LUG Public Lab Space in Nelson Hall

Written on December 3, 2015

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INTRODUCTION

The Linux User Group of the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point (LUG@UWSP) has been operating on campus since September 2014 when 3 IT employees began it at the Food for Thought Cafe in the LRC. The organization now consists of 24 regular members. Our group is well-known in certain software engineering circles, and it is an attraction for some while being the pride of others. LUG@UWSP is the first UW LUG to have an open-source lab.

The organization was created to advocate and train users in open-source technology. Open-source technology is a branch of technology developed and used all around the world. Leading tech companies such as Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Java, Apache, and thousands of smaller tech companies that power your computers and the Internet base products on open-source computing and software. It is essential for the professional success of students to have resources and knowledge in open-source technology: often developers are expected to have either participated in an open-source project or a major professional project outside of school to get an entry position in the technology field.

LUG helps students learn basic tools such as Linux administration, git engineering, terminal scripting, latex development, server networking, server administration, and Perl scripting. We were accommodated with a small room with three other organizations: the anime club Diasho, Game Developers club, and Secular Student Alliance. However due to how differently all four groups use the room, LUG cannot use the space as an open source lab as was originally attended. Our servers cause too much noise. We need servers to run all day to communicate, host projects, remote-access file transfer protocols, and test web development. This seems to be an unsurmountable obstacle towards the general progress of the organization’s mission, and it is one we’ve tried to work around but cannot pass. We’ve setup committees, asked for more access to lab equipment, yet generally all we can bother to have is a wifi adapter to access laptops that do not meet the technical specification of a server.

Certainly we’ve overcame barriers in the past year: only after a few months of our first meeting, LUG@UWSP became a formally recognized organization, received special office space, taught handfuls of users how to install Linux, and learned how to program in Bash, Perl, and Lisp. Yet we battled through many misunderstandings. For the first few months, SIEO had labeled us as a game enthusiast club. And many non-technical users did not appreciate our presence, and one outspoken SGA member thought Linux was somehow innately deviant and a problem.

At our meetings we’ve held book studies, watched lectures, discussed opens-source issues, and promoted a general sense of discovery. Our members have used these experiences in leadership and development to earn promotions, jobs in IT, and web development. Others have gone to graduate schools such as UW-Milwaukee’s Engineering program.

By sheer numbers, we have not grown a lot, but the quality of those numbers seem to speak for themselves – as the group consists of a tight-knit group of scholars and engineers from different backgrounds, uniting for the cause of open-source software and its use and advocation. To further pursue this goal, the expansion of a full-time open-source lab would need to be implemented. Our current lab, though functional, does not meet certain standards. These standards were developed through the study of a special program in Oregon of a self-governed Linux User Group. This group is a key reason talented engineers flock to its campus, and its success can be emulated here.

QUALIFICATIONS

Linux as an operating system is open-source software that has profoundly influenced the general concept of open-source technology. It is software that can run entire computers, servers, and smart phones. Most people use Linux every day without realizing it. Because of this, normally open-source groups go under the name LUG as it’s the most well-known software.

LUG@UWSP a non-profit organization that is service based. Though it’s not considered a traditional volunteer program, open-source is heavily based on contributions from volunteers who mutually benefit each other. Not only private individuals rely on these technological contributions but scientists, government officials and agents, private companies, and non-profits. Similarly to how community members help those who are in need, LUGs provide education, technology, and web services to those who either can’t access normal means or have an interest in learning more about their computers.

Oregon State has held a special place among open-source developers since the open-lab project was initiated. Large open-source conferences now focus in this area like the last Debian conference, which is well-established and praised open-source software project with over 1,500 active contributors from both government and private business sources. The open-lab is a place for students to learn about open-source technology. It also hosts the education sessions organized by the campus Linux User Group. This group would teach students how to develop on open-source environments, how to solve problems with open-source, and how open-source resolves issues with cost-efficient software. They also introduce students to Git, version control software essential for programmers, web developers, and web designers. This tool is used in many large companies, not just open-source.

Students also learn about Open Stack a common cloud computing environment that is used in many IT departments. Students can learn how to start their own businesses when learning these tools, how to service customers, and seeking out the fundamental solutions to everyday IT problems. Oregon State is well-known for this open-source lab program, and those who enter it are assured to learn how to make IT presentations, write an engineering resume, lead work groups, develop project management skills, and test their engineering muscles.

Besides meeting supplementary goals, the open source lab also fulfills the role as teacher, IT support, and software access when funding is thin. LUG members are often introduced to programming languages such as Perl, C, and Bash. On our campus, C++ and Python are not encouraged while the rest of the world expects or teaches it. Sentry Insurance and other local tech industries look for C++ knowledge on job applications, yet UWSP does not prepare students with this particular skill unless done as an independent study. UW-Marathon does provide C++ classes. Partially a reason not to include C++ is due to how difficult it is to stream-line it on Windows computers, especially with our current infrastructure.

Linux User Group can provide a quicker solution for students. Our open-lab is fully customizable. We have complete control over what the computers can do. Instead of having to request software from IT, we can install them ourselves. Allowing students to simply come to campus and use our computers when they have access to them.

LUG can also serve as a resource to software. As much of the software on campus is limited to whoever has administrative rights – the access to software on the open-source labs can be given much more quickly on virtual machines and direct inquiries. Users can request for software to be installed without needing administrative rights. And these systems can be installed within a day of the request. These requests give our members a chance to practice their system administrative skills while also serving the community with a valuable service.

The open-source lab provides students with IT support – that which they cannot get from Help Desk, which has explicit orders not to serve Linux users. LUG can provide a service to members when they visit our open-source lab if the lab hours can be expanded.

PROBLEM

The overarching aim of having a public lab on the campus of UWSP has two-fold goals: we hope that having a public lab would make more people aware of what sort of technology is available, and public labs would give our members professional experience. The demand for well-trained system administrators is very high, yet the supply remains low for many reasons: it’s difficult to hire quality teachers in tech, major computer systems change every half year, and groups of people need different access to different resources with different system configurations. Some of those who fill-in positions of system administrator do not have degrees in such a field. And the need of having real system administrators who understand both the system and best practices is real.

A system administrator is who secures our passwords, protects our users from attacks, and maintains server quality control. If none of these things were addressed with a qualified professional, many bad things could happen to businesses, governments, and non-profit organizations. From an outsider’s prospective system administration is what seems like a daunting and meaningless occupation, but it is a necessary service in a world of computing.

LUG@UWSP has made attempts have fulfilling a role of mentoring future system administrators through our weekly workshop programs, lab hours, and emailing list; however, despite this effort, many members do not have access to the lab since the hours and location remain to be an issue. These issues can be enumerated:

  1. We do not have permanent access to our room throughout all hours of the day. Because our room is shared with three other groups on campus, we must ask for permission to schedule special training sessions. Since most of the clubs do not have staff, it is sometimes difficult to get a hold of presidents. Some clubs don’t have a normal hierarchy. All of these groups expect to use the room for activities, meetings, and general hangout spots in 40 hour blocks. There already have been conflicts despite how minimally LUG uses the room. Currently we only store our computers there and keep office hours in the morning while having our open-source lab times happen only once a week on Friday during our general meeting times.

  2. Groups within the office have expressed to us that they would not allow an open-source lab to operate in the office space. This was not the reason why the space was initially granted to us. As written in the proposal, LUG needed a space to maintain its open-source lab. Since this is now impossible with the other groups, the room does not serve much purpose other than storage and fails to meet to the expressed expectations of the first proposal when LUG asked for the space.

  3. Our servers are not allowed to be used or accessed at any time outside regular office hours. Servers are essentially useless when they sit around offline. Our vision to use these servers to communicate, backup data, and host projects is impossible without full-time access to server space. They also cannot be the place to support our backups or projects which would be a primary reason to maintain the service.

  4. Sharing room with other groups deter prospective members. We are located in a room with the Secular Student Alliance, Daisho-Con, and Student Game Developers. All three organizations are more popular than LUG, and they dominate the realm with their influence. If LUG were to have its own office outside of the DUC, it may be possible to engage members in a neutral area. LUG will also have full access to the space and can shape its appearance without needing to compete with anime posters, video games, sofas, and Darwin banners.

  5. No one will be paid to maintain the lab. In reality this position of administration, help desk, and developer operator should be a paid position. Because students need jobs to pay rent and loans, a good opportunity for training and pay would be attractive to those who would have not considered open-source simply because they could not afford to. Having a salary for those for who maintain the lab would be necessary to ensure that there is a consistent person in the lab at a regular and decent time.

PLAN

We believe the problem is mainly a location issue. Therefore, LUG should be able to relocate and ask for a special budget and the creation of a special job position. Since we have yet to create a budget, this special proposal should initiate that discussion and create an allocation for money that is often assigned to student organizations. Because our organization has a history of service on campus, we think we’re well-suited to receive funding, so our service can continue to benefit the campus for years to come.

After looking at our options, a representative of SGA told us that we can apply for Nelson Hall residence if we are an established group. This person also recommended that we apply through this channel for consideration. Along with this, we intend to also propose a job position available to those who meet a certain criteria of specific skills.

The space in Nelson Hall would provide us a dedicated room, keep us separated from other groups, and provide a location to store our servers and host our workshops and meetings. We will have a space to have our general meetings and store our documents under the security of an employed lab coordinator who would upkeep the daily security and maintenance to the lab, servers, and users.

Because the lab and the servers are vital to the services we provide to the campus, it’s essential we have a staff member to dedicate part-time towards the project. The staff member should be interviewed by the currently serving LUG officers, and he or she could be from that group as well. Trust is more important along with competency and responsibility.

In an addition towards our constitution, an amount of our organization’s budget will go towards the new job position of Lab Coordinator. Officers would interview candidates to see who could be entrusted the most with server information, binaries, keys, and lab equipment. If an agreement cannot be reached, the general members will be able to break whatever tie there remains.

The Lab Coordinator would be allowed as much oversight as she or he sees fit to run the lab 40 hours a week. It would be expected that other members who wish to become Lab Coordinators to volunteer their time within the 40 hour week. They will learn valuable skill sets and be appointed by the Lab Coordinator who will interview each applicant to see if they can be entrusted with similar responsibilities.

Specifically, the Lab Coordinator will open the lab and close the lab. Volunteers will take turns filling in the positions between those times. The Lab Coordinator will have access to all the computers with administrator access while the volunteers would not but will be given special training instead during their shifts. Access to Linux Administration training will be made available along with online tests provided by our servers and development operations team. Volunteers who complete the training will be noted. The Lab Coordinator will also write notes on each volunteer to help determine who should be an officer, a future Lab Coordinator, and be given a more active role overall in the group.

Volunteers will have special access to directories that have instructions on administration. They will also have write access to the wiki while normal users can only read it. Volunteers will also be able to monitor logs. This is essential to maintain computers. Logs will notify volunteers if there are problems on specific computers or if users are misusing the computers in any way.

All computer lab users will be required to setup accounts. These accounts will have access to Internet, email, and the basic desktop environment with access to small hacker spaces called virtual machines hosted on a large server. Because we will not use the UWSP network, users will need to register through our group. All LUG members will have accounts under their UWSP usernames with modified passwords that can be changed later.

Finally, Lab Coordinators will be required to communicate to officers, users, and UWSP IT. For that reason they must check linux@uwsp.edu inbox daily to respond to inquiries and report any concerns to officers. Due to the frequency of need, 15-20 hours should be dedicated towards this position each week.

Budget

15 hours shift for 16 weeks: $2160 per semester

CONCLUSION

You can infer from above the mission of LUG@UWSP. In our constitution we aim to advocate, endorse, and guide new and experienced open-source users in the operation of open-source and Linux-related technology. The 24 passionate members of LUG feel compelled that open-source has a future in the progress and development of technology, and they understand that using it and building with open-source technology will continue to be important and grow within time. And we find it relevant for Wisconsin to also use open-source technology as well as any other state or country.

The investment into this lab will bring reputation to the UWSP that could not be possible without passionate organization leaders like those who founded the Linux User Group. Providing funds to this project will ensure that interest in open-source technology will be generated for years to come. It will give professional experience to students who would not have access to such training otherwise, meeting the goal of the university to give meaningful learning experiences and research opportunities. Experience from working at the public open-source lab will provide the campus with experienced IT employees that it can hire at a the lowered salary of a student employee while also giving that student job experience and reasonable income to help pay his or her education while providing a service to his or her computer and school.


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