November 10, 2006

Report from the Ubuntu Developer Summit

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Mountain View, Calif. -- Ubuntu developers and other interested parties from all over the world have swarmed to Google's offices in Mountain View this week for the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) to plan out the next release of Ubuntu.

In total, about 140 people have registered for the summit. According to Jane Silber, Canonical's COO, only 30 of the attendees are actually employed by Canonical, the company that sponsors Ubuntu. The remainder of the participants include members of the Ubuntu community, representatives of upstream projects, and other parties who have an interest in how Ubuntu is developed. I've talked to members of the Software Freedom Day project, the Linux Terminal Server Project, several Sun employees, and (of course) a few folks from Google who've dropped in to observe.

Some developers only drop in for a day or two to discuss specifications that are of particular interest to them. For example, Josh Berkus of the PostgreSQL team was in on Wednesday to talk about improving PostgreSQL performance out of the box on Ubuntu, and Keith Packard of is scheduled to be around on Friday to talk about some of the proposed specs for in Ubuntu 7.04, codenamed Feisty Fawn.

How the process works

The developer summit is primarily a chance for developers to hash out ideas and write specs for new features or behavior in the distribution or the community. Aside from a bit of time at the beginning and end of the day that is reserved for announcements and short presentations, the summit is entirely devoted to discussion and heads-down work on specifications for upcoming Ubuntu releases, or for the governance of the Ubuntu community.

Developers propose specifications on Launchpad, and then proposals are scheduled for Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions that last about one hour. From there, proposals can be pushed back for further discussion, or approved and sent on to have a specification written. After the specification is written, it is sent to review, and then on to implementation if it passes review.

Though many developers have made the trek to Mountain View, remote participation is encouraged. VoIP dial-in is available for each of the sessions, and developers are using the Gobby collaborative text editor to write up notes for each meeting. There's no substitute for being at UDS in person, but the Ubuntu folks have tried to accommodate the developers who couldn't make it.

I've sat in on a few of the BoF sessions, and it's interesting to see how much thought goes into each feature. For example, I sat in on a session Wednesday about improving audio codec support for Ubuntu. About 20 developers were in on the session to talk about how to make it easier to provide support for popular codecs with minimal fuss on the user's part.

For legal reasons, the easiest technical solution -- just shipping everything that's available -- is out. Instead, the developers are trying to find a way to allow users to download codecs on demand, and let the users sort out the legal issues. This requires a fair amount of planning, since the solution has to work in GNOME, KDE, and Xfce.

Ubuntu is, as far as I know, unique in providing this level of influence and access to developers outside the project. While Debian is a community-oriented distribution, influence is largely relegated to members of the project only, and there's no central planning session for Debian releases. Fedora and openSUSE allow for some community involvement, but are largely directed by Red Hat and Novell, respectively -- and Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Linux Enterprise are entirely shaped by the engineering teams at those companies.

This is not to say that Ubuntu is a free-for-all. Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's self-appointed benevolent dictator for life, says that Feisty development will be a 50/50 mix between features dictated to the development team by Canonical, and community driven features.

Interesting new features

The final list of features for Feisty isn't set yet, but there have been some interesting discussions so far.

As I mentioned, it looks likely that it will be easier for users to get multimedia codecs "on demand" in Feisty, which will a great relief for many users. Work is also being done to deal with the "audio jumble" problem where different sound systems or programs "fight" for access to sound.

The spec is not finished yet, but it looks like PulseAudio is going to replace the Enlightened Sound Daemon (ESD) as the first step towards harmonizing access to sound so that multiple programs can all chirp, beep, and ooze sound out of your sound card simultaneously without the dreaded "cannot access /dev/dsp" error.

Shuttleworth has indicated that desktop effects, via Beryl, will be a high priority for Feisty. Also, it looks like Ubuntu will be going a bit further in shipping binary drivers in the Feisty release. At present, Ubuntu includes some binary blobs to support wireless cards and some other devices -- but the non-free Nvidia drivers, for example, are not enabled by default.

Shuttleworth says that Feisty will include the binary drivers by default to provide users with the best performance, but he also wants to educate users about free vs. non-free drivers and alternative hardware that does have free drivers available.

Today is the final day of the UDS. If you're in the Mountain View area and have an interest in Ubuntu development, sign up on the wiki and head on down. I'll be there to cover the final day of discussions, and we'll have several interviews with Ubuntu developers and a more detailed overview of features to be found in Feisty next week.


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