Debian stays true to its roots

Here’s a quick look at Debian, who its developers are, why they spend hours of their own time to write software, carefully package it and then give it all away, the impact of this, and some thoughts on where the Debian project is heading

It’s a busy time for the members of the Debian Project. Sam Hocevar took over as the new Debian Project leader in April, right around the time the long-awaited Debian 4.0 or ‘Etch,’ hit the streets. And, in mid-June, hundreds of active Debian developers, contributors and other software visionaries from around the world met, many for the first time, in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the Debian Project’s annual developer conference.

The Debian Project was started in August 1993 by Ian Murdock, and early on he drafted a Debian Manifesto that explained what he hoped to accomplish. The idea of an all-volunteer Linux distribution project quickly attracted a small, passionate group of free software hackers that has evolved into a very large, well-organized community of developers and users. I joined the project about a year after it started, and have remained active ever since. What continues to motivate me to remain involved is that Debian is one of the most impressive examples of distributed software development in the world -- and is entirely based on the collaborative work of volunteers.

As it grew, the Debian Project crafted a constitution to designate how key decisions would be made. Unlike many other organizations, only tiny bits of power are given to designated people working on the project, like the elected Debian Project Leader, Secretary and Technical Committee. Most rights remain with individual developers, and thus power within Debian is distributed over the entire developer base. There’s a voting mechanism for resolving issues that can’t be agreed upon simply among individuals. The social contract, constitution and policy documents provide context, and a measure of stability, to empower Debian community members to remain focused on the work at hand.

The Debian distribution is a fascinating social phenomenon. Imagine a voluntary group of more than 1,000 registered developers who build and distribute software that is equal or superior to any commercial operating system -- and there’s no company backing them. Since Debian isn’t a company, developers don’t have to worry about being bought or sold, going through a hostile take-over, answering to shareholders or going bankrupt. There’s no significant money trail, because Debian is based on donated time and resources. This leaves the developers free to pursue their passion to write and use free software. Outsiders sometimes view this as an unruly group that argues a lot, but don't be fooled by the vocal minority. Debian is an amazingly tight-knit community of people who share a passion and enjoy working and ‘playing’ together.

“Clan Debian” even has a registered tartan. A number of project members had kilts made, which we wore at Debconf in Edinburgh to share a time-honored Scottish tradition! But maybe that's more than you really want to know about us.

Debian developers come from all over the world, from many social, political and economic situations, and their motivations vary widely. Some are students or hobbyists, and some work on government-sponsored projects. Others, like me, work for companies that have some interest in Linux. But what we all have in common is a commitment to free software. In fact, the Debian Project is so committed to free software that developers thought it would be useful if that commitment was formalized in a non-binding, non-legal document. So, we created the Debian Social Contract. All developers of the Debian distribution abide by this contract and take pride that Debian software will always be free and transparent, with its bug report database open for public view at all times. As part of drafting the Social Contract, Debian also defined what “free” meant in the Debian Free Software Guidelines. These guidelines were copied almost exactly to form the Open Source Definition, which remains today the litmus test for what is and is not considered open source software.

No matter how busy or big the Debian Project grows, it never strays from its common core cause to create and distribute a free operating system for the world to use. You might ask why these developers volunteer so many hours of their own time to write software, carefully package it, and then just give it away for free. There are lots of reasons. For me, it’s all about the notion that life is too short to build personal dependencies on software that I don’t have the ability to fix if it breaks down, or enhance if I want it to do something else. Many people in the open source software phenomenon are driven by the notion that, “I’m a smart person. If it’s broken, I want to be able to fix it.” I think this sentiment is shared by many Debian developers. Others are more motivated by helping others and giving back to the community that gave so much free software to them in the first place. But, for all of us, it’s hugely rewarding, and often just plain fun!

 Anyone can join the Debian Project and help, even if he or she isn't a software developer. Some community members help test new software, some write documentation, provide translations, work on the core infrastructure and services that let others in the project do their work, and some donate money or resources. Any sufficiently motivated software developer can become a ‘new maintainer’ in Debian by completing several steps in an application process that may take a few months. These include agreeing to abide by the terms of the Social Contract, demonstrating technical competence, and actually contributing to the project.  More and more people are adopting Debian every day. Debian runs on more kinds of computer hardware than any other Linux distribution, and includes more packaged and tested software than any other distribution I know of. It’s used in everything from wrist watches to mainframes, including desktops, notebooks, handheld devices and mobile phones. Without the constraints of a financial enterprise, people are free to work on the things that really matter to them. The Debian Project is a collaborative community that enables tremendous innovation and endless possibilities, which is why you may hear Debian referred to as the universal operating system.  Debian continues to thrive after 14 years. As I roll the clock forward, I realize that derivatives will come and go, but -- unless the Debian Project loses its way in the next five to 10 years -- it will still be around, still be an industry enigma. There will always be people who don’t understand how it works or why we volunteers do what we do, but Debian will continue to fuel technical innovation and evolve its social processes. People will still have fun working together and making an extraordinarily significant contribution to computer users around the world.  And that’s enough to keep me on board.

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Bdale Garbee

Debian GNU/Linux

Linux and Open Source at HP  


This story, "Debian stays true to its roots" was originally published by LinuxWorld-(US).

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