Prominent developers pulling out of Debian as voting deadline nears

Clashes over systemd continue, with final voting deadline in hours

illustration of a fight scrap battle

Four prominent members of the Debian community have stepped down or reduced their involvement in the project as a result of an increasingly bitter argument over the future of the widely influential Linux distribution.

The battles center on the recent decision by Debian’s governing technical committee to replace the venerable sysvinit startup module with systemd in the forthcoming release, dubbed “Jessie.” Systemd is a more sophisticated, complex piece of software, which supporters say is a necessary update to a badly outmoded part of Debian, while critics accuse it of being needlessly complex and suffering from serious feature creep.

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Anti-systemd developers have proposed a general resolution – sort of a ballot initiative presented to the Debian community. If the vote succeeds by a more than 2:1 margin – the Debian constitution requires a supermajority to override a technical committee decision – Debian software will need to become init-system-agnostic. In essence, the resolution is an attempt to prevent Debian from becoming tied too closely to systemd.

The criticism has hit a fever pitch in recent months, with systemd creator Lennart Poettering taking to Google Plus to talk about receiving death threats and other online abuse.

The latest departure is Tollef Fog Heen, a Debian systemd maintainer, who said he felt overwhelmed by “continued attacks” in a mailing list message posted Sunday announcing his decision. Contacted via email by Network World, Fog Heen said that part of the reason that tempers have gotten so out of control is that Debian’s complex decision-making procedures aren’t satisfactory to many – it’s been a problem before.

“You saw a much milder version of this when udev was introduced a long time ago: A vocal, conservative group opposed it very strongly, but over time various components essentially made udev mandatory,” he explained. “I think systemd will follow much of the same pattern.”

Fog Heen said that he plans to concentrate on other projects he’s involved in for the moment, but didn’t rule out taking on something new in the future. He follows in the footsteps of several other recent high-profile departures, which have included twomembers of Debian’s technical committee – effectively, the distribution’s governing body. Colin Watson stepped down on Nov. 8, though he remains in place on an interim basis, and Russ Allbery resigned Sunday evening.

In his announcement, Allbery cited the same stress over community decision-making as Fog Heen as a reason to step down.

“Nearly every [technical committee] decision is now very fraught, and expressing those decisions, at least in the current framework, requires more skill, care, attention, and caution than I currently have mental or emotional resources to do,” he wrote.

Another prominent developer, Joey Hess, said much the same thing in a blog post, though he went out of his way to emphasize that systemd was not the reason for his resignation.

“Debian used to be a lot better at that than it is now,” he said. “This seems to have less to do with the size of the project, and more to do with the project having aged, ossified, and become comfortable with increasing layers of complexity around how it makes decisions.”

Both Hess and Watson insisted that the systemd issue alone didn’t drive them out of Debian, although Watson admitted that it didn’t help.

“I’m sure the general stress resulting from it was a contributing factor somewhere, in that without it I wouldn't have felt that my [technical committee] duties were something I needed to drop,” he told Network World.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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