On July 17, the Debian release team posted an update
on the upcoming
"etch" distribution. Things appeared to be moving along nicely. Many of the
important transitions have been made, the kernel was set to be frozen on
July 30, and the final release (to be numbered 4.0) was on track to
happen, as scheduled, on December 4 of this year. It all looks like
the smoothest release process Debian has had in quite some time.
For experienced Debian watchers, this seems too good to be true. And, in
fact, that's exactly what it might be; behind the scenes, it looks like the
etch release may get caught up on an old problem.
On August 3, Debian developer Nathanael Nerode claimed that the etch timeline is
unrealistic because the kernel will not be ready in time. The issue,
in particular, is that of device firmware.
Some background: most devices attached to a
modern systems are special-purpose computers in their own right, running
their own software. Some of these devices store that software ("firmware")
in a ROM within the device itself. Over the years, however, manufacturers
have found that loading the firmware from the host system is both cheaper
and more flexible. As a result, much current hardware is unable to
function in any useful way until the host computer has fed it the requisite
firmware. This firmware load is handled by the device driver.
Once upon a time, a great many drivers had the necessary firmware linked
into the kernel itself. In many cases, over time, that firmware has been stripped out
into a separate file which can be fed to the kernel at device
initialization time. In others, however, the firmware remains in the
kernel itself. Often, that firmware carries explicit permission which
allows it to be distributed in that way, so licensing issues do not usually
come into the picture.
The Debian Project, however, is not satisfied with distributable firmware -
or, at least, many vocal Debian developers are not satisfied. Unless there
is accompanying source which can be used to rebuild that firmware, said
firmware is not seen to be truly free, and, thus, has no part in Debian.
According to this point of view, it is not possible to ship a kernel which
is compliant with the Debian Free Software
Guidelines (DFSG) until all of that
firmware has been torn out of it. Since this work has not been done - the
Debian kernel maintainers being more concerned with the production of a
working and secure kernel - the kernel cannot be frozen, and the etch
timeline cannot be met.
There is another point of view within the project however. According to
this perspective, Debian is shipping an operating system for the host CPU,
not for all of the peripherals attached to that CPU. As long as the core
operating system is free, that is good enough. The peripheral devices
will, regardless of anything Debian does, be running non-free software.
Adopting a policy which favors devices having their proprietary software
in ROM (where it can never, ever be changed) over those which accept their
firmware from the host (where, maybe, someday it could be rebuilt and
tinkered with) seems like a step in the wrong direction. To people who see
things this way, trying to purge non-free firmware distracts developers
from more useful work while simultaneously making things harder for
This is, to put it mildly, not a particularly new discussion. Despite
having come around many times over the years, however, this question has
never really been resolved. In an effort to bring it to a resolution this
time around, Steve Langasek has proposed a
general resolution stating, in essence, that Debian can ship "data"
without the need for accompanying source. Data, in this sense, includes
things like graphics (splash screens, icons, etc.), videos, and fonts.
If this resolution is voted on and passes, the position taken by the
project will be that, as long as the "data" itself is freely distributable,
the project can ship it without source and remain true to its goals.
The final part of the proposed resolution takes things one step further by
stating explicitly that firmware is, for the purposes of the DFSG's source
requirements, not a program. Device firmware is, instead, data which,
under the terms of the resolution, can be shipped without source.
Needless to say, this proposal has inspired some discussion. Many
developers are in favor of the proposal, and have seconded it. Others have
requested that it be split into two parts, with the firmware-as-data issue
being voted upon separately. Some remain firmly opposed to shipping
anything without source; these people do not like the resolution at all.
Then, there is the position taken by Sven
Luther, a member of the Debian kernel team. Sven states that calling
firmware "data" is fundamentally dishonest, and that this fiction will
inevitably lead Debian toward becoming a non-free distribution. What he
would like to see, instead, is a resolution that, while firmware remains a
problem, it is one which has been with Debian for a long time and which is
not going to be solved within the etch release schedule. So, Sven
We thus ask the project to temporarily waive the DFSG requirement
for those non-free firmware blobs, in order to let the etch release
to ship in a timely fashion, and let us work on these issues,
within the kernel and related affected teams, the project as a
whole (The DPL could mandate a delegate or delegate team to contact
manufacturers and such), but also upstream, in a calm and posed
way, not hurried by the needs of the release, and other such
Sven will likely format this proposal into a competing resolution for a
vote by the developers.
What this alternative resolution really looks like, of course, is yet
another decision to defer the issue and argue about it again in the next
release cycle. But this could be just how the decision goes in the end.
Many developers have little patience with the firmware battles and with the
push to break working drivers. There is also a real unease, however, with
shipping binary firmware blobs, and simply rebranding those blobs as "data"
may not be enough to make people feel better about it. So Debian may well
punt the issue again; expect its return in a year or two.
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