October 20, 2006

Organization to pay Debian developers begins work

Author: Bruce Byfield

A month after it was announced, Dunc-Tank, the unofficial organization to fund selected projects in Debian, is on track with its first experiments. The organization has defused active opposition to its experiment within Debian and is now ready to receive donations and to proceed with its plans.

Announced on September 19, Dunc-Tank proposed to begin by paying each of the Debian release managers for one month to ensure the timely release of the next official Debian release in December. The proposal became an immediate source of controversy in the Debian community. A small but vocal minority of Debian developers were philosophically opposed to the idea of payment. Others raised concerns that the involvement of Anthony Towns, the Debian Project Leader, as well as other prominent Debian developers, would cause outsiders to view Dunc-Tank as an official Debian project. The controversy was strong enough that a general resolution on whether Debian should support Dunc-Tank was quickly followed by a second one to recall Towns from his position.

Voting results

Those issues were resolved with the announcements of voting results on October 15. Under Debian's modified Condorcet voting method, which requires that each choice on the ballot meets quorum and defeats every other option, Debian members decided to "Re-affirm DPL, [and] wish success to unofficial Dunc Tank." In a second motion, Debian voted against recalling Towns and to opt for "further discussion" of the idea.

In a third, unrelated general resolution, the project voted for further discussion about the issue of how to handle sourceless firmware in the Linux kernel.

The results "are no surprise to us," says Raphaƫl Hertzog, a Dunc-Tank member. According to Hertzog, the discussion on the debian-private mailing list "showed that most Debian developers were in favor of Dunc-Tank."

The only surprise, Towns says, was "how few people voted for the recall. To be honest, I'd expected more to be in favor of that."

The votes do not give Dunc-Tank uncritical support. In particular, the vote for further discussion of the recall resolution raises the possibility of another vote. However, Towns suggests that the votes amount to tentative approval of Dunc-Tank's first experiment of paying the release managers. "It seems to me that it's well established [that] there's a small minority who are firmly against it," says Towns, "but everyone else is willing to give it a try."

However, according to Hertzog, the results don't "mean that the concerns of the minority needs to be discarded. We'll need further discussion to find a balanced way to run a funding system which doesn't drive some people away."

Despite these sentiments, winning approval from the opponents of Dunc-Tank may be impossible. "It's not that anyone's changed their mind," says Towns. As evidence, he mentions Dunc-Bank, a site that parodies the language on the Dunc-Tank home page, and whose goal is to ensure the failure of the experiment by reporting so many critical bugs that the next Debian release is delayed despite Dunc-Tank's efforts. While Dunc-Bank may actually improve the quality of the release, the bitterness in the Web page's tone suggests that the controversy is unlikely to go away.

Collecting donations

For now, Dunc-Tank is proceeding with its plans, thanks to initial donations from Hewlett-Packard and Xandros. Stephen E. Harris, vice president communications at Xandros, says, "Our primary aims are to assure timely Debian release and to give something back to the community to which we are deeply indebted."

As a result of these donations, Steve Langasek, one of the release managers, began a month of full-time work on the next release on October 12. Langasek plans to keep a record of his progress on his blog. Andreas Barth, the other release manager, will begin his month of full-time employment next month. Towns states that each will receive $6,000 for their work.

Originally, Dunc-Tank hoped to collection donations through Software in the Public Interest (SPI), the non-profit organization whose task includes collecting donations to Debian. However, Hertzog says, "SPI was unable to make a decision in a timely manner."

Instead, Dunc-Tank accepted an offer from Russ Nelson, a board member of the Open Source Initiative, to collect donations through The Public Software Fund. In addition, Dunc-Tank is also accepting donations through Network for Good. Details of how to contribute are given on the Dunc-Tank site.

The long view

Whether Dunc-Tank will continue after this first experiment is still undecided. "We currently have no plans to expand our activities until we decide how we want to continue," says Hertzog.

One alternative, Towns suggests, might be to encourage donors to contribute through the Public Software Fund, which allows contributors to earmark their money for specific purposes. He suggests that this alternative might silence some of the minor criticisms of Dunc-Tank, such as the suggestion that its first experiment was too narrow and a system that gave donors more choice of what they could support would be more acceptable to Debian members.

"There are quite a few other challenges," Towns adds, "particularly in working out what the consequences of this whole issue have been, and working out what to do after this [experiment] is done. We'll hopefully be able to keep working on over the next few months."

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.


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