June 14, 2005

Debian: Where <strike>should we</strike>we should go from here<strike>?</strike>

Author: Ian Murdock

Debian sarge has finally been released -- now what? If you ask me (and you didn't, but I'm going to tell you anyway), Debian should have two overarching priorities for the next release: 1. putting a timed release cycle in place, so what happened with sarge never happens again; and 2. keeping the growing family of Debian derivatives united around a common core -- namely, Debian itself. What's at stake? If we don't do something about both of these problems, actual and potential, Debian will be irrelevant by the time etch is out.

Debian is one of exactly three Linux distributions that have global reach today (Red Hat and Novell/SUSE are the other two). In terms of mindshare, user base, and almost everything else that matters, Debian is a strong number 2, well ahead of SUSE in most places (even, it appears, Germany) and behind Red Hat only in the U.S. and perhaps a few other (albeit important) places. SUSE is often thought of as the number 2 in commercial circles, but this is mainly because the industry isn't quite sure how to interface with the real number 2. Until it figures out how to do that (hint: we should be helping), the industry needs an alternative, any alternative, to keep Red Hat honest. Not exactly the strongest market position, and it's beginning to show too. Unequivocally, this means Debian's potential is enormous; unfortunately, a big part of that potential remains untapped.

How, then, do we tap it? Let's start by looking at what makes Debian unique.

First of all (and this is the obvious part), Debian is a non-commercial, community project, which means it isn't owned or controlled by a commercial interest. As such, Debian is an embodiment of what made Linux what it is today: openness, vendor neutrality, and community. It's a reminder of where we all came from. It keeps the industry honest. Or, in the words of IBM and HP executives, it's "the core of the Linux community" and a vendor-neutral "arbiter... to make sure everybody plays nice." Sure, Debian isn't entirely unique in this respect (there are, after all, other community distros, most notably Slackware and Gentoo). However, combined with its popularity, Debian's "non-commercial, community project" status makes it a force to be reckoned with. In other words, Debian may not be the only global player, and it may not be the only non-commercial, community project, but it's the only global player that's also a non-commercial, community project.

Second, Debian is less an operating system and more a collection of compatible software. (Note the word compatible -- that will be important later.) Red Hat, SUSE, and the other distros are much more like traditional operating systems: monolithic, vertically integrated, one-size-fits-all products. Because Debian is modular by design (it had to be, or it wouldn't have been possible to subdivide the work among many distributed developers), it's an excellent foundation for "value-added" Linux distros, and we've seen numerous of these distros emerge over the years: Corel, Stormix, Progeny, Linspire, Xandros, Knoppix, LinEx, Skolelinux, MEPIS, and Ubuntu, to name but a few. In fact, it's safe to say the vast majority of all distributions today are derived either from Debian or from Red Hat, and because the Red Hat derivatives have long ago splintered into manydifferentandincompatiblevarieties, it's also safe to say Debian is truly unique among distros not because it's the basis of so many derivatives, but because those derivatives are, after all these years, still compatible with each other.

Debian's popularity as a base distro goes beyond technology. In many ways, Debian facilitates the Linux equivalent of "think globally, act locally." With Debian, governments and nonprofit organizations can launch projects like LinEx and Skolelinux that focus on meeting local needs the big vendors might not otherwise have the capacity, expertise, or interest to address, yet do so in a way that connects them into a larger, global community so their local focus doesn't make them an island. Companies like Progeny, Linspire, and Ubuntu can build upon the strength and momentum of an open, global platform, allowing them to focus on bringing new and innovative products to market without fear the underlying platform vendor that makes it all possible will go out of business or, worse, be acquired by a competitor. In short, because Debian allows organizations of all kinds to "stand on the shoulders of giants," Linux is making inroads into geographies and markets that would otherwise be underserved. Would Red Hat or Novell have been interested in cornering the market in Extremadura, Spain? I doubt it. Yet Linux is changing everything in Extremadura, as it is in a lot of places.

To me, these observations point the way to an answer to our question. First of all, we need to make it easier for the industry to interface with us. That means we need a predictable release cycle, one that results in a new Debian stable every 12 or 18 months. It also means we need to take the industry's needs seriously, which in turn means we need to better engage the ISVs, IHVs, and OEMs that want to support Debian but aren't quite sure how to do it. They want to engage us, not just because we're a global player, but because we're a non-commercial, community project. Yet when I bring this up in Debian circles, the reaction I almost always get is similar to the following: "Why do we need <insert proprietary application here>? We already have <insert open source alternative here>." The answer is simple: we need it because a lot of our potential users need it (or at least think they need it -- why argue with them about that?).

Fortunately, there's an existing effort that already enjoys broad industry support whose sole mission is to provide a single, vendor neutral ISV/IHV/OEM interface to the Linux world, namely the Linux Standards Base, so we don't have to go it alone here. All we have to do is work more closely with the LSB folks. Let's face it. Our track record to date with the LSB hasn't exactly been stellar. Let's change that and work with the LSB to make Debian a vendor-neutral implementation of the LSB standard. It's got the mindshare and user base to make a reference implementation a reality and give the LSB some real punch.

Second, we need to tap into Debian's most unique asset, namely the collective power of the Debian derivatives. On their own, the derivatives aren't significant players; but, taken as a group, they dwarf the individual leaders (Red Hat and Novell), and they've got breadth a single company couldn't dream of having on its own even with billions of dollars of cash to market vertically oriented solutions or open hundreds of branch offices in different parts of the world.

Debian's opportunity, then, is to connect the derivatives into the powerful, global force they have the potential to become, to nurture a sort of "network of peers" approach to service and support to replace the traditional, vertically integrated model that's being used by today's leading commercial vendors. Of course, this opportunity can only be recognized to the extent the global fabric that connects these local communities is strong, and it cannot be strong if we don't have a common, compatible foundation. Predictable releases are a requirement, because in the absence of a common, compatible foundation that has a clearly articulated roadmap, each of the derivatives will necessarily have to go its own way -- something that is already happening. We need a commitment on the part of the derivatives to work with the larger Debian community and make sure fragmentation doesn't happen. Personally, wearing my Progeny hat, I'm willing to make this commitment, and I hope my peers at the other Debian derivatives are willing to do so as well.

Ian Murdock founded Debian in 1993 and led the project from its inception to 1996. He is co-founder, chairman, and chief strategist of Progeny. This article was originally published on Ian's blog and is reprinted here with his permission.

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