A down-under talk on the role of Debian, A.D. 2011

I'm back from LCA 2011, which I've attended to share some thoughts about the role that Debian plays in the Free Software ecosystem, 18 years after its inception (yes, we are that oldWelder).

The talk title---Who the bloody hell cares about Debian? [1]---was meant to be rather provocative. The idea was indeed to challenge the meme that, in the era of distributions that release every 6 months, a distribution with a release cycle of circa 2 years (like Debian, considering the past 5 years) is not a project that deserves your attention anymore. Is it really the case? In the talk I (obviously) claim it is not, using two main arguments.

The first argument is based on the observation that Debian offers a set of pretty rare, if not unique, features among mainstream FOSS distributions. Those features consist of a mix of technical and "political" aspects: (1) a focus on package quality, with no distinction among first and second class packages; (2) a strong culture of software freedom, which refuses to offer non-free software (or firmware) by default to users and distribution developers (as parts of the infrastructure used to make Debian); (3) independence from commercial interests, with no single company or entity that could claim to babysit Debian; and (4) a decision making model based on a weighted sum of do-ocracy and democracy, which implies that by doing (rather than talking) everyone has a chance to have an impact on Debian.

Considering all that and looking at the most popular FOSS distributions, one can easily identify Debian as one of the few remaining players who both care about Free Software and can be trusted in making choices not driven by profit. Mind you, I've nothing against companies in general and I'm very well aware that many FOSS companies carry a good deal of the burden of developing and promoting Free Software. Nonetheless, in days in which it is striking how quickly FOSS-friendly companies can become very much FOSS-unfriendly, I can't help putting my trust and efforts into community-driven projects, better if with no attached company label whatsoever. Furthermore, having distributions like Debian around can encourage other company-backed distributions to demand more and more independence and clarifications about the relationships between the community and the backing company.

The second argument about the relevance of Debian is more pragmatic and rather straightforward: Debian is the root of a huge tree of derived-distribution (AKA "derivatives"), more than 120 according to popular distribution indexing sites. Each Debian derivative focuses its attention on, and directs its people power to, customizing Debian for a specific target and build entierly upon Debian work for all parts that do not need customization. That possibility is one key advantage of Free Software, after all. A well-known derivative example is Ubuntu, which is probably the most popular Debian derivative, enjoying a user base way larger than that of Debian itself. Ubuntu is heavily customized with respect to Debian and still had only about (at the time of Natty) 25% of packages which either differed from their Debian counterparts or that did not exist in Debian at all. Other Debian derivatives tend to be way less customized than that. Either way, if you are running a Debian derivative, chances are that you heavily depend on Debian and on its well-being. (Yes, it is so also if you didn't know about that, sorry.)

Let's now fast-forward to the end of the talk, skipping my usual comments on how to keep the whole tree of Debian derivatives sustainable and beneficial for Free Software as a whole (i.e. by reducing as much as possible the viscosity of patch flow along the derivatives tree).


People's reaction to such a provocative talk has been positive and we have enjoyed a fairly long Q&A session discussing the topics mentioned above as well as other Debian-related topics. A (commented) summary of the obtained feedback is reported below. Judging from the recurrent questions and suggestions I've received doing Debian talks in the past 8 months, I dare to say that LCA feedback is fairly representative of the feelings of many Debian users.

  • Some people believe that Debian is too silent about its role with respect to derivatives. I agree: we should communicate clearly about this, as well as asking our derivatives to do the same. Initiatives such as the Derivatives Front Desk and, more recently, the Derivatives Census seem to go in the right direction.

  • More generally, users seem to believe that we have the tendency to undersell what Debian has to offer and, in particular, the testing distribution (whose name is too scary in comparison to the unique balance it offers of up to date and tested software).

  • There is a clear interest in rolling distributions among GNU/Linux users and Debian enthusiasts are no exception. Mentioning CUT seems to invariably whet the appetite of our users.

  • On the other hand, there are also inquiries about the support period for Debian stable releases (currently about 3.5 years) and the possibility of having it extended. Once more, recent work in progress by the security team seems to be going in the right direction. As another potential underselling problem, not all users seem to be aware that Debian security support is on the whole archive, whereas other LTS offerings are not.

  • Various users are enthusiast about the free firmware achievement for Squeeze and happy about the way we communicated about it. Questions about the purpose of other "free firmware" distributions with respect to Debian invariably arise, although it's not up to us to answer those.

  • There is also interest in cross-distribution collaboration, probably triggered by a natural generalization of the invite of of collaborating across derivatives. I've been asked about Debian participation into the AppStream thingie and I've been happy to reiterate that it has been an important milestone in cross-distro collaboration.

Slides of the talk are available, while a video will eventually be posted at http://linuxconfau.blip.tv.

[1] Kudos to Francois Marier for suggesting the title. If the title doesn't ring a bell for you (it didn't for me in the beginning), you might want to check out the story of this ad.

Update: minor rephrasing in the 4th paragraph

A few years back, I had lots of newcommers tell me things like "Ubuntu is great! Debian can die now!" or something similar. I usually just explained to them that Ubuntu depends heavily on Debian to survive and that the actual changes are relatively small, and even when they're not they usually get back into Debian anyway.

These days the average person seems less ignorant of the relationship between Ubuntu and Debian and how important Debian is and what sets it apart. The perception of Ubuntu has also changed a lot from Debian. I remember when some Debian developers were quite hostile against Ubuntu and the project as a whole. These days you see lots of integration with Ubuntu in Debian services and it's a lot easier to track things in both systems.

I think I'll just stop stating the obvious now and finish off by saying Debian is great and I hope it just gets stronger and stronger and continues to evolve into an ever more elegant and awesome system!

Comment by Jonathan Carter Tue 01 Feb 2011 12:32:55 AM CET

Is there any chance the distribution might consider shipping kernels in non-free as well? Cause when the hardware you bought preinstalled with Linux doesnt work in the same OS that sucks. PS. I am talking about connecting to WPA encrypted networks with an RT2860 wireless card. Those dont work with Squeeze's kernel..

Comment by Anonymous Thu 03 Feb 2011 07:00:13 AM CET
See http://wiki.debian.org/Firmware, which contains all information about the non-free firmware split. (In short: non-free images with firmware are available, although they are not part of Debian and we can't support them as we support the free-firmware images, simply because we don't have access to the corresponding source code.)
Comment by zack Thu 03 Feb 2011 08:18:25 AM CET

"...according to popular distribution indexing sites."

Other than distrowatch.com, who else does this?

Comment by Tshepang Thu 03 Feb 2011 09:51:23 AM CET

"...according to popular distribution indexing sites."
Other than distrowatch.com, who else does this?

There are some, with varying degree of success.

Distrowatch is clearly the most popular.
The index maintained by LWN is another one I like, with less clutter than distrowatch and reasonably up to date.

Comment by zack Fri 04 Feb 2011 09:18:42 AM CET
I can just say, I'm using Debain since woody (before I had red hat and mandrake) and it's great!
Comment by bernd Sat 05 Feb 2011 09:19:39 PM CET

Just back from FOSDEM, it was a really nice talk!

Afterwards I wondered about the 7% of Ubuntu packages not flowing from debian at all: are these purely non-DFSG-compatible blobs and Ubuntu-really-specific packages (themes, etc. which might even be non-DFSG by the way) or is there some room for improvement to bring some of these packaging efforts to the whole debian-and-children community?


Comment by sam Mon 07 Feb 2011 12:33:56 AM CET

Just back from FOSDEM, it was a really nice talk!


Afterwards I wondered about the 7% of Ubuntu packages not flowing from debian at all

Well, first of all it's not really up to me, or Debian in general, to answer about those :-) But in all honesty, I'm unable to provide a suitable partitioning of that slice into more precise classes.

For sure, part of it are Canonical-originated software who gets packages (by Canonical employees) directly for Ubuntu. It is reasonable to expect that software to be available in Debian as well, but it is a bit less reasonable to expect Canonical people (or the Ubuntu community) to do so. The reason is quite simple, but at the same time often overlooked. "Maintaining" a software is not the same thing as "packaging" it. The latter is a continuous process which requires some sort of commitment, whereas the former activity is more of a "burst" which happens mostly in the beginning. What we need in Debian to have a software in our archive are maintainers, not mere packagers. Arguably, it is unreasonable to ask Canonical employees to be Debian maintainers.

The bottom line is that the only way to address that particular slice of software (which I've no idea how much contributes to the 7%) is finding volunteer maintainers on the Debian side who care about those software and maintain it in Debian, hopefully reusing Ubuntu packaging.

I tend to believe that part of the reason why we don't have enough of the needed maintainers for such software is that, in many cases, we don't know much about that software in the first place. That could be fixed only by enlarging Debian culture in looking at what Debian derivatives distribution do and how they improve what we already have in Debian. Initiatives like the Derivatives Front Desk and the Derivatives Census are, in that respect, steps in the right direction and might help forming that culture … or at least I hope so :-)

Comment by zack Sun 27 Feb 2011 11:50:34 AM CET