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Red Hat and Meetup.com Cross Roads

Usually on the first Thursday of every month, they gather at up to 326 different points around the globe from Mumbai to Boston to discuss code and the programs that run on top of it. No, this isn't a secret society you would read about in "The DaVinci Code."

It is actually a bunch of people who get together to talk about Linux vendor Red Hat, and use a well-known online organizing tool to foster new groups.

The idea of community user groups in the open source community has been around almost as long as Linux itself. Meetup.com, which gained popularity when Howard Dean used its services during the 2004 Election campaign, is no stranger to those who discuss technology, as it has a number of Linux and technology-related groups.

However, a quick search reveals that Linux distros Novell/SUSE, Mandrake and Debian don't have Meetup.com groups. Compare that to Red Hat's 326 groups worldwide that comprise 2,883 members. So what are these meetings all about?

A variety of people attend them, and they take a different shape from month to month depending on where they're held. In Toronto for example, local Red Hat meetup moderator Colin McGregor explained that anywhere from five to 10 people will attend one of their meetings, with the number depending on the topic discussed and the weather.

"Last time it was at a pub, and this time it's at a local Greek restaurant," McGregor told internetnews.com. "What you can expect is people around having good food and chewing the fat about the topic in question. In this case, we're talking about Red Hat in particular and also Linux in general."

In Red Hat's hometown of Raleigh, N.C., the experience is somewhat similar, with a few exceptions.

"Usually what we do is we sit down and talk briefly about what's going on at Red Hat in terms of releases, both Fedora and RHEL," Raleigh Red Hat meetup moderator Matt Frye told internetnews.com. "From there it's a Q and A thing and a technical discussion sometimes. Sometimes it's a discussion of intent, like when desktop came out we talked about how desktop was going to draw from Fedora. And then there is a tour every once in a while and some swag."

Though Frye noted that the meetings had been "kind of thin lately," he said that they're typically attended by anywhere from two to four Red Hat employees and a dozen or more community members.

In Boston, the Red Hat meetup has taken a different tack all together and actually joined forces with the local PHP group to hold combined meetings.

"I combined meetings with the PHP meetups to get more attendance and interest," Boston Red Hat meetup moderator Charles Dalsass told internetnews.com. "Our new format is as follows: each month a person from the group chooses a topic for a presentation. Last month I chose 'PHP templating,' which, although more directed to PHP users, is also indirectly related to Red Hat users."

The number of attendees in Boston has grown to about eight to 10 people per meeting since the two groups merged.

The people who host and attend these meetings get different things out of them. McGregor of Toronto said they are an opportunity for like-minded individuals to network. Those who attend in Raleigh get the opportunity to interface directly with Red Hat personnel, because of their proximity to its headquarters. And in Boston, users can also expect the typical Linux chat, though the moderator's own interest in hosting and organizing the meetings was somewhat more internally focused.

"I've been using the meetups for a few things; the first is to bring people from a small community (open source developers, typically) together," Dalsass said. "The second is to promote our company. I've had good luck with both of those things."

The Red Hat meetup moderators offered a number of suggestions to those who might also try and set up their own groups.

"My advice would be to organize it well [and] not to expect too many attendees off the bat. There are so many different user groups going on that, after a few meetings, they tend to thin out," Raleigh's Frye suggested.

As part of that organization, Frye suggests that having a speaker or a topic is a good idea to keep the meetings focused. He also mentioned the importance of keeping dialogues going about real issues.

"In Raleigh, that means for it not just to be a tour or a swagfest," he said. "The issues are obviously different in other locales where Red Hat isn't located."

Dalsass offered three concrete suggestions for successful meetups: Be creative, combine meetups, and use them to meet other groups with similar interests if you have to; try to develop a "core group" that has an interest in the topic. The core group should be dedicated; try to combine your topic with other initiatives, such as promoting your business, networking, etc., so that it doesn't die out eventually.

You can find your local Red Hat meetup here.