openSUSE, Now with More Open

Novell has announced plans to make openSUSE more community driven by opening up their Online Build System which controls Factory to contributors outside their staffing ranks. What does it mean for the project and community at large?

At the top of the distribution table there are several big wigs. One of which is openSUSE. It wasn’t always “openSUSE” though, that is a more recent development. When the original German distro was first released in 1994 it was called “S.u.S.E”, which stood for “Software und System-Entwicklung”, or “Software and System Development” in English. With later releases it was shortened to just “SuSE”, and then later again to “SUSE Linux”.

The initial release was merely a German translation of Slackware Linux, the oldest surviving distro today. Soon thereafter the team decided they needed an installer and better system management tools, and so YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) was born. YaST is perhaps the single most defining aspect of the distribution, something which is still integral to the distribution today. From these early beginnings, SuSE has grown and matured into one of the most popular and indeed beloved Linux based operating systems in the world and is especially popular in Europe.

After setting up a presence in the United States in direct competition with Red Hat, SUSE Linux was purchased by Novell in 2004 for US$210 million in cash (with a US$50 million injection from IBM). Having been beaten by Microsoft once before, many thought Novell might once again take aim at their former foe, but in actuality nothing has been further from the truth. As Novell made clear at the time it acquired SUSE, their goal was to well position themselves so as to defeat the number one player in the market, Red Hat Linux. Novell’s Chief Executive said: “Together, we are an effective competitor to the current No. 1 company in Linux.” At the time they also stated that they had no immediate plans to alter the development of the operating system. They took on an additional workforce of over 400 staff and things mostly stayed the same. So how has the distro changed?

Upon the acquisition of SUSE Linux, Novell set about integrating products and services and selling them to enterprise business customers. In 2003 however, their main competitor Red Hat created a community based version of its commercial offerings, called “Fedora Core”. Now known simply as “Fedora”, it is a community based operating system which Red Hat uses as a test bed for their commercial products. Novell had to do something and in 2005 followed suit, announcing the creation of “openSUSE”. This new product would replace “SUSE Linux Professional” and was to also be a community based open source operating system, with releases every year. The distro would also have a development branch, called “Factory”. Future commercial SUSE Linux products have been born out of the openSUSE development community.

Prior to the purchase by Novell, SUSE Linux was actually quite a closed operating system. It was built upon Linux and free software such as GNU, but the core development model and central software stack was closed source. It wasn’t until 2004, shortly after the purchase by Novell, that YaST was released under the GPL free software license. Other core components were not so readily disclosed however, such as those from the Ximian portfolio. These Novell was hoping to hold to close to their chest and make available only for their commercial products. Still, the open sourcing of YaST was the first major step in opening up SUSE Linux itself to the wider community, which in turn has allowed for the creation of openSUSE and a more open source focused development model.

It took some time for Novell to find its feet and garner community support for its products. Looking back however, they have become very successful at this and appear to be adopting more of a community orientated open source development model. Moving towards this new era, in 2007 Novell opened what has become known as the “openSUSE Online Build Service”. As the name suggests, this is a web based service which any developer can use to create packages not only for Novell products, but also for all other major distributions (yes, even Red Hat and Fedora!). Novell is hoping that it will become a central hub for future development in the free software community. Recently, the Linux Foundation decided to make it available through their developer network.

The build service itself however has other benefits. It has allowed Novell to further embrace the open development model and harness the power of the wider community, like all good open source projects! The Novell development team has successfully used the Online Build Service to develop and release version 11 of openSUSE. Even so, the development has remained firmly in the control of Novell employees, rather than the community itself. This is about to change. In the openSUSE newsletter, community manager for the openSUSE product Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier announced that, “openSUSE Factory is Now Open“. He says: “Factory development is changing, and we’re making it easier for contributors to take responsibility for packages and to contribute directly to openSUSE. This means contributors will be able to be directly responsible for packages, without having to go through a Novell employee to make changes.” So what does this mean?

Brockmeier says the first step is to break the distro down into more manageable sections. We can expect to see projects such as GNOME, KDE, OpenOffice.org and of course the Linux kernel itself. While Novell employees will continue to maintain an overarching control of these sections, they will be able to assign certain rights to members of the community. This will happen slowly over time, but the first important step is already in place. Those who will be able to contribute to Factory will be determined not by their employer, but rather the merit of their own work and dedication. Finally openSUSE is actually “open”. Can you hear it? That’s the sound of openSUSE gaining traction!

So it begs the quesion. Why has Novell only now started opening up their distro to the wider community? Is it due to some an enlightened perspective on the open source development model? From the get-go Novell has kept their products close to their chest and it wasn’t until their new arch nemesis created a community developed operating system that Novell ramped up their own community efforts. Is it due to the state of the world economy and slipping profits? Only Novell truly knows their motives, but whatever the reason, it’s good for the distro itself. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Novell has seen how community development can work well with other projects and perhaps sees the opportunity to hand over some of the tasks and reduce their own workforce, saving costs.

Whatever the root cause, be it an enlightened perspective on open source development or the threat of diminishing returns, the clear winners here are the users themselves. The openSUSE community has won out tremendously with this decision and Novell is to be commended for that. Perhaps openSUSE will regain even more mojo and enjoy a further increase in popularity as a direct result. The effects of this decision are yet to be seen, however. How will future releases of Novell commercial software cope? And what shape might openSUSE take as a community? It’s important to remember that the project has not been wholly handed over yet and Novell still holds the reins. Even so, there is room for openSUSE itself to begin to take shape as a community driven operating system. Users should now get more of a say in the direction of the distro, which is especially important should Novell disappear. What that shape might become remains to be seen, but there are exciting times ahead.

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