July 30, 2004

OSCON highlights new kind of community, componentized Linux, and GNOME desktop

Author: Jay Lyman

OSCON, Portland, Ore -- Talk of a new type of software development community that spills into more traditional communities such as towns, churches and country clubs was matched with a new kind of pick-and-choose, componentized Linux distribution, and renewed efforts to push Gnome to desktop success at OSCON's second to last day.

Open source innovator and HP Linux CTO Bdale Garbee, while defining "community" and "development," noted how interesting it is that the dictionary definition of development now includes the process of creating software. Garbee, a former Debian project leader and Unix pro, sang the praises of amateurs and asked whether anyone could have predicted the results of a side-activity project from a guy named Linus Torvalds.

Showing a black and white picture of two turn-of-the-century gentlemen that no one could identify, Garbee made is point by showing the two men, who turned out to be brothers, with their personal project -- an airplane.

"People are surprised when something comes from amateurs because not many people recognize what they can do," Garbee said.

The first-to-flight theme was repeated as Garbee, who worked on an early satellite communications processor and other technology, referenced modern rocketry founder Robert Goddard and early amateur satellite efforts.

"These were things these people were doing with their hands and going out and affecting the world around them," Garbee said.

The same kind of amateur, ground up, volunteer efforts taking place in open source today have the potential to drive equally significant innovation in software and impact in real life communities, Garbee said.

Using the Debian project as an "easy" example, Garbee said a social contract with users, a constitution, and a process for making decisions and handling conflicts when people cannot do it themselves were all critical components to a working, progressing development community.

"It's one of the best community development models that has emerged out of Linux kernel work," Garbee said of Debian. "You've got 1,300 plus people involved in making a completely insane amount of software that is available on Debian servers."

Referring to international efforts such as a program for 80,000 Linux desktops in schools of Extremadura, Spain, Garbee also said the successful community approach often "goes beyond the basis of how we think about business, in North America particularly."

Barbee also praised the emergence of an environment where companies such as HP can work with competitors such as IBM, as well as communities, to promote the overall industry and its successful ideas.

"We're getting a chance to work together out in the open to build a base that all businesses can benefit from without having to be at each other's throats all the time, which is a beautiful thing."

In discussing a new distribution model for Linux, Progeney's Jeff Licquia, a main Debian developer, filled in for Debian creator Ian Murdock, telling session attendees about a componentized Linux that will hopefully make putting together a Linux distribution much easier.

Licquia explained that a component model allows for richer dependency relationships among components, rather than the "whack-a-mole" approach of writing and modifying, finding compatibility issues, then writing and modifying, then finding compatibility issues, and writing and modifying and, you know. This process, similar to the popular pop-up game at children's pizza parlors and fairs, is not to be confused with Wackamole, a high-availability tool used to build N-way IP failover that is open source and was the featured topic for another OSCON session.

Back on componentized Linux, "Integration issues are often the serious work that goes on in a distribution to make sure it is working together," Licquia said, adding that as software becomes more complex, the component interactions explode.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, Licquia said a goal of a componentized Linux is to offer the best choices, but not all possible combinations.

While he said Progeny is by no means contending it has all of the answers on component compatibility, the company is proposing a process whereby some of the choices are made for those putting distributions together, according to Licquia. He did indicate that this was one point of disagreement between himself and Murdock.

Benefits of the componentized approach include ready-made subsets of components for builders that make building a case of simple "subsetting," Licquia said. The componentized Linux would also make the release cycle more predictable and would allow small, independent pieces to evolve independently, without the requirement of an entire new distro with a few new features.

Licquia also called on conference attendees and other developers to get involved and offer their thoughts and ideas on the componentized approach.

This one was a discussion of the past, present, and future of the GNOME Project by Jeff Waugh, who spent some of the discussion cursing and praising Mac OSX. However, Waugh's Apple animosity was well outweighed by enthusiasm for changes in GNOME, which is scheduled for a new release September 15 in version 2.8. Among tools and features to look forward to in the free desktop stack are an Evolution Dataserver that allows greater use of calendar and contact data, and project Utopia for better hardware support.

"It's maddening when we lose GNOME developers to OSX, because it works," Waugh said. "Everything just magically works. That's kind of what we want to get to."

Waugh said although the project comes under fire for trying to appeal to a least common denominator (LCD) in new users rather than delivering loyalty to experienced users, GNOME's developers would like to make the project friendly to both.

"We want to focus on the human issues that apply to both," Waugh said.

The GNOME developer also answered a question on the GNOME fork, telling about 60 attendees in the Marriott's Mt. Hood Room that the fork came from an individual with a few years experience and little trust from others in the project. Although he said that fork was not going anywhere, Waugh put out a solicitation for a GNOME fork "for big reasons."

"I really encourage you to do so," he said.

While he noted in a mild accent that 8 percent of the world's open source developers come from Australia, Waugh tempted those looking forward to the Novell-sponsored free beer at the hotel bar when he told the group in closing that Aussies don't drink Foster's. Apparently, in reality, it's Coopers that is Australian for beer, at least good beer.


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