May 9, 2008

Ubuntu Open Week unites community and developers

Author: Lisa Hoover

What's the next best thing for Linux users who can't attend an open source community conference in person? Online workshops like last week's Ubuntu Open Week, where upwards of 300 participants per session showed up to learn more about the popular Linux distribution, the community, and its teams.

Organizers presented more than 40 events in a dedicated IRC channel over the course of six days. Session leaders spoke to the group in the "Ubuntu classroom" while a second channel was devoted to collecting questions from the group. This kept the learning channel free of chatter and allowed the speaker to proceed without interruption. As each presentation progressed, the moderator in the chatter-channel relayed questions to the speaker, who answered as many as time in the hour-long sessions permitted. At the end of each session the presentation was logged, and all workshops are now available for review on the Ubuntu Open Week wiki.

On the first day of the conference, there was a great deal of conversation about reporting and triaging bugs, and attendees also got a chance to learn a bit about the Bugsquad team. Community member Brian Murray defined exactly what constitutes a bug and gave an overview on how to use Ubuntu's bug tracking system. He also made a point of noting that using the system properly is the key to getting your bug fixed quickly and correctly.

Additionally, Murray answered questions about how to know when to report a bug to the Bugsquad and when to report it to the software developers instead. "Ubuntu contains a lot of software that isn't developed by the distribution, so this is a very relevant question," he said. "Let's consider Inkscape for example. The package we ship can be slightly different from the upstream version. So, if you have the bug with Ubuntu's version of Inkscape, the bug should be reported to Launchpad about the Inkscape package in Ubuntu. Then you could forward the bug to the Inkscape upstream project. Ideally, this should be done after confirming that the bug exists in the upstream version of Inkscape. Otherwise we are causing unnecessary work for the upstream developers."

On day two, Ubuntu Community Team member Daniel Holbach gave an in-depth tutorial on how to package software, followed by a presentation from Nicolas Valcárcel on package merging. Valcárcel said, "To merge a package is to take the Debian package and include on it the Ubuntu changes but, not all changes. We need to check if the Ubuntu changes [haven't] been already included on Debian. That happens often since in Ubuntu we are thankful with Debian, and send the patches back to them so they can also take [notice] of our work."

Other hotly attended workshops included sessions on KDE 4, virtualization, packaging Firefox extensions, and producing podcasts in Ubuntu. Community Manager Jono Bacon held a session fielding questions about the current state of the project and how many people use the various flavors of Ubuntu. "Its impossibly difficult to tell the number of installations," he said. "Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Edubuntu are free software, so anyone could install it on any machine, and so it's difficult to give decent figures. We have got millions of users all over the world though, that's for sure."

One of the most crowded sessions was the Q&A with Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth. He said that strong community support makes Ubuntu a viable option for businesses, and he sees that as the next logical phase of the project. The first discussions about the next goals for Ubuntu are expected to take place at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Prague later this month, and Shuttleworth noted, "Things I expect to be on the table are: pervasive networking, roaming from 3G to WiFi and WiMax or Bluetooth. Desktop technology investments -- I think we need to look at energising GNOME, and perhaps Ubuntu / Canonical can help. Virtualisation, based on KVM or Xen, focused on the use of Ubuntu in the cloud. Mobile, mobile Internet devices, and smartphones -- and of course a bunch more. I'm willing to make an investment in upstream development on the desktop now, if I can see a vision articulated by developers that I believe can actually deliver it, which will put Linux ahead of the Mac or Windows in terms of experience."

Behind the scenes

Ubuntu Community Team member Jorge Castro says that although Open Week ran smoothly, there was a lot of activity going on before -- and during -- the presentations. He spent a month deciding what type of sessions to hold based on feedback from past Open Week events. He also asked for community opinions in IRC and the forums. "For example, this time we heard loud and clear that people were interested in packaging Python applications (not just a generic packaging talk), so Emilio Monfort volunteered to run that session, and we made a point to invite as many people from the Python community to come and participate."

Once speaker slots are filled, public announcements are made, and volunteers are lined up to handle the IRC channel details like voicing the speakers and updating the topics, and putting session transcripts on the wiki page. "We've run Open Weeks in the past, so it's mostly automatic. Our volunteers do such an awesome job that it all runs very smoothly," Castro says.

Event organizers say Open Week is a great way is a great way for Ubuntu teams to showcase what they do and garner interest in specific tasks within the project. Castro says, "Open Week lets people get a glimpse of what teams in Ubuntu do in one event. From there users can join the teams in the individual channels to continue asking questions. Since Ubuntu is so large, the advantage is that people can pick and choose topics they want to listen in on and ask questions in real time. A good portion of people just read the logs to each session to learn more about that area.

"There is not enough time to cover each topic in detail, so Open Week is like taking a sip from the huge Ubuntu firehose, but there is enough that can be done in an hour to get someone pointed in the right direction for getting involved. I've been using Ubuntu for four years and I still learn something new in nearly every session."

One of the biggest advantages to Open Week is how it strengthens the community. Castro says people using Ubuntu are willing and eager to help, but don't always know where to get started. They're often overwhelmed by what seem like monumental tasks or the sheer size of the project. Open Week gives community members a way to learn a little bit about the different ways they can volunteer and find a good fit between their skills and the project's needs.

Open Week also serves as a way for the teams and users to get on the same page and
work together more efficiently. "For example," says Castro, "the 'Reporting Bugs' and 'Ubuntu Bugsquad + Triaging Bugs' sessions are meant to teach people how to file better bug reports, and how to help triage them so developers can fix them. This is relatively straightforward, but it makes it easier for prospective volunteers to get the tips and tricks right from our QA team, who do it every day -- they get the pure distilled tips right from the subject matter experts. The next time a person files an Ubuntu bug they will have a greater understanding on how the whole big picture works and will be able to make smarter decisions."

Castro admits bringing Open Week together is a lot of work, but it's worth it. "Open Week couldn't happen without all the volunteer speakers and infrastructure folks helping out, they deserve a round of applause."


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