins of USENIX.   What had for years
> separated USENIX from IEEE/ACM was it was where the two foci were really a
> single one, and thus had been together and actually considered what was
> potential as well as practical.  In fact, USENIX was noted as the place
> where some of the most influential papers of the time had shown (numerous
> storage papers including Rusty's NFS and my EFS paper in the same session,
> just about any important security papers, numerous other system papers -- I
> could go a few pages here).
> Part of the issue was ACM's SOSP was every 2 years and there was too much
> good stuff going on in the system world (BTW - USENIX eventually created
> OSDI on alternate years because ACM was just going to do it).     But
> USENIX also published less formal papers.  In fact, one of my all-time
> favorite practitioner papers is from another member of this list -- Tom
> Lyon's "*All the Chips that Fit*" from the 1985 Summer USENIX [which if
> you have never read, send me an email, offline and I'll send you a scanned
> PDF -- note to Tom if you still have the original bits I bet USENIX would
> like them]. I suspect that such a paper would never have been acceptable
> in any of the IEEE or ACM conferences.   Also unlike ACM/IEEE (and
> frankly the thing that happen at USENIX when I was President that I am most
> proud of) is that they do not have a paywall.  Anything they published from
> the time when all proceedings were electronic is available and slowly some
> of the older papers are being scanned or reprinted from the source - as
> needed/possible.  As much as possible, all of USENIX's papers
> <https://www.usenix.org/publications/proceedings> are available to anyone
> [which was a huge thing to do - as it cut down a lot of revenue for them --
> a paywall for papers is one of the things other associations use].
> A number of good things happened at the time you mentioned, as well as
> some bad.  Knowing the parties involved both today and at that time, if
> today's BOD and Executive Director was given the same choices that they had
> at the time of the action, I suspect we might have had a different outcome.
> IMO to the demise of FREENIX and ALS were two of the not-so-good choices
> that were made, but I understand why those conferences did go away at that
> point in history.   If it makes you feel any better, as a former PC Chair
> for a couple of FREENIX (which was caught with the same bullet), and as I
> said a member of the PC of ALS, I was very sad to see that happen and I
> personally fought against it.  But, I was on the losing side of that
> argument. Unfortunately, that ship sailed, and reviving them is unlikely to
> be possible although I believe it has been discussed a number of times
> since I left the BOD.
> Back to your point, USENIX may have stopped being as important to many
> practitioners, particularly ones in the FOSS community. Which I do find
> sad, but I understand the issues on both sides and why that might be so.
> For instance, Keith Packard of X11 fame, Steinhart,   and I were all
> talking about "whence USENIX" at a Hackers conferences a few years back.
>  So, if you come from that side of the world, you may not value membership
> or the results (BTW: my own now hacker daughter,  who is a Googler, dropped
> her membership last year as she felt it was of less value to her); but so
> far USENIX has continued to be important to a large part of the research
> community and a set of some practitioners.
> That said, I also believe in 2021, that the USENIX BOD and their ED is
> struggling with a financial model that works for them when they do not have
> the conference revenue as they had before CV-19.  I hope for their sake,
> the current treading water situation can find a way to bring them back to
> what they were pre-CV-19 because the conferences they traditionally have
> held, are excellent (premier in your words) and I would hate to see that
> really go away because they have had a lot of value and so far have
> continued to provide it.
> Respectfully -- my 2 cents.
> Clem
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