January 4, 2005

Interview: Debian Project Leader Martin Michlmayr

Author: Bruno Torres

In this interview, Martin Michlmayr, the Debian project leader, talks about Sarge, the next release of Debian GNU/Linux. One of the most significant improvements in Sarge over Woody, the last stable Debian release, is in the new user-friendly installer. Others include the addition of Apache 2.0.52, GNOME 2.8, KDE 3.2, and XFree86 4.3.

Debian supports 11 hardware architectures. According to Michlmayr the system is very stable, and only some infrastructure issues need to be addressed before the release.

NewsForge: Introduce yourself and tell us a little about your work in Debian GNU/Linux.

Martin Michlmayr: My name is Martin Michlmayr and I'm 25 years old. I've participated in a number of free software projects and I joined Debian several years ago. I'm mainly involved in quality assurance as well as various coordination
activities. In March 2003 I was elected Debian Project Leader and I'm in my second term now. Debian is a very large and complex project with around 1,000 developers and over 10,000 packages, and the project therefore needs lots of coordination.

I've also been involved in other areas in Debian. For example, I've been helped porting our new debian-installer to various MIPS sub-architectures, such as Cobalt machines. In addition to my work on Debian, I'm a PhD student at the University of Cambridge investigating quality management in free software and open source projects.
The aim of my research is to further improve quality found in free software projects.

NF: Debian-installer was broken until recently. Is it now working well?

MM: Yes, debian-installer is working very nicely now on all architectures that we support.

NF: What are the most important features of the new installer?

MM: We heard for years that Debian is hard to install and the old
installer wasn't very easy to maintain or advance, so we we decided to throw
the installer away and start from scratch. The new installer is much more modular, which makes it easier to maintain and extend. From the user's point of view, the new installer is much easier to use. It asks fewer questions than the old one, does automatic hardware detection, and has several other new features, such as automatic detection of other operating system on your machine. It also supports RAID and LVM.

NF: And what about a GUI installer?

MM: There has been some work on a GUI for the installer but one won't be released with Sarge.

We support 11 architectures and obviously we first create a system which works on all of them. Also, I don't believe our text (framebuffer) based system has many usability drawbacks compared to a GUI installer. Having said that, we're aware that many people are interested in a graphical installer and certain languages like Thai might even require this.

We have chosen a very generic system (debconf) for our installer
which makes it easy to add new front ends. A graphical front end is one of
the major points on the to-do list for further development after Sarge.

NF: Would you agree that debconf is one of the biggest differentiators between Debian and other distributions?

MM: Debconf is a very nice system that allows packages to interact with users in a standard way. It's certainly one of the good examples of integration,
something Debian is known for.

NF: Will Debian Sarge be a good choice for desktop users?

MM: Linux in general and Debian have made lots of progress in the last few years and they are to some extent certainly suitable for desktop use. I
wouldn't recommend Debian on the desktop for people who are new to Linux,
but it's perfectly suited for people who have some experience with Linux or
have an admin who takes care of their machine. The question, of course, is
whether we will release timely updates after Sarge is out.

The desktop is very important for us and we know that our current release cycle is just too slow. We are currently discussing moving to time-based releases (the model which, for example, GNOME follows and in which a release is made every n months according to a very thorough and well-planned schedule). Obviously, the big question is how often we should release, and here we have to take two conflicting requirements into account. The server people don't want to upgrade too often, while many (but certainly not all) desktop users want to see frequent releases. At the moment, a 12- to 18-month
cycle is in discussion. We are also working on security support for our testing distribution, which will allow people who want cutting-edge but tested software to use testing.

NF: What kernel will Sarge use by default? Will it be like Woody, with two versions (2.4 and 2.6, in the case of Sarge) from which the user can choose?

MM: The default kernel depends on the architecture. While 2.6 is the default for PowerPC, we have decided to stay with 2.4 for i386. However, you can
easily choose 2.6 by booting the linux26 option. Installations with both
kernels are well supported and tested.

NF: Why 2.4 for i386? Don't you think 2.6 is stable enough?

MM: 2.4 is much more widely tested and known to be stable. 2.6 is getting quite reliable too but is still much more of a moving target. In any case, both 2.4 and 2.6 are officially supported and it's very easy to choose.

NF: Will we be able to install Debian in a JFS, XFS, or even Reiser4 filesystem, or are these filesystems too experimental at the moment to be supported by the installer?

MM: We support JFS, XFS, and Reiser3. We will not support Reiser4 as part of our official kernel or installer since it has been vetoed by the Linux kernel developers. However, we supply a kernel patch package for it with which users can easily build their own kernel if they need this filesystem.

NF: Which will be the versions of the most commonly used packages included in Sarge, especially Apache, GNOME, KDE, and X?

MM: We will supply Apache 1.3.33 as well as 2.0.52 and KDE 3.2 and GNOME 2.8.

NF: Will it use XFree or X.org?

MM: Our X is based on XFree 4.3 (the latest free version) with a very high number of patches taken from both the X.org and XFree86 trees. We'll fully move to X.org after Sarge.

NF: When will we be able to celebrate Sarge's release?

MM: There's currently no date for the release. There are a number of show-stoppers related to our infrastructure which we have to sort out before
we can make a release. We hope Sarge will come out near the beginning of the

NF: How many CDs will be needed to install a complete Debian suite, including KDE/GNOME?

MM: I think most of KDE and GNOME will be on the first CD.

NF: Will Sarge include rp-pppoe? In Brazil it's very popular and people are not likely to use Debian's pppoeconf.

MM: Yes, it will be included and it is actually part of Woody too. The source package is called rp-pppoe but the binary package we ship is called pppoe.

NF: Why is exim the default Debian MTA, instead of more well-known applications, such as postfix?

MM: Exim is a robust system which is very easy to configure and supports many different configurations. At the time the default MTA was evaluated and
exim chosen, postfix was not ready. It's certainly a good alternative now but it doesn't offer enough advantages to make it worthwhile to change the default again.

NF: Why not using udev by default when the user chooses the 2.6 kernel?

MM: A large number of changes have to be made to the init scripts for good udev integration. This is something for the next release after Sarge.

NF: I think there should be framebuffer options in the installation boot prompt, something like choosing resolution. I had to type linux26 vga=791. Do you plan to put resolution options in the boot menu?

MM: Debian-installer works very well in the default resolution; putting in too many options would confuse users. You should use the command line option.


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