With the growth of a project there come changes. For GNU Radio, a big change is in the pipeline too: We’re moving from our chat service from Slack to Matrix. Untypically for us, this decision came about pretty quickly, and without much community involvement. Let me go through why did this, how we reached a decision, and, most importantly, how you can join the new chat service as well.

Stop talking, and let me chat: Instructions for the impatient

If you’re already done reading, all you need to do is head over to chat.gnuradio.org and create an account, or use your existing Matrix federation account if you have one. Once you’re registered, you will find a chat service that looks similar to our Slack domain. Some of the existing channels on Slack have already been re-established on Matrix, and some groups, like the documentation team lead by Marc Lichtman, have already moved their base of operations to Matrix.

Other channels are still moving, and we expect the move to take a little bit. But technically speaking, there’s nothing from stopping you to join right now!

Once you’ve registered, you can also join our chat server from your phone using the Android and iOS apps provided by Riot. Other clients for your desktop are also available.

More detailed information, in particular on how to set up Matrix on your mobile devices, can be found on our wiki.

Why on earth are you doing this? Isn’t this a lot of work to move chat services?

Yes, it is a lot of work. We have plenty of good reasons to move away from our current Slack setup, though:

  • Currently, we’re on the free plan for Slack. This means that only a brief history is stored for all chats. Unless someone has set up some IRC bridge, and logs history themselves, it’s not possible to go back in time very far to read past discussions, which can be very annoying. Of course, we could start paying Slack to see the full history. But…
  • Slack is fairly expensive, and is charged per user. Depending on how we count users, we have between approx. 150 users (those are the active ones) and over a thousand (if you count all of them). Even if we got a discounted price (us being an open source project and all), we’d still be looking at some serious expenditure. That by itself is fine – we all know that good software and services, even if it’s free software, is not free to build and we are willing to pay for it. But if we’re already paying, we might as well look at alternatives, right?
  • Let’s say we stuck with Slack and went to a paid plan with full history. We’d still be locked into the Slack ecosystem. Slack is not open source, and stores all chat history on proprietary serves owned by Slack themselves. As an open source project, that should at least give us a pause to think if that’s really what we want.
  • The Slack clients are generally fine, and have definitively improved in recent months. But overall, they’re nothing special, and still can become CPU hogs. Very few features in the actual clients are that important that we felt compelled to stick with Slack.

After considering all of this, we realized it’s time to take a step back, and decide objectively how we can best organize the real-time communication (aka chat) service for GNU Radio.

How we picked a new service

There were a few criteria we specifically looked out for:

  • There needed to be clients for Android and iOS, so users could easily participate via their phones on the go.
  • Also, a web-based client was a must
  • Interaction with IRC, in particular Freenode, had to be possible. We still consider #gnuradio on Freenode part of our GNU Radio infrastructure.
  • Cost should be reasonable. We weren’t expecting a free service, but we also don’t want to squander GNU Radio funds.
  • There had to be an available service provider that would run the infrastructure for us, so our GNU Radio leadership didn’t have to manually run the servers.

Some other criteria fell under the nice-to-have category:

  • All things equal, we would certainly prefer an open source solution to a proprietary one.
  • An open standard for interoperability was considered important, if not essential. This would allow easy interaction, e.g., between IRC and our chat service.
  • Desktop clients and terminal-based clients were considered a great plus.
  • Ideally, this is a service that is used by other organizations as well.
  • GitHub integration and bells and whistles similar to that were considered a plus as well.

Using these criteria, we surveyed a bunch of options, including Mattermost, sticking with Slack, Discord, gitter, and of course Matrix.

To test not only chat solutions, but also hosters, we rented a Mattermost and Matrix instance from a Swiss hoster and tested them within a closed circle. Other services we could test with a free plan from their respective providers.

After several weeks of trial, we conceded that Matrix ticked most of the boxes:

  • It is fully open-source, and committed to open standards
  • Matrix is used by many organizations such as KDE, Gnome, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the French government, to name a few.
  • Matrix instances can connect to each other (“federation”). This means from our GNU Radio chat, we can access other organizations on Matrix, even if they’re not part of the GNU Radio chat instance. This includes the main Matrix instance on matrix.org, where projects such as our friends from SatNOGS are located.
  • That means that people already on Matrix don’t have to do a whole lot to join our Matrix server.
  • Bridging to IRC is also easy, and will have a high likelihood of working indefinitely.
  • The open standards nature of Matrix, and the availability of open source reference clients, means that there are lots of clients out there, including things like a Weechat plugin.

The matter of Transparency, or why am I only hearing about this now?

While the GNU Radio leadership team definitely did their due diligence in picking a new service, one thing that definitely shouldn’t become the norm for decisions around the GNU Radio project is the fact that we decided this behind closed doors within the leadership team. For example, we did not publish a GREP ahead of time for a public discussion.

After extensive discussions, we agreed that without actually having tried it, the decision for a chat service would almost exclusively be a battle of opinions. Having all reasonable opinions among us, we decided to forgo fragmenting the community and instead conducted a closed testing of the most promising candidates.

What happens to the GNU Radio Slack?

We will turn off Slack end of August 2020. The main development, documentation, and variety of other discussions regarding the project will be held on our Matrix instance going forward, in order to preserve them in history.

Many people from the GNU Radio leadership will be leaving the Slack server, and won’t be reachable there going forward, even before August.

We could keep Slack running, since it’s free, but we decided against it. This is for multiple reasons: - Even if administering the Slack instance is very little work, it is still work and we don’t want to have yet another task. - All GNU Radio leadership will move off of the Slack channel, so calling it a GNU Radio chat service is a stretch anyway at that point. - Closing the service is the only way to guarantee that everyone on the GNU Radio Slack definitely hears about the deprecation of our Slack. - We don’t want to risk any GPDR issues by being responsible for other people’s data.

The new setup, and yes, we’re still tuning it

As of April 2020, we have rented a hosted Matrix setup at Swiss hosting company ungleich.ch. Our custom entry point chat.gnuradio.org points to their server, but unlike Slack, we can pack up our chat and move it elsewhere if we’re unhappy with the hosting service provided. The hosting service was chosen based on an internet research and a comparison of services provided, and cost. We have no other affiliations with the hosting company.

We only recently set this up, and we probably want to tune this quite a bit. For example, the GitHub ticker looks a bit different. We’re still experimenting with the IRC gateway, which might be most confusing right now, as we haven’t fully set it up like we want it to be, and we’re also bridging over into Slack. So, things are still in flux, but that’s because we’re optimizing to our needs.

Join us on Matrix and give us your feedback!

One thing you can help us is find a nicer background image for the login page. If you have a suggestion (2560x1505 pixels please), let us know!

Is that it? When’s the next Chat server move?

Hopefully, we’ll never move chat services again. As mentioned before, the existing chat service on chat.gnuradio.org is still evolving. We’re looking forward to seeing you there!