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Build goes digital, Brexit goes virtual (really): El Reg gets some unexpected lessons from WSLConf

Pop quiz: you're hosting your first tech conference and a pandemic is declared. What do you do?

Microsoft celebrated the conclusion of a successful - and suddenly virtual - Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) conference by switching the forthcoming Build event to a digital affair as well. The Register spoke to those behind the first WSLConf about hitting the big red button with mere days to go.

The gathering, WSLConf, was to be the first dedicated to fans of Microsoft's Linux tech, currently implemented as a layer in the OS in the form of WSL1 but soon to have its own kernel once Windows 20H1 / 2004 / whatever-they're-calling-it-today gets released.

WSL1 will, however, live for a while longer.

Canonical's involvement comes from a desire to fling Linux (in the form of Ubuntu) at developers wherever they may be, and a scattergun approach has been adopted, with WSL and Hyper-V on Windows 10 as well as the cross-platform Multipass product and, of course, Ubuntu itself.

Pulling on BlueJeans

The WSL conference ran from 10 to 11 March and right up until 3 March was expected to take place on Microsoft's Redmond campus in Washington. As the COVID-19 situation developed, the plug was pulled, and the event made virtual.

We spoke to Canonical program manager Sohini Bianka Roy and freshly minted developer advocate for Ubuntu on WSL and Hyper-V, Hayden Barnes, as the virtual conference wound up.

Once the decision to go virtual had been taken, the organisers scrambled to juggle the agenda to serve the time zones of the international audience and presenter line-up. "The presenters," recalled Bianka Roy, "were all in different zones [and] we had a total of about seven to eight different time zones for attendees." The schedule therefore had to be adjusted to fit with where people were going to be (instead of an auditorium in Redmond.) ®

Then there was the technology. While Canonical were sponsoring the conference, Microsoft was heavily involved. No problem though - the Windows giant has got Teams, right? Er, not quite… " We were originally going to look at Microsoft Teams, naturally because we were working on this and it was readily available," said Bianka Roy, "But we had some challenges…"

With just days to go, dealing with unfamiliar software wasn't an option. The organisers performed tests with the presenters, having them dial in for a few minutes to check video and audio. "There was just some discomfort and some things that we just didn't have the time to walk through."

Pragmatism won out, and the gang switched to BlueJeans, with which Canonical already had a relationship. "We don't want to complain about Teams," added Barnes, "we just didn't have time to work with Microsoft to figure out some situations."

Naturally, and particularly with other Microsoft conferences going virtual, such as the MVP Summit and (as of today) Build, the Teams gang has taken a particular interest in getting feedback from the WSLConf crew. "We just had a matter of three days to make the switch," explained Bianka Roy.

The Register attended some of the virtual sessions, and have to give credit to the WSLConf team and the presenters for managing the rapid shift from a physical affair with around 200 delegates to something altogether more digital. In some ways, the onscreen presentations worked better than being there in person (although we'd contend the public chats could use some moderation.)

However, a big part of any conference is the chinwag in the corridor. The gang tried to recreate this through "a separate telegram channel," according to Bianka Roy, "that allowed folks to have kind of a back room where they can chat through and have jokes and kind of create that community sense as well."

We're not sure that that element was entirely successful, and it is something that those moving to a virtual world will need to work on as more conferences get "reimagined" and companies start to ponder why they needed to spank so much cash on physical venues in the first place.

Virtual Brexit

It isn't just tech conferences affected. Brits, remembering fondly the simpler times when all they had to worry about was lawmakers dealing with Brexit, will be reassured to learn that some sense has prevailed. EU and UK negotiators have elected to try out some of those new fangled communication gizmos like "video conferences" rather than cough and sneeze in each other's faces for the next round of the negotiations.

Who knows, without the spittle of righteous indignation flying, politicos might actually achieve something useful. Once they've got past some mop-haired buffoon tapping the mic repeatedly saying "Hello? Is this thing on? What! What!"

We won't be holding our breath. ®

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