This week your editor had the opportunity to travel to Helsinki, Finland
for Debconf5 - thanks to the conference organizers for making this
possible! The following article is based on a round table discussion
on Debian Derivatives, lead by Benjamin "Mako" Hill, and a talk by Andreas
Tille titled 'CDD - Custom Debian Distributions'.
Fledgling distribution projects often use a larger, more established
project as a base for beginning development. These days Debian is the most
popular distribution to use as a base for creating a new distribution. DistroWatch lists one hundred
twenty-nine projects based on Debian. The LWN Distribution list identifies
nearly one hundred distributions with roots in Debian.
Some are derived distributions, some are custom Debian distributions
(CDDs). What's the difference? CDDs are part of the Debian Project
and appear on Debian CDD
website. Anything else can be considered a derivative.
Why is Debian such a popular starting point for CDDs and derivatives? One
reason is the large number of packages in the Debian archive, something for
almost every special interest. Why create a custom distribution? Most
often it's to get a subset of packages to focus on a particular interest,
or for a particular language. Whether it's a Chinese desktop or a live CD
with a good selection of security tools, many people want more focus from
Businesses don't want their employees to have access to thousands of
packages but they may want non-free applications or customized
configurations. Many users are overwhelmed by the size and complexity of
Debian and they appreciate a smaller distribution focused to their
interests. Specialized distributions provide preconfigured, easy to
install (or live CD) versions of the software they want, without the
clutter of thousands of packages that may not be well described, or not
described in a language they understand.
Some packages might be highly inappropriate for some users; for example,
the parents of the young children using Debian Jr. might not
want them to have access to hot babe.
Desktop users in China will appreciate a system where the default interface
is in a language they can read. Someone who wants forensic tools on a live
CD probably doesn't want a lot of games taking up space on that CD.
From Debian-Med to Skolelinux; Quantian to DeMuDi; smaller and more focused is
better. One notable exception to that rule is Ubuntu, which aims for a
wide variety of packages for a general purpose audience, though with fewer
available platforms and above all a predictable release cycle.
Meanwhile, Debian continues to grow, with more packages available, more
maintainers to care for those packages, and support for more architectures.
As Debian grows so grows the number of users, the number of derivatives,
and, so it seems, the time between releases. Debian's infrastructure is
strained with the growth. Some fear a decline in the quality that has made
Debian a first class distribution. Derived distributions take some of the
strain off, but at a cost.
Even those working the CDD projects have complained that their patches
don't always make it back into the main Debian archive. Certainly while
there was a Sarge freeze there were times when patches couldn't be included
immediately, but even without that constraint, a common complaint of
derived distribution developers was that their patches were often ignored by the package
maintainer. In other cases the derivative developers were fixing bugs,
improving translations, adding features and making changes without a word
to Debian or any other project. All in all there has been considerable
duplication of effort between the many projects using Debian, and not
nearly enough collaboration.
We have reported previously on Canonical's suite of tools designed to
make collaboration easier. Progeny and HP are
two more companies that will provide customized Debian distributions, and
both companies have been working on tool kits to make that job easier.
Better tool kits are only part of the solution.
Everyone agrees that there needs to be better communications between Debian
developers and the developers of Debian derivatives. There needs to be
better documentation of what changes are made and why these changes were
deemed necessary. Generally there needs to be better collaboration between
Debian and its offshoots. The Debian Derivers Council has been formed to
help with communications and better collaboration. We look forward to
seeing some positive results from the various tool kits and the actions of
This is Rebecca Sobol in Helsinki, Finland.
to post comments)