While most of the world’s attention was focused on Hollywood for Oscars weekend, several miles to the south the Hilton at Los Angeles International Airport was packed with over two thousand Linux users, free software enthusiasts and nerds of all general descriptions attending the 11th annual Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE for short).

SCALE was co-founded by a former UCSB computer science student, Ilan Rabinovitch, along with friends from other universities.

“It started about 11 years ago when we were students at various local universities,” Rabinovitch said. “I was at UCSB from 2001 to 2003, the first event was in 2002 … There were about 5 or 6 of us that started the event together, and most of the core team is still involved ten years later. We’d done some smaller events at the Simi Valley LUG [Linux Users’ Group] … we decided we wanted to do something bigger.”

This year’s conference hosted more than 100 exhibitors and more than 90 speakers holding sessions on topics ranging from kernel hacking and system administration to 3D printing and cloud computing.

Perhaps the main draw of the event was the expo floor, featuring booths from a wide variety of exhibitors. Mozilla, makers of the popular Firefox web browser, showed off their new Firefox OS for mobile phones, which was also announced at Mobile World Congress on Sunday. Like the Ubuntu Phone OS, Firefox OS is an operating system for smart phones roughly comparable to iOS and Android, but a Mozilla Phone isn’t likely to replace your iPhone or Android device anytime soon.

“We are targeting a low-cost open web mobile handset,” said Brandon Burton, Web Operations Engineer for Mozilla. “The overall goal is a 50-to-100 dollar unlocked handset.” Rather than compete in a saturated U.S. smart phone market, Mozilla hopes to release it in emerging markets around the world.

“Places like Hungary, Brazil, Montenegro, Poland, Colombia and Venezuela … 2 billion people are going to be coming online in the next five years, and they’re going to come online mobile,” Burton said.

Though 18 carriers and four hardware manufacturers have committed to working with Mozilla, according to a statement from Mobile World Congress, there is no official hardware release planned for the U.S. yet. “We don’t have an initial launch partner … Sprint has said they’re interested in being a partner, so that’s possible,” Burton said. However, the software is freely available for download on existing hardware for experimenters and others curious to try a new platform.

At another booth, three computers ran a demo version of the Haiku operating system, a new OS still in alpha testing. Haiku aims to offer an alternative to the traditional triad of Linux, Mac and Windows, focusing on simplicity, elegance and efficiency.

“We’re really focusing on the everyday desktop user. We’re looking for a system that’s extremely easy to use, very efficient, doesn’t slow you down, doesn’t get in your way,” said Urias McCullough, who was working at the Haiku booth. The project, according to McCullough, should be released relatively soon for those interested.

“The operating system itself is very stable; it runs very well at this point. We feel it’s ready for beta and official release in the coming year or two years,” McCullough said.

Other booths included giants like HP and IBM, demonstrating their latest products and services in areas like cloud computing, and hobbyist groups, such as the one dedicated to building a weather balloon powered by Linux and Arduino, a popular open-source hardware platform. There were also various recognizable companies looking to hire technical talent, such as Facebook, Ticketmaster, Disney and Riot Games, makers of the popular game League of Legends.

In addition to the expo floor, there were talks and presentations on a range of topics, from systems administration and using vi, a text editor for the Unix OS, to cloud computing. One of the most interesting was a keynote speech on 3D printing presented by Kyle Rankin, System Engineering Lead at Artemis Internet, Inc. The talk covered the history of 3D printing, how it works with the open-source community and some useful household items that can be made with a 3D printer. According to the talk, many designs, both for printable objects and for the printers themselves, are open-source and freely available on websites such as www.thingiverse.com. The greatest revolution in 3D printing, according to Rankin, came when 3D printers began to be able to print parts for 3D printers, allowing a sort of self-replication that brought prices down significantly. The cheapest kit, according to Rankin, only cost $499 on Kickstarter — a bargain compared to $1000+ kits commercially available — and can be used to make everything from kids’ toys to replacement parts for dishwashers to a 30-round AR-15 magazine (which, apparently, actually works).

Another interesting talk was by David Uhlman, CEO of ClearHealth, entitled “Hacking Your Health,” about the application of technical, DIY and open-source perspectives to personal healthcare. The talk covered everything from the best way to choose a doctor to how to make a 3D printout of your own skull. (When you go to the radiologist or imaging center, ask for the raw .DICOM files of your images — in many states you have a legal right to them, and they can be converted with open-source software like Osirix and Blender to a format that a 3D printer can interpret, according to Uhlman.)

Ruth Suehle, Community Marketing Manager at Red Hat, gave a talk about the potential applications of the Raspberry Pi, a $35 fully functional and programmable microcomputer, which packed the room and had people sitting on the floor and spilling out the door. Some of the applications included using it as a video player, making it into an FM radio, emulating a Gameboy and even using it in a balloon, along with sensors and cameras, to float in the sky and collect data. Suehle humorously and enthusiastically encouraged attendees to buy a Pi and try it out for themselves.

“The whole point of the Pi is education. It’s meant for people who don’t know what they’re doing … it’s cheap, you can screw up and the worst thing that can happen is you lost 35 dollars,” Suehle said. “Really hard to break it, because you can just buy another SD card and stick it in — I did it three times yesterday.”

Other talks, such as “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Cloud,” focused on the recently-popular topic of cloud computing, the delivery of shared computing resources as a service over a network. Cloud computing was a major topic at SCALE this year, with several talks on its technical details and exhibits from companies delivering their “as-a-service” products.

The event, which lasted three days from Feb. 22 to 24, drew crowds of over 2,300 people, according to Larry Cafiero, SCALE’s Publicity Chair. SCALE 12X will be held around the same time next year at the same location, according to Rabinovitch, and could always use volunteers.

“We’re always looking for help running the event. We’d love to see a current generation of college students come in and kind of take the reins,” Rabinovitch said. For more information, visit www.socallinuxexpo.org.





A version of this article appeared on page 13 of February 26th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus