The Debian Project Leader
(DPL) election is fast
approaching. The nomination period ended on February 28, and the
campaigning period runs through March 21. The field of candidates is much
broader than in recent years, with six serious candidates vying for the
role of Debian Project Leader. Current DPL Martin Michlmayr is not running
The candidates, and their platforms, for 2005 are Matthew Garrett,
Anthony Towns, Jonathan
Walther, and Branden
We sent a list of questions to each candidate to find out where they stand
on issues facing Debian in 2005. The first question we posed to the
candidates was how they would help to ensure that Sarge would be released
this year, and if too much emphasis was placed on a new stable release.
In his platform, Walther endorsed the idea of a six-month release cycle,
borrowed from the OpenBSD project, saying it could "turn Debian into
a monster powerhouse of software goodness." In his response, he
added that he was unsure of the limits of the DPL's authority, but would do
"everything in my power to get Sarge out the door immediately, as-is,
and formalize the OpenBSD/Ubuntu/Xouvert 6-month release cycle."
Towns responded that there were a variety of reasons that Sarge had been
delayed, and that "the release team currently have a handle on
them." He also said that releasing Sarge is "the highest
priority for the project at this point, and the highest priority of the DPL
is to do everything possible to ensure that the release team and those
working on resolving the remaining issues have the support and resources
they need to do their work quickly and effectively."
Lees pointed out that the DPL "is not a position with direct control
over Debian's actions" and that the DPL "is there to provide a
single point of contact with the outside world and to ensure the relevant
groups within Debian coordinate effectively." He also said that he
is confident that the Sarge release would go out this year without
intervention from the DPL, but "would of course try to ensure that
the relevant technical teams have the resources they need to avoid any
As for the importance of stable releases, Lees said that the stable
releases are necessary to provide "a static fork to provide security
fixes against and a known minimum point from which package maintainers must
ensure smooth upgrades." The ideal release point, according to Lees,
would be "around the 1.5-2.5 year point, so shorter than the Sarge
release cycle - but not by much."
Garrett noted that Sarge is close enough to release that "anything
the DPL does is more likely to slow things down than speed them up."
The release team have assured me that the list of awkward problems is now
small and under control, and I'm inclined to trust them on this.
A more interesting question is probably how we can prevent Sarge from
happening again. A large part of the problem is that many people have lost
faith in us ever making timely releases, which ends up costing us a lot -
without the feeling that you're working towards a release, there's far less
incentive to make sure that your code is in good condition and help track
down bugs in other packages. I want to deal with this problem by making
people believe that we can actually make releases when we say we will, and
I think the first step towards that will be to make sure that we have a
list of concrete goals for our next release the moment we've finished with
He also said that slow releases not only cost Debian users, but development
effort as well.
Robinson told LWN that he would work closely with the Release Management
team to find out what they need and "try to get those needs
satisfied, whether they involve hardware for build daemons, additional
personnel for the security or debian-installer teams, or simply general
encouragement (some would say whip-cracking) to get the release-critical
bug count down."
He also said that Debian is compared "unfairly and unfavorably to the
bleeding-edge nature of some distributions" and could "greatly
mitigate that criticism by establishing a more predictable and regular
Finally, Schuldei said that Sarge should be in "deep freeze
already" by the time the next DPL takes office on April 17. Schuldei
also said that regular releases "are important for Debian and are one
of my priorities."
The next question we posed to the candidates is whether Ubuntu had hurt
Debian by drawing away development effort, how Debian should work with
projects derived from Debian and if Debian was "infrastructure" for other
Schuldei responded that Ubuntu "cherry-picked from Debian's most
When your hobby becomes your job, it is easy to lose interest in
participating in the hobby outside of work. And working in a start-up
company can easily become an all-consuming activity. Given this
combination, it was probably inevitable that developers working on Ubuntu
would have less time and energy to expend on Debian itself.
Those Ubuntu developers who used to work on Debian infrastructure were
missed painfully, indeed. I hope that "Small Teams" as described in my
platform can help by building lots of small multiplying knowledge pools
which would make Debian resilient against loss of single individuals and
enable it to grow able successors very quickly.
Schuldei told LWN that Debian "should more actively incorporate the
good things that it sees other distributions" do and that if Debian
"managed the 'taking' as well as the 'giving' [to other projects]
there would be little limit to its potential."
Robinson says that Canonical
Ltd. (the company that sponsors Ubuntu) is a "mixed
Previous companies that centered their identities around Debian (such as
Stormix and Progeny) have not had the resources to hire more than a handful
of Debian developers. Canonical has hired many. It's a good thing to see
so many Debian developers able to more closely align their careers with
their passions -- it's something I've enjoyed for nearly five years, so I
can hardly begrudge others that same condition.
At the same time, Canonical's interests are not identical to Debian's. If
Canonical is to operate anything like a conventional business that realizes
revenue, it cannot help but pursue paths to do so. The Debian Project
doesn't have that pressure on it. Inevitably in such an environment, at
least some Debian developers who work for a commercial interest are going
to experience tension between what's good for Debian and what's good for
their employer, even if that divergence is perceived as merely short-term.
In the short term, Debian needs to release sarge. We cannot count on
Canonical, Linspire, Progeny, Xandros, Hewlett-Packard, or any of Debian's
other benefactors to solve our problems for us -- they will not supply the
magical second step between "collect underpants" and "RELEASE!", to spin an
He also said that Debian has to be "frank about it" and accept
that some developers may be drawn away from Debian.
Garrett pointed out that Ubuntu "has taken some effort away from
Debian, but it's also contributed a lot back."
One of the major advantages that Ubuntu has over Debian is that their
development process makes it much easier to push new technologies. We've
already gained from that in at least one case, since Debian's Project
Utopia stack is heavily based on the code in Ubuntu. That would have been
much harder to coordinate if it hadn't been demonstrated in a working
scenario first. Remember that Ubuntu hasn't existed for all that long -
it's hard to have any great certainty what the long-term effects will be.
One of the fundamental reasons for free software is the right to produce
derived works, and I think that making it as easy as possible for others to
produce derived distributions is the best way for Debian to support
that. The number of distributions based on Debian is large enough that I
think we class as infrastructure, but don't think that's incompatible with
Providing employment for Debian developers is "a good thing"
according to Lees, though he notes that "some inevitable divergence
between Ubuntu and Debian as Ubuntu strives to differentiate
The core axiom of free software however is that having someone copy and
modify your software doesn't reduce its value to you. Whatever happens,
Debian is a process not a product and it will eventually incorporate any
code that the Developers deem worthwhile.
What I'm really excited about from Ubuntu is some of the tools they're
working on, like bug trackers and version control tools. These tools are
being developed specifically for the unique needs of distributors, rather
than authors, and it will be very interesting to see what they become.
Towns said that the only way Ubuntu draws developers away from Debian
"is by providing a better environment for hacking -- whether that be
by paying for the work, or being more fun, or being more satisfying, or all
of the above."
I think it's great that there are projects that some people find more
enjoyable than Debian, and the great thing about free software is that
those of us who prefer Debian can just take the work they do for Ubuntu and
use it ourselves. And vice-versa, too -- all without anyone being unhappy
about code theft or having to involve lawyers or formal agreements or
anything of the sort.
I think Debian works quite well both as a distribution of its own, and as
infrastructure for other distributions; I hope it will improve as both.
According to Walther, projects like Ubuntu or Knoppix help Debian rather
than hurt it. "Because of our licensing, we can always fold things
back in from other projects that work out well."
We also asked candidates if they had any idea why so many people were
running this year, as opposed to past years that saw only a few
Walther quipped, "because the incumbent decided not to run for
Schuldei told LWN "some of the candidates clearly believe that Debian
is in need of their special knowledge or ability. I myself believe that my
vision for Debian and my experience in implementing change in social groups
will help the Debian Project to reach new heights and strength."
Robinson said that "people are getting a better idea of what they
want out of a Project Leader."
I don't know of many precedents in our field; no other free software
project of Debian's size entrusts its entire membership with electing its
leadership. We're striving to identify the right balance of personality
traits and experience that will equip us to face new challenges with
confidence, rather than butting our heads against the same old brick walls
that have stymied us for years.
Garrett said that he can't speak for the other candidates, but "I'm
standing because I think Debian has problems that need fixing, and I think
being DPL is the best way that I can help fix them. Perhaps our problems
are more obvious this year than in the past?" Lees told LWN that he
has no idea why so many people are running for DPL, and that he's running
"at the insistence of several other Debian developers, probably in
response to some of the more radical factions that are gaining influence
within Debian." Towns said that there have been "a lot of
fairly controversial questions raised or decided...and in the midst of all
this the next release of our operating system has continued slipping. It
seems plausible to me that the range of candidates represent the range of
different views within the project of how to approach these issues."
Another topic that comes up frequently when discussing delays for Sarge is
dropping architectures. We asked the candidates if they thought Debian
should drop any of its architectures in order to release on a more timely
basis. There was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this idea among DPL
candidates. Walther is against the idea of dropping architectures
altogether. "I see no need to drop any architecture, but I do see it
as a good thing to release each architecture separately. This prevents the
lowest common denominator from retarding the distribution as a
Towns said, simply, "That's a decision for the release and archive
teams to make." Lees said that there was "no correlation
between the number of architectures and any delay in release," as
far as he could see. Schuldei said, "yes, that's one possible
Garrett told LWN that dropping architectures would not speed up the
release, and would "undoubtedly reduce the quality of our
distribution. There are whole classes of bugs that only show up when you
port to a wide range of platforms."
In any case, which architectures should we drop? M68K is often used as an
example, but is actually one of the better architectures in terms of
keeping up. Mips and Arm aren't widely used on the desktop, but we get a
great deal of enthusiasm from embedded developers.
If we get to the point where an architecture can't pull its weight, then
we'll drop it. We're not there yet.
Robinson said that the idea that dropping an architecture would benefit the
release cycle "seems to meander between a vague notion and an article
of faith." He also said that he has yet to see a proposal that
explains how it would benefit the release cycle, and that he needs
"more convincing...to support such a dramatic step. For some
architectures, Debian is the only modern option for a GNU/Linux
installation. It'd be a shame to give that in exchange for an unproven
Finally, we asked the candidates what the biggest challenge facing the DPL
would be. Schuldei told LWN that scalability was the biggest problem facing
A lot of Debian's hottest issues over the past few years have been capacity
issues: making sure the autobuilder network scales to handle our package
count; making sure the NM process scales to meet the number of incoming
applicants; making sure the security team scales to handle the architecture
count; etc. While many of these issues are largely technical in nature,
the task of identifying and resolving chokepoints before they become a
problem is one that requires managerial attention, and the DPL is best
suited to provide this oversight. The social structure of Debian still
stems from its early years. With the size of 900+ active developers the
social bonds and self-regulatory functions are just not good enough any
more nowadays for it to work as smoothly and effectively as it used to be.
The changes in the leadership and small team infrastructure as well as
nurturing of good working climate will address this effectively and will
allow Debian a new growth cycle.
Garrett sees communication as the largest hurdle for Debian:
We're bad at it. A large part of the problem facing the release is that
half the time nobody's sure why we can't release yet. People get into
arguments over whether or not people are passing on enough
information. It's all wasted effort, and it's all entirely unnecessary. If
there's one thing that I would hope to do as DPL, it's to ensure that
people know who they're supposed to be speaking to whenever they have a
problem. In principle, that's not too difficult, but it's something
nobody's really succeeded at yet.
Lees told LWN that Debian "basically works" and said it was
difficult to sort out a minor issue to highlight as a problem. He also
touched on communication as a problem, and said VoIP would be an
"interesting way to improve the quality of communication...since
email seems to bring out the worst in people. I would hope that improving
the nature of the communication would make it easier to address other
issues that arise within Debian."
Towns said that the biggest single issue was "getting Sarge out the
door, but that's primarily an issue for the release team to handle."
Robinson didn't respond directly to the question of the biggest challenge
for Debian, but also pointed out in his responses that "the collective
psyche of the project gets antsy when a release process has dragged on for
The general level of irritability seems to go up. We are nearly three
years pregnant with sarge, and we need to be delivering our latest
offspring soon. The challenge is to practice good obstetrics, and preserve
the health and well-being of ourselves and our release. In my campaigns
for Debian Project Leader over the years I've consistently prescribed
medicine for our ails, and I'm ready to assist my fellow developers with
Walther also told LWN that the release cycle is the largest problem for the
It has caused a stagnation where we focus on putting in new packages and
fixing old bugs, but the mantle of fresh new innovation that made us stand
out in the early days has been passing on to other distributions. With a
quicker release cycle we can definitely get that back in short order. We
have all the resources and manpower.
Debian Developers may begin voting for DPL on March 21, through April
11. The voting procedure is described in section A of the Debian
Constitution. We'd like to thank each of the candidates for responding
to our questions, and wish them good luck in the election.
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