Open Source 201: Do we still need LUGs?

Recently on Slashdot, this article – Do we still need LUGs?– came up and it raised an interesting point:

A few years ago, LUGs enjoyed a heady heyday. If you were lucky enough to have a LUG close enough to drive to, you probably attended meetings regularly. Enthusiasm, both for Linux and the ideals for which it stands, drove an agenda full of exciting presentations, nights dedicated to getting a new distribution installed on your desktop, and lots of free stuff from companies like Red Hat, Corel, and SUSE, who wanted us to catch the fever.

When I first came to DC, I found Northern Virginia Linux Users' Group, it was the most prominent tech group in the area. There were others – such as DCLUG – but NoVaLUG was the most active and the most local. In the past few years, the technology climate has changed quite a bit:

First, despite thoughts to the contrary, DC was not hit as hard by the dotcom bust as places like Silicon Valley, mostly due to the sheer number of government contractors. Instead, the 9-11 Attacks changed the employment picture more significantly. In a matter of weeks, jobs which had previously never required security clearances suddenly required them, jobs which had basic criminal screens had a bit more, and every background check seemed to require just a little bit more.

Second, Linux has moved much farther into the mainstream. In 2000/2001, techs were familiar with Linux on the backend, there was lots of discussion of moving to the desktop, and it was often difficult for individuals to install themselves. Fast forward to now and you have easy installations, you can get Linspire on a computer at Walmart, and even Dell is selling Ubuntu. You don't need to understand nearly as much about disk cynlinders, package dependencies, or even individual drivers. The vast majority of common components are well-supported and vendors are distributing the drivers themselves.

Finally, numerous sub-groups have sprung up. In the DC area alone, the groups I know of are: DCPHP, DCLUG, Mid-Atlantic Linux, Open Source Software Business, NoVaJUG (with 3+ subgroups), NoVa Ruby Users Group, DCDrupal, Columbia PHP and there are probably many others. Five years ago, most of these groups simply didn't exist. Some people may see this as a fracturing of the community – and it is – but it also demonstrates that the community has grown in new and different directions than what anyone originally saw.

I think the most important results of all of this are two-fold…

First, it demonstrates that most of the technical issues are solved. We don't have to fight as often to get Linux deployed in the datacenter. We don't have to fight as often just to get Apache installed. We don't have to fight as often to convince someone that Linux is secure. The battle has moved on to other fronts.

Finally, it demonstrates that the business issues are starting to come to the forefront. The developers in DCPHP are only as useful as the problems they solve… which is completely separated from the underlying technology. This occassionally means that a WIMP or WAMP stack will be deployed instead of a LAMP stack but the business-types don't care about that one.

So do we still need LUGs?

I would say definitively yes, but not with the same focus… The technical questions can usually be solved via intelligent searching. The technical arguments have already been made and regularly won by others. Therefore, I think the primary strengths of User Groups in general are the smaller (and likely friendlier) audience for asking questions and the professional networking aspects. There are few places to learn about which organizations are doing what, which are hiring, which you do/don't want to work for, and how to get in the door… and maybe even get together for a beer every so often.