A few weeks ago, I had the enjoyable experience of dropping in on the Mac OS X O’Reilly Conference. The conference was held in Santa Clara, California at the Westin Hotel. (Santa Clara is right next door to San Jose, and Cupertino.) The attendance for the conference was rumored to be a tad over 700 people. The low attendance turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It made getting around the conference and attending sessions a breeze. It also helped that the conference was well organized and sessions were not very hard to find. The mood was light, and I didn’t feel the stress in the air I feel, while getting around some larger conferences.

The first session I sat in on was Matt Neurburg’s Scripting session. This session was the kind I was looking forward too. I am to technical for MacWorld, and I have been looking forward too a good overall technical conference that was focused on Mac OS X. Matt was a good speaker and seemed to have loaded up on Starbucks before the session. When I first entered the room, I immediately noticed the difference between this conference and others. First of all, all there were tables. You didn’t have to have the laptop in your lap. It almost seemed like an interior decorator had designed the rooms too. The room seemed very put together. Normally when you get to an IDG or USENIX event, you feel like they paid the catering service of the hotel to slap the room together. The rooms generally have no personality to them.

A few minutes after I sat down, the session started. First Matt proceeded to start with basic shell scripting then went over Perl and Python. Matt then delved into examples of how to script applications under Mac OS X. For me personally, the material was to light weight to be of any value. Though it was better then a MacWorld session. The gold nugget of the session was when Matt showed off scripting Microsoft Office X with Real Basic. That is one of the underutilized jewels of the Office suite on the Mac. I would give Matt god marks for presentation, but for me personally it was way to lightweight. Plus, 45 minutes is not long enough to do the subject justice.

The next session I attended was the LDAP session presented by David O’Rourke from Apple. In his presentation, David O’Rourke artfully covered the whole setup of Directory Services and PAM integration in Mac OS X. (The one thing I learned was that PAM out of the box only works for command line logins. You have to do some hacking to integrate a PAM plug-in with login framework, which allows it work with login window.) David gave great examples about how one University had even written a plug-in to interact directly with its Oracle database. This allowed Mac OS X to get all of its configuration information from that Oracle database. Greatly simplifying administration for the university. David also pointed out Apple’s commitment to open source, by having the whole directory services infrastructure open sourced so that if anyone desired they could port it over to Linux or FreeBSD. IMHO, PAM is a workable solution, not an elegant one. It would be nice to see Directory Services from Apple moved to other UNIX. David O’Rourke pointed about how Apple had tied OpenSSH into their directory services architecture. This was a great example of how open source could take advantage of some of the new features of Mac OS X. David O’Rourke’s session alone was worth coming to the conference.

Next, I hopped on over to Scott Anguish’s web services session. I am really big on web services these days and was anxious to see what was going on with Apple’s work in that space. The first thing I learned was that Apple has support for web services in Cocoa with WSDL and SOAP support. (When you allow your Website or application to be accessed via web services you are taking your project to the next level, making it a platform vs. website/application.) The impression given to me by Scott Anguish’s presentation was that Apple has a lot of work to do in this space. This is an area where I feel Apple has to give more attention. Scott Anguish also mentioned that he had a nice new Cocoa book out.

Next I hit the Darwin Ports session. All the attendees with Unix experience were buzzing about this one. (See my previous article on the subject for a quick summary of the Darwin ports project.) The project leads for Darwin Ports are Landon Fuller, Jordan K. Hubbard, and Kevin van Vechten. Fuller and Hubbard are also Apple Computer employees.

For those who don’t know, Darwin Ports is an implementation of the ports system found in FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD. This allows a multitude of third party software to be installed with ease from the command line. The Darwin ports are not a direct port from FreeBSD. The Darwin Ports are whole new implementation based on what Jordan had learned since creating the original FreeBSD ports system in 1993. Currently the FreeBSD port has over 7600 ports, making it an unqualified success. The original ports architecture on FreeBSD uses BSDMake. Make is not languages per say, but in FreeBSD ports is used as one. The Darwin Ports team felt this lead to problems.

Darwin Ports is based on TCL. (TCL was a language invented by John Osterhouse, then at UC Berkeley. TCL has a reputation as a good integration language, and is very popular in quality assurance circles.) The ability of TCL to be compiled in as an embeddable library allows Darwin Ports to be easily extended in the future. (This feature is not unique to TCL though.). The Darwin Ports team went through great efforts to point out that they were not trying to trample existing efforts, but rather work in parallel. The Darwin Ports team also stressed that this was a community project, and that they wanted the communities help in making it a success. One of the biggest points I personally took away from the presentation was that the Darwin Ports team realized that people just want to install software easily. IMHO, the Darwin Ports team emphasized this point through out there presentation. On an interesting side note, after the presentation I got a chance to talk with one of the members of the Fink. He had a very good attitude about the whole Darwin Ports project. Even though technically it it competed with his. He wasn’t upset by the Darwin Ports efforts; he seemed to rather see them as an improvement on Finks own efforts. Keeping with the traditional UNIX spirit of embrace and extend.

After that I hit lunch. The nice thing about having a small conference was that lunch was a much better networking opportunity then it usually is. I met some very interesting people that I might not have met at a larger conference. For example, at lunch I got to meet Andrew Hill, Director of Technology Evangelism, Open Link Software. He educated me on ODBC and the state of it. ODBC is alive in well on the Mac. Which is good to hear. Plus he helped me clear up some misconceptions I had about ODBC being slow. At a larger conference I would have probably missed Andrew.

I missed the afternoon session that day, but I did get to go to the Databases and ODBC on Mac OS X BOF that night. Hosted by OpenLink. The BOF covered ODBC, iODBC, and JDBC. The highlight of the session was the grilling the attendees gave the Director of Engineering for Sybase. Unlike other VP’s or directors I have seen over the years. The Director of Engineering of Sybase did not squirm one bit. He answered everyone’s questions, and was eager to do so. This BOF was only supposed to be an hour long yet it went for over 2 hours. We would never have gotten to do this at a larger conference where the room would have been filled with 100 people or more.

After the session I got a chance to chat with some other attendees. The one point from the BOF that stuck in people’s minds was the fact that Sybase was there and Oracle was not. Showing a true commitment by Sybase to Mac OS X. (On top of that Sybase sent their director of Engineering, not some sales guy. Though he was there too, and very helpful.)

I didn’t get to attend all of three days of the O’Reilly conference. I was impressed with the days I did. I would definitely recommend people check out the conference next year. Especially if O’Reilly expands the time allotted to the presentation to an hour and half. The conference was well organized and the content and presenters was very good. This was a very good first run for O’Reilly.