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SANE'98 - Conference Report.

(Reviewed by Duncan Bennett, Sue Cowell and Steve Platt)

The NLUUG should be praised for holding an "international" UNIX user group meeting in Europe. Usually the only chance of getting to this sort of event is to go to USENIX which is beyond the means of many. We hope that other national user-groups will follow suit. About 500 delegates attended the meeting which lasted for three days (one of tutorials and two of conference) and was entirely in English.

Bill Cheswick's tutorial on "Internet Attacks: The Gory Details" was thoroughly amusing and entertaining, though sadly lacking in both "gory" and "details". The large proportion of elementary background on items such as the TCP stack seemed inappropriate for an audience of hardened UNIX administrators. For beginners, there was a useful, well presented tutorial by Evi Nemeth ("Introduction to System Administration and Integration"), which ran through process control, backups, syslog and etc, and introduced basic security concepts.

The "keynote speech" on Thursday, "Security Ideas From All Over", was given by Bill Cheswick. Much of his talk drew parallels between computer security and other everyday systems like castles, defence walls, human cells and so on. Highlights included "The Pretty Good Wall of China" and Bill's own cheek cells.

Wietse Venema spoke about Postfix (formerly Vmailer). Postfix is another attempt at a Sendmail replacement; at the moment about 70% of the MTAs are Sendmail. Postfix is a simpler program, where hopefully less code means fewer bugs. It will be FREE (Weitse says "If you don't give it away, you might as well throw it away!") and has been written with current needs and functionality built in from the start. It is intended to be fast, compatible with current applications and also secure. Weitse claims Postfix will manage three times the throughput of Qmail. He compared Postfix with Qmail rather than Sendmail as he thought the latter would not be a fair comparison. The planned release date for Postfix is December the 11th. For further information on Postfix, look at: http://www.postfix.org/postfix. Weitse is also currently working on a "Coroner's toolkit" for analyzing systems that have been compromised. He and Dan Farmer are planning to hold a security class sometime in February, hosted by IBM.

Brad Knowles gave a talk on Sendmail performance tuning. He started with a summary of the functions of Sendmail and went on to give hints as to how to get the best out of an installation. He said that he was not a Sendmail evangelist but used it as he believed it was currently the best option. In due course he will be considering Postfix.

Rob Kolstad spoke about "Dealing with Junk E-mail: Analysis and Techniques". He believes that the amount of spam going round is at least levelling off, if not dropping; the spam producers are beginning to realize that it does not work. He felt that we should not get into a position where we are obliged to process all messages. A suitable case for rejection might be if the sending site is not in the DNS. He went through a number of techniques for dealing with the spam problem, such as tweaks to Sendmail, RBL etc, but concluded there was no complete solution. User-based filtering is more trouble than it is worth!

Eric Troan spoke on "Red Hat Package Management". He described RPM's background and current status. He has plans for a graphical version and extra utilities. For further information look at http://www.rpm.org and http://www.solaris.rpm.org.

Peter Salus gave an interesting insight into security attitudes of past years. In the early days, emphasis was only on physical security (eg preventing the theft of fan-fold paper). However, he showed that many of the concerns we have today are not new. For example, Bob Metcalfe discussed net security in a paper in 1973, mentioning login problems, cracking, bad passwords and sloppy practices. Peter finished with some contemporary newspaper articles showing the innocence of the media and general public on security matters. One "shock-horror" article revealed that deleted files on a disk could be recovered!

Phil Zimmermann's talk on the history of PGP was well attended. Phil spoke of how his interest in cryptography began as a hobby and became more serious with his involvement in the peace movement. He also spoke of his persecution during PGP's development. He appealed to the audience to move on from 2.6.x. As long as PGP uses RSA it will remain proprietary and further, there will be no new features in 2.6.x. The international version of 5.x has both RSA and Diffie-Hellmann and is free. For further information, look at: http://www.pgpi.com. Phil's talk was followed by a rather chaotic key-signing party that was in danger of running into the social event! Phil attended briefly and offered some hints as to the running of the ceremony; these were ignored and he left.

The conference dinner was held in a restaurant in a system of caves outside Maastricht, where a buffet-style meal offered dishes from several countries. Any preconceptions that queuing is a purely British phenomenon were thoroughly quashed!

The conference began again on the Friday with another "keynote speech", this time by Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat. In an entertaining speech with the title "Putting the OS infrastructure in the public domain; how the Linux OS solves UNIX's fatal flaw" he expounded on the merits of open source and user development. Many people think that the world began with DOS, but complex and expensive systems existed before that; due to their cost they were pushed to their limits to get value for money. DOS started as a quick single tasking solution for an underpowered processor. Bob sees UNIX's fatal flaw as its many flavours (more than 30, of which 10 are common). He thinks that Linux will solve this if vendors become OS distributors and if code development moves together without divergence. The PC hardware-base of Linux releases users from being tied to one vendor for the life of the system. Regarding Linux's performance, he mentioned that there is now the same percentage of Linux/FreeBSD/NetBSD web servers as NT (26%). Two Linux clusters are in the top 500 most powerful computers in the world. Bob's next goal is to get Linux in a position where Microsoft Office is ported to it.

During the lunch break, the InSANE quiz was hosted by Rob Kolstad. We'd been led to expect an hour of arcane UNIX questions but it turned out to be an amusing, mainly general knowledge quiz broken into subject areas. In addition to"Booze" and "Serial lines" was "Match the country to the dictator" where the highest scoring question was "Who was the last British dictator?" We're sure you can guess the less than factual answer.

Luke K. C. Leighton had large and appreciative audience for his talk on Samba (NT 3.5/4.0 Domains for UNIX). He started with a history of Samba beginning with Andrew Tridgell's early work. To rising enthusiasm, he told of how Samba outperforms NT when over 12 clients are served. When he asked the audience who ran Samba and how many clients were served, one delegate was found to have a Pentium serving 1500 clients, 400 - 500 simultaneously (much applause!).

Daryll Strauss described the use of a cluster of DEC Alphas running Linux in the production of visual effects for the film "Titanic", and how various problems that arose were overcome (ironically enough, there was a serious floating point problem). There were also talks by Ian Jackson on open source, Guido van Rooij on the BSDs (FreeBSD 3.1 is to be released in January), Jacques Gélinas on Linuxconf, and others.

The organisation of SANE'98 was poor. When asked for a receipt for fees debited from a credit card in early October the NLUUG flatly refused to provide one before the 17th of November, despite a long and slightly surreal e-mail correspondence with the chairman. Other people had problems with booking; one's faxed order was lost completely, another's "disappeared" for some weeks meaning that he missed the hotel of his choice and (worse still) his "early bird" tee-shirt. Whilst the secretariat must have been under great pressure, they could have done better. This was summed up by a fellow delegate who said, "They are pleasant and friendly but don't actually do anything that could be considered helpful." However, some ideas were inspired, for example there was free bus travel, and the layout of tea and coffee facilities encouraged delegates to stand in groups and talk to each other.

In summary the contents of the conference were interesting but generally lacked depth and technical detail. Delegates were invited to fill in a questionaire, so this may be addressed in the next SANE meeting in the Spring of 2000.


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