openSUSE Is A Community Of Communities: Gerald Pfeifer

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Gerald Pfeifer, a seasoned open source developer and CTO of SUSE EMEA, has been appointed the new chair of the openSUSE board. We talked to Pfeifer to better understand the role of the openSUSE board, the relationship between the company and the community, and the status of the openSUSE Foundation.

Swapnil Bhartiya: How would you define openSUSE? A distribution, or a community that creates and manages many projects, including distributions like Leap and Tumbleweed?

Gerald Pfeifer: Neither, nor. (Smiles.) Actually, I quite like how you describe the second option, so given those two choices, I’ll pick that, hands down.

The somewhat cheeky “neither, nor” comes from me seeing openSUSE more as a community of communities, if you will, with their own goals rather than a single, absolutely homogeneous community. And a certain commonality within diversity (and vice versa) is one of the strengths of openSUSE. (Similar to the “open source community,” which I have been arguing for a decade really should read “communities.”)

Swapnil Bhartiya: How independent is the openSUSE community?

Gerald Pfeifer: openSUSE is quite independent when it comes to technical questions and many aspects of how to go about things. Where it comes to elements like infrastructure or budget, there is more direct dependency on SUSE, and increasing transparency and influence in those areas is one of the directions I’d like to see this relationship evolve.

Swapnil Bhartiya: The computing landscape is changing, and focus is shifting to emerging technologies like AI/ML, AR/VR, and so on. Is openSUSE looking at those opportunities to build platforms that empower these use cases and workloads?

Gerald Pfeifer: Yes, in that individual groups and developers—some SUSE employees, some not—are looking into those areas and use openSUSE as a rich base for their work. For example, did you know that Kubic is a certified Kubernetes distribution?

No, in that the program management office for openSUSE (which does not exist to begin with—see above) has not identified these as focus areas and is now assigning volunteers, which is not how things work.

But, yes, wearing my hat as a CTO at SUSE, colleagues—and me—are of course looking into our crystal balls, engaging in new technology directions, and working with our distinguished engineers, product management, and engineering teams to pursue those [opportunities]. And what better incubation bed could you imagine than a vivid environment with the rich infrastructure that openSUSE is and has?

I clearly see openSUSE expanding efforts to ensure it remains relevant as a leading platform for emerging use cases, such as AI/ML or edge.

(Spoiler alert: One area I personally will engage in more is machine learning—back to the roots, if you will, having done my Ph.D. around AI.)

Swapnil Bhartiya: What’s the role of openSUSE board chairman?

Gerald Pfeifer: If you look at the openSUSE guiding principles, you won’t find a lot about the role beyond it being a board member that is appointed by SUSE. So part of serving in that the role is finding your own interpretation—your way of living it and contributing.

In addition to acting as a board member like my peers do, there is one aspect I see as my personal focus: bridging—helping to further connect and bridge between openSUSE and “SUSE corporate.” There are a lot of such bridges on the technical side, and SUSE employees who contribute to openSUSE, and personal and working relationships from openSUSE users and contributors towards the SUSE side, which is great. I hope we can grow those and add strong connections between some of my peers on the SUSE side and the board, them and contributors in specific areas, and generally further increase mutual visibility, understanding, and collaboration.

Before accepting this assignment, I had multiple very productive and insightful conversations with Richard [Brown, the outgoing chair], who has done a very fine transition, Thomas Di Giacomo [SUSE president of engineering, product, and innovation], and a few others, which help me understand the current setting, and I’ll keep listening and learning.

What this role is not, to be very clear, is something like a program management office for openSUSE, let alone the CEO of SUSE. And the role of the board, and its chairperson, are different from the role in a commercial entity such as SUSE, not the least since we are largely dealing with volunteers.

Swapnil Bhartiya: As the new chair of the board, do you have some fresh vision for the community?

Gerald Pfeifer: I am not a big fan of me (or anyone else) parachuting in and declaring a new vision. That said, having used, contributed to, and supported openSUSE for many years, even if in the background in many cases, and having been with SUSE for a while, and having had good conversations with many around openSUSE and SUSE, I made some observations that are guiding my original priorities.

In the shorter term I’d like to establish closer connections between colleagues at SUSE responsible for infrastructure, budget, and the like with the board and other openSUSE members, and share, plan, and—where possible—do together.

And I’d like for us to be able to articulate better all the contributions openSUSE provides to SUSE—in terms of Tumbleweed being the evolution on the Linux side, in terms of feedback, in terms of communities, and in terms of new projects and initiatives.

And personally, I plan on using my attendance at the openSUSE.Asia Summit in October to check in with community members from other areas to understand their needs better and, for example, validate my personal experience that high-speed internet is not omnipresent, and some of the approaches that work like a charm for those with cable, DSL, or 4G in Germany or the US simply do not for all our users and contributors.

There surely will be many more things coming up as I have the opportunity to engage more widely and deeply. An underlying theme I see is to help bring groups, communities, openSUSE, and SUSE closer together.

Swapnil Bhartiya: What are your thoughts on the proposed foundation? Why do we need a foundation for openSUSE? What is the purpose and goal of the foundation?

Gerald Pfeifer: I’d argue there is not a strict need for a foundation for openSUSE, though I have heard and understood arguments in favor of one. The one I’ve seen the most is to make it easier for other companies to sponsor hardware, budget, or otherwise.

As with most things, there are pros and cons, and I have not sufficiently dived into the matter to be able to do it fair justice. I absolutely do expect this to be one of the primary areas we will be working on as a board, a community, and a business in the coming months.