Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Will Debian survive the rise of Linux?

For a while, Debian was the community Linux darling. In its heyday, Debian was known for its strong moral point of view and its outstanding code. Numerous important distributions, such as Linspire, Knoppix, and today's most popular distribution, Ubuntu, have sprung from it. Things have changed.

Today, Debian is a troubled distribution. In order to get Debian GNU/Linux 4.0, codenamed etch, out the door by its scheduled date of December 4, 2006, Dunc-Tank.org, a group of Debian developers and fans, was formed.

Historically, Debian has been notoriously late ever since Debian 1.2 was released almost a decade ago in 1997. So, Dunc-Tank was created to accelerate Debian's development.

Dunc-Tank's membership includes Anthony Towns, the Debian Leader, Steve McIntyre, the assistant to the Debian Leader, prominent Debian developers Raphael Hertzog and Joey Hess, and well-known Debian and Linux kernel developer Ted Ts'o

Dunc-Tank plans to accomplish its mission by raising funds to be used for "financially supporting the volunteers working on managing the release process, allowing them to devote their full attention to that task." Specifically, the group's goal is to be able to raise enough funds to pay "both release managers enough to work exclusively on the release of etch for a month each, having Steve Langasek available full-time during October and Andreas Barth available full-time during November, with the release expected to follow soon after in the first week of December."

Simple, straightforward, practical, and it has led to calls for the head of the Debian Project, Anthony Towns, to be recalled because he's a member of the Dunc-Tank board.

Why? Because Denis Barbier, a relatively new Debian developer, claims that Towns has confused people into thinking that Dunc-Tank is officially supported by the Debian Project. Therefore, Barbier urged via the Debian voting mailing list that Debian developers "make this confusion vanish, and I would like to propose that we answer to the valid question quoted in the second paragraph above by recalling our Project Leader ... and am seeking seconds for this proposal."

Barbier immediately received numerous seconds for his motion.

There were other objections behind this recall movement. One developer, Lucas Nussbaum, said that "experiments have shown that sometimes, paying volunteers decreases the overall participation."

Another concern is that paying developers will be bad for Debian. As T'so comments, though, in a Linux.com story on the controversy, "If money were among anybody's primary motivators," then "they probably wouldn't be accepting a grant from Dunc-Tank; they could probably make more money by applying for a job with Google -- or Microsoft."

Others within the Debian community also wonder what all the fuss is about. Matthew R. Dempsky wants to know, for example, "What's so scandalous about the DPL encouraging a timely release?"

Still other developers are fighting back against the recall movement. Loic Minier, a French Debian developer, said "I am pissed enough by the attitude of some developers that I want to reaffirm support for the elected DPL whatever he does to suppose Debian outside of the project."

He then proposed the following counter-proposal: "The Debian Project reaffirms its support to its DPL. The Debian Project does not object to the experiment named 'Duck Tank', lead by Anthony Towns, the current DPL, and Steve McIntyre, the Second in Charge. However, this particular experiment is not the result of a decision of the Debian Project. The Debian Project wishes success to projects funding Debian or helping towards the release of Etch."

Interestingly, Towne has seconded the motion for his own recall, to bring the matter to a decision.

He wrote, "I'm seconding this because I do think it's a fair question for the project to consider, and to make it clear I don't personally have any problem with being recalled if that's what the project thinks is right and proper. If I'm not DPL, I expect I'll continue doing what I have been: working on dunc-tank.org, working on helping the release team get the release out, poking at the security infrastructure to make sure it keeps behaving itself, and continuing to support other folks who've approached me in the past year where they still want that support. Frankly, I think we're doing great, and I'm not remotely interested in quitting."

This battle continues to rage on in the Debian lists, but I'm going to leave recording the details of that to others.

Here's my point: The Debian community, instead of rejoicing in a perfectly sensible idea to help get the next version out the door, has instead fallen into a snake-pit of online politics. The result of all this infighting will, of course, be that less attention will be paid to the Etch code.

As Towne points out, "Given two weeks of discussion for this, two weeks of voting, and the nine week election process, the earliest we'd have a DPL would be the end of December by my count; so assuming this resolution passed and we released on time, we'd be doing so without a DPL [Debian Project Leader]."

If this were an isolated incident, I'd be inclined to dismiss it. It's not, though.

On August 28, well-regarded Debian developer Matthew Garrett resigned from Debian because "Debian doesn't really seem to know who or what it's for. Arguments erupt over whether something is a deeply held principle or an accident of phrasing on the website; whether we should release more often or less often; whether free software is more important than our users having functional hardware. And, depressingly, these debates generally seem to turn into pedantic point scoring and insults and yes, I'm probably as guilty as many others in this respect. But it's got to the point where social interaction with Debian-the-distribution makes me want to stab people."

He's not the only developer to get sick of Debian politics coming before Debian development. Scott James Remnant, another Debian developer who has left the fold, recently explained on his blog why he has gone to Ubuntu.

Remnant said, "I think that the end of my love-affair with Debian started at Debconf last year where several developers treated those of us who also worked on Ubuntu quite rudely. Someone was attacked for wearing an Ubuntu t-shirt at the conference, while someone else was applauded for wearing a "Fuck Ubuntu" t-shirt. That's where I realized that maybe I didn't have as much in common with these people as I thought I did."

Once more, we see ugly, juvenile politics rearing its ugly head.

It was more than that, though. Remnant also objects to "Debian considering removing documentation and firmware from the distribution, especially the documentation, was another point I started wondering whether I shared anything in common with the project anymore."

Remnant continued, "Call me strange, but I think that one of the fundamental purposes of a Linux distribution is to be useful to its users. If nobody can use the distribution because it doesn't support their hardware, and even if it did, all the documentation has been stripped out; I started to wonder what its aims are. It became increasingly apparent that the only users Debian was considering a priority were its own developer."

So, here we are. We have a Linux "community" at war with itself.

This is a community that in August of 2005 objected to its own founder, Ian Murdock, creating a group of Debian-based companies, the DCC Alliance, to further the operating system because it was at first named the Debian Alliance.


Debian has become a distribution whose supporters are clearly more interested in scoring points off each other than creating a serious Linux distribution. It is a group where far too many of its people are far more concerned with moronic minutiae than they are with development.

Is it any wonder that Ubuntu took Debian's old and great code and produced a wonderful distribution from it, when Debian's own developers couldn't cut the mustard?

I think it's clear why Ubuntu rules. Debian's best and brightest left for Ubuntu because there, with a formal organization and a focus on coding instead of petty personal politics, development gets done. In Debian, everything becomes a subject for debate and delay.

It's possible that Debian may yet rise off its death-bed. Dunc-Tank is part of the medicine it needs to get well. But, unless the patient stops fighting with itself, Debian will continue its decline and die.

If it does die, we'll miss it -- but in Ubuntu and the other Linux distributions that have been based on the best of it, its DNA will live on.


James the disciple said...

I think the biggest problem with Debian is its democracy and decision making. Other distros, like Ubuntu, have a head and what he says goes, no arguement, no debate, no democracy, its just done. Put someone in charge for a good while with a backup team and let it run...

Rakesh said...

Hello James,

You're right!

Sometimes democracy poses its own problems...

Spanish Sysadmin said...

Well, Democracy is the least worse solution, just that.

The problem is lack of maturity in some developers.

I hope Debian community'll know how to fight its inner demons and keep going to final world domination ;)

Anonymous said...

I think Debian gonna survive...and Yes, you are right Rakesh!