Linux Install Fest 1998

Friday, September 25, 14:00 to 17:00
Saturday, September 26, 12:00 to 17:00
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Total attendance: 140 (approx.)
Pre-registrations: 22
Successful installs: 19
Failed installs: 2
Linux CD-Rs sold: 71

The Manitoba UNIX User Group, the University of Manitoba Department of Computer Science, and the U of M Computer Science Student Association recently hosted the Linux Install Fest 1998, held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as part of the National InstallFest 1998, organized by the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange.

The event was held over two days: Friday, September 25, from 2pm to 5pm, primarily for the benefit of U of M staff and students, and Saturday, September 26, from 12 noon to 5pm, to coincide with the National InstallFest. The general public wass invited to attend on either or both of those days.

What is a Linux Install Fest?

Since Linux rarely comes pre-installed on computers, and many people are uncomfortable installing an operating system, many Linux user groups have organized install fests as an opportunity for any interested computer user to have a copy of Linux properly installed on their own computer. Experienced Linux users were on hand to demonstrate the use of Linux, and to answer questions. The purpose of the event was to allow attendees to get a better understanding of what Linux is, see demos of the system in action, find out about some useful Linux resources, and get free assistance from technically competent people with issues involved in the installation and setup of Linux.

The Best Laid Plans...

We wanted to start small, since this was our first time trying a Linux install fest. So, we intentionally didn't go overboard with publicising the event, and targeted mostly (but not exclusively) the local University of Manitoba population.

We set up in a small 10-seat Linux lab, in Machray Hall at the University. (It was easy to get permission to use the space for free.) We expected to get somewhere between 20 and 30 people per day. (Being nonconformists, we decided to do this over two days, with the Friday being meant especially for University staff and students who might not be able to make it on Saturday.)

Our 10-seat lab was set up as follows: one registration station (web browser connected to the site for the national registry), 3 demo stations (ApplixWare, WP8 for Linux, X-MAME, and various software development tools), 4 install stations (system units removed, but monitors, keyboards and mice remaining, in case they were needed), one IRC station to talk to the rest of the #installfest listeners, and one spare, just in case something else came up.

We had 14 volunteers, of which only 8 were available on Friday. We had about 4 of those with solid Linux installation experience, and counted on the rest to handle the other tasks (greeting, assisting with registration, handling the door-prize draws, making sure our free literature and samples table was stocked and tidy, and handling refreshments like coffee and pop).

We had also decided to burn our own CD-Rs, with Red Hat Linux/Intel 5.1, all the latest update packages merged in, plus the Power Tools 5.1 binaries. That way, installation would be simpler, and everyone would have the most current stuff. We pre-burned 20 discs, which we thought should cover us for Friday, and we could then decide on a quantity for Saturday. (By the way, we will not be burning any more CD-Rs with this image, but we've made the ISO-9660 image for the CD available online for downloading, for those who may wish to burn their own copy.)

Pre-planned Chaos?

We accepted pre-registrations only for those planning on bringing in a system. (Those just coming in for a look didn't have to book ahead.) Unfortunately, we were a little slow getting the web-based form set up, which may have affected the number of pre-registrations for Friday.

We only had two pre-register for Friday, and 20 for Saturday. (Our last "pre-registration" came in at 13:18 on Saturday - over an hour after the event had already started.)

We had the brilliant idea of allowing people to book time slots as they pre-registered, with a "stand-by" option if their favourite slot was full. The web form used an SSI script to build up a list of remaining available time slots. The slots were one hour long, which we (mistakenly) though should be sufficient for an average install, and we allowed a maximum of 4 people in any given time slot.

The purpose of this was to try to spread the load around, and not have everyone showing up at once, and then waiting all afternoon. I still think the idea has merit, but we need to refine our estimates to improve the scheduling.

The Numbers Game...

We attempted a total of 21 installs over the two days, of which only about half went really smoothly. Two of those failed entirely. So, in the end we can claim to have 19 new systems running Linux in Winnipeg.

There were also 6 of the pre-registrations that never got done. Three of those we know showed up but had to be turned away. The other 3 may have been no-shows, or they may have just left without bothering to report in.

We also took a rough head count of total attendance: 60 on Friday, and 80 on Saturday, for a total of 140. I'm not sure how many of these bothered to register in the national registry, though.

We ended up burning 71 CD-Rs in total, and still had some people walk away empty-handed. (Of course, we also had some people walk away with our own installation copies, without paying for them, which left us in an interesting bind as we had to wait for more to be burned. We had two 4x burners working in parallel.)

When In Doubt, Wing It!

Well we didn't count on the numbers we got. (We also didn't count on the success of the national coverage, like CTV News-1's story, and the tomorrow, TODAY coverage.) At least one attendee was there as a result of the CTV coverage - he said he was new in town, and wouldn't have known about the InstallFest or our group otherwise.

Evan Leibovitch, one of the national coordinators with CLUE, indicated "But the result, of locations bursting at the seams with people interested in Linux, was a publicist's dream (though an installer's nightmare)." That about sums up our experience in Winnipeg!

We would have needed a much bigger space than we had, and a far, far greater number of "install stations". We ended up converting a demo station into another install station, and roped a few more people to help with installs. We also had a couple systems set up in the student lounge next door, and were doing installs there too.

We could have used even more volunteers, and particularly more people with installation and hardware experience. (In fact, that was the limiting factor more than lack of table space for installs. We sometimes had one volunteers ping-ponging between two or three stations.)

We also grossly underestimated the time required per installation, so our whole schedule was out the window. We also had problems dealing with weird hardware, and people not bringing in enough of their equipment or documentation. As I mentioned earlier, we had spare stuff of our own, but connector types sometimes didn't match, and adaptors (particularly for plugging our PS/2-style keyboard connectors into older motherboards) were in short supply.

Annoyances, Both New and Old...

One of the most frequent frustrations was dealing with Window 98. On systems with large disks, it uses the new FAT32X, which our Partition Magic 3.0 couldn't resize (and we didn't have a copy of PM 4.0 handy). Also the MBR installed by Win98 seems to ignore which partition you set as the active one, so we had to install LILO in the MBR, rather than in the Linux root partition, to get it to boot. Thank you, Bill! ;P

Other frustrating things were dealing with some systems with pathologically complicated partitioning (I don't think I had seen a /dev/hdb9 before!), hardware that hadn't been fully assembled ahead of time, and hardware that hadn't been properly tested.

We also had a couple instances where someone wanted almost everything installed on a 200 MB disk!

It's Alive!

Arne Grimstrup, a MUUG board member helping with the installs, dubbed one attendee's work "Franken-puter"! It was actually two separate cases, cobbled together from various spare parts the owner was able to beg, borrow, or buy, with a segment of coax ethernet connecting the two. The owner was doing hardware assembly and reconfiguration on the fly, as much as he was getting Linux installed on these two systems.

This persistent soul showed up at the start of Friday's Install Fest, and didn't get finished until mid-afternoon on Saturday. Fortunately, he stayed around and helped others with their installs afterward.

The Final Word...

Although we all felt totally burned-out by the end of the day on Saturday, we're glad we participated in this event. It was nice to seem some people really pull together to help each other out. Even those who left without getting Linux installed seemed to understand, and appreciated what they had learned in the process. Despite the problems we had, and the fact that little went according to plan, we think we can call this event a success.
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