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Report from Debian booth at SfN2010


[ there is also a HTML version of this report with images available at:
  http://neuro.debian.net/booth_sfn2010.html ]

Debian booth at SfN2010 in San Diego

During November 13-17, 2010 the NeuroDebian team [-1] ran its first
Debian booth at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience [0]
(SfN2010) in San Diego, USA. We presented the upcoming release Debian
6.0 Squeeze and demonstrated its utility as a robust and versatile
research environment for neuroscience. Booth visitors had the
opportunity to meet with developers of neuroscience research software,
and to get information on available software and recommendations for
deployment strategies in research laboratories.

The annual meeting [1] of the Society for Neuroscience is one of the
largest neuroscience conferences in the world, with over 30,000
attendees. Researchers, clinicians, and leading experts discuss the
latest findings about the brain, nervous system, and related disorders.

Booth setup

Don Armstrong kindly provided us with Debian banners to decorate the
booth and some Debian T-shirts to give away. Moreover, we were equipped
with laptops running Debian squeeze and sid, as well as two additional
laptops each running a Debian squeeze virtual machine on top of Mac OS X
and Windows, respectively (CDs with the VM image were also available for
visitors to take home). To demonstrate Debian's versatility, we had a
complete Debian archive mirror that was used to show the full selection
of available software and the simplicity of installation and upgrade
procedures.  The mirror was provided from an external harddrive by a
commodity router box running the Debian-based DebWrt [2] distribution.
All machines were connected to our own local wired network to avoid
problems with conference center's free wireless network (poor at best).
Finally, we had several hundred tri-fold flyers [3] with general Debian
facts on one side, and NeuroDebian facts on the other (sources are
available at [4]).

Booth visitors

The booth was well attended on all days of the conference. Many people
were somewhat surprised, but also pleased to see Debian represented. The
visitors comprised the whole range from long-term Debian users to people
who were not aware of an operating system other than Windows and Mac OS.

A number of visitors were involved in free software development -- at
various levels. We talked to a Debian ftpmaster, a Gentoo developer,
various developers of neuroscience-related software that is already
integrated in Debian and many more whose work still needs to be
packaged.  We were visited by representatives of companies looking for
support to get their open-source products into Debian.  The vast
majority, however, were scientists looking for a better research
platform for their labs. That included the struggling Phd-student, as
well as lab heads sharing their experience managing a computing
infrastructure for neuroscience research.

The Debian booth also served as a platform for upstream developers to
meet with Debian users of their software.

Debian-based systems are the preferred Linux environment

The overwhelming majority of visitors running some Linux flavor used a
Debian-based operating system -- including Debian itself, Ubuntu and
sidux/apttosid. Especially people using Python for research purposes
seem to prefer the comprehensive support of Python modules in Debian,
whereas e.g. R users are more uniformly distributed across GNU/Linux
distributions. This assessment is, of course, biased by the fact that
Debian was the only distribution that was present at this conference.

In general, we had the impression that Linux users employ a larger
variety of tools in their research activities, whereas users of
proprietary operating systems tended to limit themselves to a more
restricted set, or use an intermediate computing platform, such as

Take-home messages

While there was a large variety of topics that were brought up by
visitors there were some common patterns.


  For a Debian developer it may be surprising, but many people still do
  not know that Debian exists -- even despite the fact that Debian is
  often a perfect match for their particular requirements. People who
  got introduced to Debian at the booth often couldn't believe what they
  were hearing or seeing: so much software, runs on any hardware, all
  for free.

  We believe it would be very beneficial for Debian to reach out beyond
  the IT sector and present itself in all fields of applications that it
  already supports today.

Debian and Ubuntu

  Apparently it is still a largely unknown fact that Ubuntu is based on Debian.


  There was a significant demand for (customized) Live-CDs. On one hand,
  people were asking for a way to quickly try out Debian (and we believe
  that this doesn't necessarily have to be a live-cd). On the other
  hand, for example, teachers were asking for means to temporarily
  deploy Debian on, e.g.  university computer pool machines and use
  Debian-packaged software for teaching courses (e.g. on brain-imaging
  data analysis).

Electrophysiology tools

  Of all subfields of neuroscience, electrophysiology researchers
  expressed the greatest demand for better tools in Debian -- or
  basically at least some specialized tools at all.  Moreover, many
  research projects relying on FOSS solutions in electrophysiology
  already use Debian-based systems to accomplish the mission; they just
  rely on manual (from sources) deployment of the necessary tools.  We
  started a new Debian Science Blend task [5] to collect information
  about existing relevant software and to eventually package it.

Realtime capabilities

  Apparently, numerous research groups utilize Debian-based equipment to
  perform various flavors of real-time data acquisition and processing.
  They expressed their demand for real-time capabilities of (some)
  Debian kernel images.


  Cloud-computing seems to be an increasingly interesting topic for
  neuroscience data analysis. We got the impression that there is a
  tendency to look for alternatives to Matlab to be able to run analyses
  in the cloud cheaper (or at all). We pointed people to ongoing efforts
  in Debian to enable Debian-based cloud computing (see e.g. the Debian
  wiki [6]).

Many Thanks

Throughout the conference many people stopped by to express their
gratitude to Debian for developing their operating system of choice. We
want to affirm this and relay it to the larger Debian community. Thanks
for Debian.


This booth has been made possible by the generous support of Prof. James
V.  Haxby (Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA) and other donations to
the Debian project.

Michael (on behalf of the NeuroDebian team)

[-1] http://neuro.debian.net
[0]  http://www.sfn.org
[1]  http://www.sfn.org/am2010
[2]  http://www.debwrt.net
[3]  http://neuro.debian.net/_files/brochure_debian-neurodebian.pdf
[4]  http://git.debian.org/?p=pkg-exppsy/neurodebian.git;a=tree;hb=HEAD;f=artwork/brochure
[5]  http://blends.alioth.debian.org/science/tasks/neuroscience-electrophysiology
[6]  http://wiki.debian.org/Cloud

GPG key: 4096R/7FFB9E9B Michael Hanke

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