Debian, Get Your@%#* Together!

To make Debian a real success, its many advocates and vendors must pool resources. But columnist Jason Perlow says that makes too much sense to actually happen.

In this month’s “On the Desktop” column (beginning on page XX), I go into detail about how to install and configure an Ubuntu system. Now that I’ve actually spent some time with Ubuntu, I’m now convinced — bar none — that it is the best free Linux desktop operating system available for end users, combining all of the best aspects of Debian and Fedora into one distro. Ubuntu has the strong community and complete package repository of Debian and the cutting edge and constantly updated technology of Fedora.

If there’s any hope of a free version of Linux usurping users from Microsoft Windows, the obvious path leads to Ubuntu. Its got a billionaire patron, Mark Shuttleworth, that clearly “gets” what community is all about, he’s committed his cold, hard cash to ensure Ubuntu’s survival, and Ubuntu has developers that understand what needs to go into a desktop version of Linux that will please end-users.

That being said, throwing money at Ubuntu alone is not going to guarantee its success. Ubuntu is still dependent on the Debian community for many of its upstream packages.

Ubuntu has different goals from Debian, and that’s perfectly okay. For instance, Ubuntu is on a much faster development cycle and its not trying to be all things to all people. But it would behoove Debian and Ubuntu to come to some sort of arrangement where the two communities are actually cooperating with each other instead of working in parallel. To add insult to injury, Ubuntu reaping the rewards of the Debian developers and package maintainers without giving anything back and forking its own parallel universe isn’t going to help in the long run, especially if the Debian project goes into disarray.

Never gonna happen, you say? Debian will be around forever? To the contrary: the death of Debian is a very real possibility if Debian crawls through yet another 3-year-release cycle. If that happens, it’s Game Over, and that’s the personal assesment some of the people of highest authority in that community.

A foundering of Debian would be a disaster for Ubuntu (and just about every other Debian-based distro) because Ubuntu would have to completely reinvent the wheel and its developer infrastructure to take up the responsibilites and slack that Debian is currently shouldering. If I was Shuttleworth and Canonical (http://www.canonical.com/), I would have the Ubuntu Foundation take some of its newfound money, donate it to Debian, and as a result of those donations, get some choice board members installed, including Shuttleworth himself, to ensure that Debian’s future is secured. And if Debian and Software for The Public Interest (http://www.spi-inc.org/) can’t figure out a way to make that happen or attractive for Ubuntu, they probably do deserve to die.

It would seem to me that with Debian and Ubuntu and the commercial products of companies like Canonical, Progeny, Linspire, MEPIS, and Xandros, that we have the potential makings of a unified Debian ecosystem that can have a very strong and unified development community and a standardized Debian infrastructure that can truly compete for enterprise business with commercial Linux distros such as Red Hat and Novell.

But currently, none of these Debian communities and companies are really working with each other, and each of the Debians is different enough from each other that, for the most part, trying to use someone else’s package repository more often than not results in a broken distro.

Let’s face it, without a strong, coordinated community, you don’t have the makings of a commercial Linux distro that big IT shops want to buy. Fedora feeds Red Hat Enterprise Linux and vice versa. And as I said in an earlier column, one of the reasons why I think Novell is missing its numbers of shipped SuSE desktops is that its development community is considerably smaller than Red Hat’s and they have no equivalent community-supported distro to challenge Fedora. Novell, if you’re listening, I suggest you start thinking about my “Geeko” proposal again.

So what’s the solution to Debian’s woes? Progeny, with its proposed Debian Core Consortium (DCC) and Componentized Linux seems like the right idea: produce a solid, standardized foundation based on Debian Sarge and Linux Standard Base 2.0 that multiple, Debian-esque Linux vendors can adopt and that the Debian community can rally around, so that everyone’s distros, be they free or commercial, are compatible with each other’s packages and there isn’t duplication of development effort. Right now, as of this writing, the DCC is only a proposal and Ubuntu and most of the other Debian-esque vendors haven’t made any commitments to it yet.

I know. It’ll never happen. It makes way too much sense.

Jason Perlow can be reached at class="emailaddress">jperlow@linux-mag.com.

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