Stories of Linux: Interview with Ian Murdock on Debian’s Early Days


Debian LogoIf you want to look at the history of Linux, you can hardly escape talking about Debian. Debian has played a major role as part of the Linux ecosystem, and it’d be hard to imagine what the world would look like without it. But it wasn’t always a major player — in fact, Debian wasn’t even the first Linux distribution. But Debian founder Ian Murdock did things a bit differently, and that has made all the difference.

Debian’s history is surprisingly well-documented. The project was founded in 1993, not long after Slackware Linux, but with a much different model of development. Debian started with the Debian Manifesto. (Folks were fond of manifestos in the early days of free software.)

Like Slackware, Debian was a reaction to low-quality Linux distributions (in particular, Softlanding Linux System or SLS). Murdock said that Debian’s focus would be “on providing a first-class product and not on profits or returns.” Linux was a long way from being a “first-class product” in 1993. Murdock says that Linux “was not that good from a technology perspective… I remember moving files between file systems, and large files would routinely cause kernel panics.”

However, the quality of Linux was dwarfed by its potential and its immediate, and free, availability. “I remember like everyone else, my motivation was to solve a problem that I had, I wanted a UNIX to run at home, I was in college and didn’t have the money to buy SCO Unix or Coherent, even $99 was a bridge too far for me at the time.”

Even though everyone thought that the GNU Hurd, the GNU Project’s kernel that never quite lived up to expectations, would be ready “imminently” Linux was available now. And it was not encumbered by the legal issues that were holding up 386BSD. Murdock recounts that its developer William Jolitz “held it very close to the vest,” while Linux had an “active, vibrant community.”

Another piece of Debian history that many don’t know is that Murdock’s early work on Debian was sponsored by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Murdock was sponsored by the FSF for about a year between 1994 and late 1995, and says that the FSF was “enormously helpful” in getting Debian off the ground. Murdock eventually left the FSF to finish his degree.

Despite the FSF connection, Murdock says that the broader perception of Debian as 100% free software from day one “isn’t true.” In part this can be traced to later developments like Debian’s Social Contract and the Debian Free Software Guidelines — but those happened during Bruce Perens’ tenure, not while Murdock was at the helm.

Debian was mostly free software, but primarily because “just about everything, with a few counter-examples like CDE and Motif, were free software.” In the mid-90s, the software one would find on Linux was almost exclusively under free software licenses. But Murdock says that “that’s very much something that’s evolved over time. In some ways, it’s been a hindrance, to be honest.”

To this day, Debian carries some reminders of its association with the FSF — for example, Debian is still known as “Debian GNU/Linux,” rather than simply “Debian Linux.” Today, Murdock says that he “abhors” the term GNU/Linux, but at the time it made sense. “Even before I worked for the FSF, Richard [Stallman] called me one evening and said ‘I’m concerned about fragmentation, and I’d like to make a statement that Linux is part of the larger GNU Project.”

Murdock says that at the time, fragmentation was a major concern. “There was the libc at the time was a fork from glibc, there were a few other examples — the Linux community had taken GNU software and ran with it, and were not doing a particularly good job of coordinating with upstream GNU maintainers… who couldn’t move quickly enough given the pace with which Linux was evolving. Some just gave up on coordinating as a result of that.”

As a result, Murdock says that “I thought his argument was reasonable, and I thought his concern about fragmentation was quite valid, so I said ‘sure.'” But things have changed, says Murdock. “The reason I abhor the term now, it has very clearly been rejected by the larger community. To insist on continuing to call it something the larger community doesn’t use, it seems to me to be a bit pointless.”

The good news, however, is that the fragmentation that was considered a problem then has since been fixed.

Of Packaging and Crowdsourcing

Debian is widely known for its package management system, dpkg and the APT utilities. What you may not know is why they exist. When asked how he feels about Debian now, Murdock says that it has had an “enormous impact,” and notes that he’s most proud of “the realization that we had earlier than anyone else I’m aware of. What was truly interesting about Linux was not the technology, but the development model.

“Debian wasn’t the first project to adopt a distributed development model, Linux had stumbled on it on a larger scale, GNU [projects were] usually a handful of people… Debian’s goal was to package the process, make it available to larger numbers of people. Early on we made the decision, it was going to be a community driven effort, that was the motivation behind package system in the first place. Not to make things easier to manage, it was a software development mechanism, so we could chunk up the system into pieces and different people in different places could build those pieces. The package system had other wonderful properties, but it was a software development mechanism… we were the first intentional community development project. Linux was, of course, accidental, and we did it at a larger scale than the GNU project had ever done.”

Further, Murdock says that if you look at the model for Debian, it has spread far beyond Linux. “Take that model and process, abstract away from software development, that’s what’s referred to today as crowdsourcing, same model that Wikipedia uses. Anything else constructed by many many hands. Linux has had an enormous impact on the world.

“There’d be no Google. Everything that has happened on the Web would have, at best, happened far more slowly. The economics of Linux were what made it possible to do those things at such large scale. Obviously that’s been an enormous impact Linux has had on the world. More than that, this notion, rewind 18 years (20 years for Linux) think about how ridiculous it would have seemed at the time… the notion that a disconnected, uncoordinated, non-economically motivated group of people could build something as complex as an operating system or an encyclopedia.”