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Web Coding in Romulan? Open Source at the Worldcon - page 2

Live from Chicago: It's Worldcon!

  • September 4, 2000
  • By Scott Courtney

Eventually, the scheduling team approached Olson to ask if they could simply use the web to enter their changes into the schedule, rather than giving them to Olson to enter. His reply was that the system was already done, and that he'd been using it for some time. Soon the team was entering live data directly onto the web site, saving time and reducing the possibility of errors.

In addition to its easy interface for developers, Olson was happy to see that his PHP code's output was purely HTML 2.0 compatible, with no requirement for browser extensions or plugins. "By keeping it dirt-simple," he asserts, "I know that [any browser] from Lynx to the latest Mozilla beta can access it. And PHP had the library functions that I needed." The site shows this keep-it-simple approach with its detailed content and almost no graphics or ornamentation.

During the convention, about ten staff members access the system for updates. Five of these volunteers are web operators; the other users are Erik himself and the Program Operations ("Program Ops") staff members. Typically two people at a time are on duty to update the web site from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. each day.

The Chicon 2000 on-site web has scored a number of Worldcon "firsts." In addition to being the first official server located at the convention site, the system is the first to allow online nomination and voting for the prestigious Hugo Awards for outstanding work in the science fiction genre.

This year is also the first time for the server being onsite at the convention, but Olson says this was an easy decision for him. "Fear number seven of many," he says, "is 'it dies and I have to either abandon it or drive.'" The main web site, www.chicon.org, is running on BSD, while the staff and onsite servers run on Linux.

Knowing that many of Chicon's attendees would want (or need) to stay connected to their homes and jobs via the Internet, the Chicon staff filled a room with iMac machines connected to the Net. For those with laptops, they added empty workstations with only an Ethernet line and DHCP server. Even here, Open Source played a role. The DHCP server and DNS server both ran on Free BSD systems. Staffers Ben Liberman and Michael Pins built the IP network, DHCP, DNS, and other infrastructural systems.

Backing it all up were two T1 lines to the ISP as well as a standard Ethernet LAN that spanned much of the functional section of the hotel. Erik Olson says the hotel is working to get Ethernet into every conference space, but that some acceleration of the schedule was needed to make the needed cabling available in time for Chicon. Notably, the cable runs on the skyway crossing between the hotel's east and west towers was completed only a short time before the con.

The immediacy of the on-site web updates has been popular with Chicon attendees, and Olson is especially proud of this aspect of the site. When fan writer Mike Glyer earned a Hugo for his work, the announcement was on the web literally seconds after it was made public, thanks to very careful coordination between Olson and the Hugo presenters. "By the time the winning nominee had reached the podium," he says, "I was hitting colon-W [in the vi editor] to post the fact that he had won, on the web page."

Olson considers the fast delivery of information, and the high content level of the pre-planning and on-site web pages, to be his greatest success of this effort. Asked what he would do differently, Olson says he would spend even more time in advance preparation. He also wants to make available more web terminals throughout the hotel, to give visitors easier access to the online updates. Given the rate at which hotels are adding in-the-room web connectivity, Olson thinks this may be a non-issue by the time Worldcon is next held in Chicago (its location varies from year to year). He also wants to have a way to put more convention photos on the web, and to get them there faster. Future goals notwithstanding, Olson is pleased with the way things turned out and says the web teams have "established a good foundation for other cons to build on."

Where will the Chicon 2000 web team go from here? Olson, ever ready for the next challenge, says he has already volunteered to work on web services for next year's Worldcon, to be held in Philadelphia.

About the Author
Scott Courtney is a feature writer and web developer for the Linux/Open Source Channel at Internet.com. He has been an avid SF reader since childhood and has been attending conventions for about twelve years, though Chicon 2000 was his first Worldcon.

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