May 13, 2008

New Fedora 9 makes waves by emphasizing contributors

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Fedora distribution has a reputation for innovation, and the new Fedora 9, released today, is no exception. With features that range from easy filesystem encryption to support for the ext4 format, it includes a wide range of features that are likely to become standard in other distributions in the next six months. But for Paul W. Frields, who became Fedora project leader in February, what distinguishes the release is less the technology than the community that supports it, and how the technology contributes to the larger free software world.

Frields has worked on releases before, but Fedora 9 is the first one since he became project leader. The process has been a bit of a revelation to him about how the community works. As a contributor, he says, "You tend to put your head down and work on your specific area to the exclusion of others. What I find myself doing now is exactly the opposite. My aperture widens as we get closer to the release, and I start casting about into different groups."

What is a surprise to Frields is that, in the last week before the release, "There's not a lot of fires to put out. What I've found is that there's a lot of prep work that's done on a fairly routine basis. A lot of processes have been smoothed out. It's a bit of an insult to my Type-A personality," he adds wryly.

"We have a really great tool set that's been developed over several releases. I don't think we've changed any of the inner processes to a huge extent, and that may mean that we're starting to find a good balance for releases."

Community growth

Frields suggests that another reason for the efficient release process is that the Fedora community is starting to reach a robust maturity. The project now boasts more than 2,000 contributors -- roughly the same number as Red Hat employees. More importantly, while in the past Fedora has been seen as dominated by Red Hat, less than a quarter of its contributors are Red Hat employees now, and only a third of the package maintainers. "That's really showing how the community has gathered around Fedora and is finding it a good place to contribute to open source," Frields says.

Frields attributes part of this community growth to a revision of the process to join the community. In the past, joining Fedora required applicants to download and return a contributor's agreement and to generate a privacy key. "That was a really onerous demand to require of someone who only wants to edit the wiki to add some tips or who wants to donate some marketing work," he says. By contrast, since the process was revised in the last couple of months, "Now, if you go to our setup page, [joining is] literally a couple of mouse clicks and filling out a few text fields, and it's about as easy as joining any social network site." In the next few months, the process should become even more streamlined, when the project site converts to a new wiki based on MediaWiki, and a single sign-on process gives contributors access to the entire system.

Another reason for growth in the Fedora community is the expansion of the Fedora Ambassadors program, whose members evangelize for the project. According to Frields, in the last year, the number of ambassadors has gone from 191 to 353 -- an increase of almost 85%.

Special attention, too, has been given to recruiting contributors from outside North America. To help organize what Frields calls "a huge increase in our European community," Max Spevack, the previous project leader, has become a community leader for Europe as well as the Middle East and Africa, where he will become an advisor for new Fedora groups. A similar hire has just been made in the Asia Pacific area, while South America also seems a hotbed of interest.

"In Brazil, it's almost frightening how eager people are to get involved in free and open source software," Frields says. "There's a real do-it-yourself mentality that lends itself well to projects like Fedora."

To ease recruitment even further, plans are underway to help new contributors get up to speed with a mentor program. Noting research that shows that "mentoring works really well when there's a rigorous schedule to back it up," Frields says that plans are underway to have volunteer mentors available by IRC and possibly phone at set hours, "so that contributors know where to find them."

Other initiatives for community growth are planned with North Carolina State University and Seneca College in Canada. Working with members of the university communities, Fedora is developing programs that are not only an end in themselves, but also intended to become the core of "a viable, scalable open source curriculum," Frields says. "The idea is not just to teach open source at these universities, but to make sure that the curriculum is free and open and can be propagated to any university in the world and used openly and freely by the staff there."

Students in both existing programs are being encouraged to become involved with Fedora, not just as an end in itself, but as a way of introducing them to the larger free software community. "Fedora covers so much software in our official repositories that there's a lot of communities to be found there," Frields says. The hope is that students "can use Fedora to find an upstream community that they're interested in."

Making waves

Frields and the rest of the Fedora community see community contributions as so important that the concept has even become the core of marketing for the new release. Plans for promoting the new release center around slogans that refer to its new Waves theme, and, already references to "making waves" are becoming common on the project site.

"You're going to see us talking a lot about Fedora as a prime mover for generating a culture of contributors," Frields says.

The importance of contribution is being stressed so much that Fedora is even using the concept to define the technological innovations of the release, and, with them, Fedora's relation to the rest of free software. While Frields talks with pride about Fedora's reputation for being the first with new features, he quickly adds, "Which is not to say that we're not pleased that other people inherit the changes, because that's the entire idea. That's the notion of open source. We're overjoyed when people love new features, even if they're not using them in Fedora. We love to see these things in use, because all of them are pushing the state of free and open source software into the future and out ahead of the proprietary model."

That, in the end, is what Fedora is all about for Frields -- by contributing to Fedora, project participants contribute to free software as a whole. Talking about the differences between free and proprietary software, he says, "It's easy to generate a culture of consumers. You can pretty much give everybody everything they want and encourage them to use your products. But it's quite another to drive open source and urge people to become contributors.

"And that's what we really want to do. Fedora as a whole is very passionate about creating opportunities for people do something in open source to make an impact, no matter what walk of life they come from -- whether they're a software developer, a marketing professional, an artist, a musician, a writer, whatever the case may be. So I think that's a really apt metaphor for us of making waves."

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