LWN recently posted a brief
on the GNOME Foundation's plea for support to help it get
through a difficult year. Some of the comments on that news questioned the
role of the foundation and its executive director. In response, the
Foundation offered to make a board member - Luis Villa - available for an
interview. Luis quickly answered our questions, despite being in the
middle of final exams at the time; some people, it seems, will do anything
to get out of studying. The result is an interesting view into the state
of the GNOME project and where it is heading.
LWN: Could you tell us about your involvement with GNOME and the board?
Luis Villa: I've been involved with GNOME since I was Ximian's QA
guy for the
Evolution 1.0 release, which was 2001 but now feels like a million
years ago. I was first elected to the board in 2003, and have served
several terms since then. I took off a couple terms because of law
school, but I was re-elected in early 2008 with a promise to focus
specifically on legal issues. Since then I've also played grumpy old
man from time to time, since I'm the only current board member who was
actively involved in the 2.0 release.
What does the GNOME board do?
We're the face and leadership of the GNOME Foundation, the
organization which backs the GNOME community. The board's primarily
roles mirror the roles of the Foundation - support and stewardship.
On the support side, we take a look at what our community and
corporate partners are working on, and try to match people, projects,
and resources. The biggest part of that, historically, has been
getting everyone together at GUADEC. In the past few years we've been
trying to expand that - we've done more events and hackfests; we've
helped out with marketing; we've started giving grants for certain
kinds of hacking (primarily a11y [accessibility]); and we've tried to make resources
available to spur work on GNOME Mobile and other subprojects.
On the stewardship side, the Foundation owns the GNOME trademark,
controls GNOME funds, and generally manages other resources
(technically we own several servers, for example, though in practice
they all live in other people's colos.) And technically most GNOME
teams (like the release team) report to the board, though in practice
we have a very, very light hand on the tiller.
One thing we don't do, very explicitly, is technical leadership. That
comes from the community.
With all this under the Foundation's purview, the board ends up making
a number of small decisions that matter to GNOME, and in practice, we
do a lot of the work of the Foundation as well.
The GNOME Foundation recently posted a budget and announced that, if
funding is not found from somewhere, the foundation would have to cut
either the executive director position or the activities budget. In
your opinion, how dire is the budget forecast, and how did this
situation come to be?
I think 'dire' is a stretch, because so far our fundraising base
hasn't declined, it just hasn't increased as much as we expected. So
we can get back to our previous stable state fairly quickly if we have
to by cutting only 'new' expenses. That said, we like those new
expenses - we think they make GNOME stronger. So we'd like to keep them
if at all possible.
How it came to be is fairly straightforward. After we cut our last
director's salary from the budget, we ran a large surplus for several
years. It was hard for us as an essentially all-volunteer organization
to actually spend this money - organizing events and doing coordination
is really time-consuming, and frankly isn't something that we (as
hackers) are terribly great at even if it were our full-time job. At
the same time, we felt there was a need there for more events,
resources, etc., and there seemed to be a willingness on the part of
our corporate partners to invest even more if we could give them a way
to do it.
So last year the board felt that it was time to expand. We grew our
investments in things like hackfests. We also decided to hire a new ED
who could help us do more for our developer community and for our
users, and help us grow financially. We knew that this extra salary
and extra spending would put us in the red for a few years. But we
thought that this was a classic 'spend money to make money' situation-
we thought the investment in events and in Stormy would allow us to
reach more sponsors and would bring more value to our existing
Our timing, obviously, couldn't have been worse - we hired Stormy in
July, just as the recession began to break. So the investment hasn't
paid off like we thought it would. We have increased the number of
sponsors we've got, and many of our existing sponsors have increased
their level of investment, so it hasn't been all bad, but definitely
not enough. And obviously under the economic circumstances it isn't
going to get any easier. Hence the message to our membership you
Stormy has been the executive director since last July. Can you
summarize what she has done for the Foundation since then? Why does
the Foundation need an executive director?
As I suggested in the last question, we need an ED because we think we
can do more for the community than just host a handful of servers and
run GUADEC. A good ED can do things themselves that help us grow; a
great ED can be the organizer who motivates and organizes a lot of
other people to get involved and help out.
We're seeing lots of the former and some of the latter already with
Stormy, and I fully expect to see more of it. I won't bore your
readers with the full list, but among other things she's helped us
expand our fundraising, helped organize events (inc. GUADEC and
hackfests), improved communications with our advisory board, helped
restart our marketing group, dealt with some legal questions, helped
broker a deal to upgrade our bugzilla, and worked on a plan to hire a
sysadmin. So I think our initial decision to make this investment and
take the risk was the right one. Of course, whether it makes sense
long-term is still an open question - we will have to balance our
Some commenters on LWN have suggested Stormy's first responsibility
should be to raise enough money to pay for her own existence. Does the
GNOME board see things that way?
First? Right now, unfortunately yes. Only? Absolutely not. Obviously a
large part of her job is, and always has been, fundraising. Her
priorities and bonus structure have reflected that from day one, and
under the circumstances we've obviously urged her to focus even more
on it. But if all Stormy does is fundraise, unless she is
*spectacularly* successful, she'll still be a net drag on our
resources and we won't be getting anything else out of her time and
abilities. In other words, we'd be happy to go from our previous
surplus to break even (so that financially, Stormy is a net 'negative'
for the budget) if it means we get to benefit from Stormy's efforts in
In the past, you've expressed concerns that a poorly-handled GNOME 3
initiative could encounter the same difficulties as KDE 4. How do you
feel about where the GNOME 3 effort is going?
I think both GNOME 3 and KDE 4 are showing a fair amount of promise
these days. For either desktop to actually make an impact on the
broader world, we have to be able to give a compelling answer to the
user question of 'why should I use this?' 'New' and 'shiny' aren't
good answers for that anymore. And it can't be a scattering of little
tweaks to the old model. That was all Vista had, so it sank. KDE 4.0,
frankly, did not have a good answer to that question - there was a lot
there for developers, and a scattering of new things for users, but
there was no single, compelling story for users. Every single version
of OSX, in contrast, has had at least one and often three big,
compelling new 'why should I use this?' features as well as all the
I think GNOME 3 ran the same risk as KDE 4 when we were
focusing on gtk 3 as the driver behind GNOME 3. But we're focusing now
on what users are going to see - on the new Shell, and on Zeitgeist. I
don't think either of those are perfect, by any stretch, but I think
they have at least the potential to offer a really compelling answer
to the question of 'why should I use this?' The KDE team, by the way,
is moving in that direction as well - I think their social
desktop work, for example, has the potential to offer a very compelling story
If I were them, once that is mature and well-integrated I'd go ahead
and call that KDE 5. Whether GNOME or KDE, that kind of user-focused,
problem-solving feature is way more important than what version of the
toolkit you build on.
The recent discussion of the one-slider GNOME volume control has
brought back charges that the GNOME project values simplicity over
giving control to the user. Is that your view of the GNOME project?
Why do you think GNOME continues to have that reputation?
As you can imagine, having been deeply involved since the first time
this came up (around GNOME 1.9x), I'm pretty sick of this question. ;)
The short answer is that, since we are Free Software, all of our users
have access to the ultimate configuration tool - GCC. :) And we've made
it easier to maintain those kinds of 'options' since we've switched to
The long, and more serious answer is, well, long. There are a couple
aspects of our philosophy that cause this problem:
(1) One aspect of our philosophy is that we always prefer to fix
underlying problems instead of papering them over in the UI. As
someone put it c. 2001, 'many options in a lot of our tools are really
a switch that means 'work around this bug.'' Our philosophy is that
you should fix the bug instead of adding the option. As a result, some
of our software, particularly when it is very new, can be a real pain
if it turns out you were relying on those bugs or on workarounds for
Network Manager was like that for a long time - it worked
on the majority of hardware and use cases, but certainly not all of
it, so people kept screaming for new options. But the developers stuck
with it, introducing new features only when they were sure they could
do it as automagically as possible, and fixing bugs at lower levels
instead of hacking around them at the UI level.
And the entire Linux platform - for GNOME users and for non-GNOME
users - is better now because we've forced wireless drivers to fix
their bugs instead of providing workarounds in the UI. As a result,
we've now got a tool that is reliable for virtually everyone and
simple to use. Still not perfect, but I think comparable in
ease-of-use and power with anything on any OS. I think the volume
control will eventually be the same way, though admittedly it seems
rough enough that I'm not sure I would have shipped it quite yet if it
were my call.
(2) Another aspect of our philosophy is that options have a cost. For
developers, they have a cost in QA; they have a cost in debugging;
they have a cost in maintenance. Everyone who has done QA in free
software has piles of stories about the horrors of debugging something
because all the options weren't set just right. So we think that
overall we make more software, and better software, by focusing in
this way. More importantly, for users, options have a cognitive cost.
It takes time and mental effort to figure these things out; time and
effort that could be better spent doing the things you use a computer
for - working on projects; talking with your friends; or whatever. You
or I, who are experts and have used Linux as part of our day job every
day for over a decade now, don't notice this cost. But for people who
view Linux as a means to an end - getting their other work done - these
costs are present every time they try to mess with the system. Again,
why does my girlfriend want to see 8 volume switches when she goes to
play her music? She just wants one, just like she just wanted her
networking to work - and now it does.
(3) Finally, we believe that you can't make software that pleases
everyone. You can make software that pleases experts, but most of the
time non-experts hate that software. (Office, for example, was like
this for a long time.) We're unabashedly trying to make software that
works well for average users and not experts. We hope, obviously, that
experts will use it, like it, and help us make it even better. (For
example, you could help us work on a better plugin infrastructure so
that we could move more options into plugins, like Firefox does ;) But
if you like spending hours tweaking things so that you feel like you
have more 'control', then yeah - it might be better for everyone if we
just agree to disagree.
Obviously, I think these are all reasonable and important parts of our
software philosophy; I think it means we make better software. If
everyone understood them, we would still have some disagreements, but
the disagreements would be made on more substantive grounds, with
better understanding of the tradeoffs involved. We'd really want to
see people criticize us on solid grounds - like, did we switch to the
new volume control too early? how can we enable experts in ways that
don't have big costs? - rather than on what we think of as fairly
unreasonable grounds like 'I want my switches back.' For those who do
want to understand this philosophy better, I'd recommend reading
chapter five of the
37 Signals book 'Getting Real' - I don't agree with
all of it, but that's the best reference I can think of for how we
feel about features.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell LWN's readers?
Support LWN, because it rocks - it does the most substantive reporting
on Linux that there is.
Past that... I'm sure I'll think of something about an hour after the
article goes up ;)
Your hour starts now :). Thanks to Luis for taking the time to answer our
questions in such depth.
Comments (51 posted)
École Polytechnique in Montreal played host to the fourth annual
Meeting (LGM) May 6 through 9, gathering around 100 developers and
users of free graphics software from across the globe to collaborate,
discuss, and learn. One of the biggest topics of the week was free and
open fonts: their licensing, design, and integration with the free software
desktop. In just a few short months, the release of Firefox 3.5 will push
the issue into the forefront courtesy of Web Fonts, and the free
software community aims to be ready.
Dave Crossland and Nicholas Spalinger of the Open Font Library (OFLB) project
each delivered a talk about OFLB (Crossland on the project's web site
relaunch, and Spalinger on the challenges it faces moving forward), but the
importance of free-as-in-freedom fonts permeated into several other talks
as well. Developer Pierre Marchand demonstrated changes in an upcoming
revision of his FontMatrix
application, and the World Wide Web
Consortium's (W3C) Chris Lilley spoke about Web Fonts and other
developments in CSS3.
Additionally, the "users" represented at LGM included graphic artists,
but also professionals deeply invested in free font support for open source
software — including XeTeX
creator and Mozilla's font specialist Jonathan Kew, Brussels-based design
agency Open Source
Publishing, and Kaveh Bazargan, whose company uses free software to
handle typesetting and file conversion for major academic publishing houses
like the Institute of Physics and Nature.
A free font and free software primer
As with software, the main front in the battle over free fonts is
licensing. Historically, digital type foundries like Adobe and Monotype
have sold proprietary fonts to graphic design houses and publishers under
very restrictive licensing terms that prohibit all redistribution. Freely
redistributable fonts have existed for years, but licensing them in a free
software context can be complicated, too.
When the font is used solely to produce printed output, licensing is not
a problem, but when the font must be embedded inside a another digital file
(such as a PDF) incompatibilities arise because fonts contain executable
code (such as hinting, which algorithmically adjusts the width and height
of glyph strokes to align with the pixel grid of the display device to
optimize sharpness) in addition to glyphs themselves. Including the font
inside another document that contains executable code — such as PDF
or PostScript — makes the resulting document a derivative work of
exception clause" for the GPL was written to allow font designers to
license their creations under GPL-compatible terms without activating the
GPL for all documents embedding the font. That solution did not catch on
with type designers for a number of reasons, including the naming
conventions of the type design world — where derivative fonts
customarily do not reuse the upstream font's name to avoid
confusion. Nonprofit linguistics organization SIL International created the simpler,
Font License (OFL) to address designers' concerns while permitting
redistribution, modification, and extension. The Open Font Library project
was started to foster the creation and distribution of high-quality free
fonts under the OFL.
OFLB has grown steadily since its inception, presently hosting around
100 fonts, but the project anticipates a sea change when Firefox 3.5 is
publicly released this spring. Firefox 3.5 will add support for Web Fonts
via the @font-face
CSS rule, which allows a web page to specify text display using any font
accessible using an HTTP URI. Before @font-face, the only fonts available
for selection through CSS were the ten "core fonts for the Web" from
Microsoft: Andale Mono, Arial, Comic Sans, Courier New, Georgia, Impact,
Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, Verdana, and the always popular
Because commercial type foundries by and large still object to
redistribution of their products — even for display purposes only
— the advent of @font-face marks a tremendous opportunity for OFLB
and free fonts in general.
OFLB gets a redesigned site
OFLB's newly visually- and technologically-revamped web site. Donations
paid for a professional redesign to appeal to graphic designers regardless
of their interest in free software principles, and the new site runs on the
management system developed by Creative Commons.
The OFLB site will allow type designers to upload their fonts for public
consumption; users will search and download them, and can re-upload
"remixes" of the originals. Font "remixes" are expected to center around
filling in missing glyphs, allowing the OFLB community to flesh out support
for non-Latin alphabets, but remixes that make aesthetic changes to the
original are also supported. In keeping with the OFL, remixes and
originals will be cross-linked to each other, but remixes will have to
choose a distinct name.
The new site will foster WebFont usage by allowing direct linking to its
resources in @font-face directives. Each font's page contains the required
CSS code snippet for simple copy-and-pasting into a page or template. OFLB
has also worked to get its online library directly integrated into the font
editing application FontForge. Crossland noted
that although proprietary web page design software like Dreamweaver is
popular with graphic designers, no such GUI tool is common for free
software users, who tend to create sites with content management systems
(CMS). The project is interested in integrating OFLB support into open
sources CMSes such as Wordpress or Drupal that support theming, but nothing
is in the works yet.
Between talks, discussion turned to the possibility of integrating
features from Marchand's FontMatrix into the OFLB site. FontMatrix is a
tool for maintaining large collections of fonts, selectively activating
only those needed so as to conserve memory and make selection easier within
design applications, but Marchand has added more and more diagnostic
features to the program with each revision. The new version of FontMatrix
he demonstrated can explore font metadata in depth, allowing searching
through font collections based on such facets as language support, style,
weight, license, and creator. The OFLB site could re-use some of that code
to empower visitors to search its font collection in ways more powerful
than today's tag-based browsing.
Growing the free font tent
Spalinger's OFLB talk focused on the challenges the project faces,
including the possibility that users will attempt to upload fonts to the
site that they do not own, such as proprietary fonts from commercial
foundries. The project is debating how best to manage the site to ensure
that only properly attributed, OFL-licensed work is submitted. Lilley
observed that it may not be the project's legal responsibility to police
the site, but only to respond appropriately when a type designer registers
a complaint. Crossland concurred with that sentiment, but added that the
project also wants to establish a bright line between its service, which
aims to provide a designer-friendly, high-quality collection, and the
scores of low-quality "free font" sites that garner little credibility or
trust because of their policies.
Crossland added that one possibility would be to approach commercial
foundries and offer to perform font fingerprinting on their products using
FontMatrix's tools, then alert the foundries if a possible match was
uploaded. Kew thought this approach unlikely to succeed, suggesting
instead that it was better to do the reverse: make a public feed available
of the fingerprints of the OFLB fonts, then respond to questions and
concerns of the foundries if they detect a problem.
Other concerns include proposals for font file formats that include DRM
— such as Microsoft's Embedded OpenType
— and how best to encourage font designers to collaboratively extend
OFLB fonts (such as adding new alphabets) without creating a glut of
remixes for each source font that are never merged back into the upstream
Back in April, Mark Pilgrim famously ranted
at the foundries for their stubbornness and refusal to acknowledge the
importance of WebFonts. Crossland referenced Pilgrim's comments in his
talk, observing that the ability of @font-face to disrupt the legacy
foundries' business model was a golden opportunity for OFLB and, by
extension, free software. The foundries think that @font-face will
cannibalize sales, but the end users who see the type displayed
via @font-face were never the foundries' customers to begin with. The
graphic designers are the customers, and graphics designers love
fonts. If the foundries offer them nothing for use in WebFonts, OFLB may
well be their only option.
Other LGM sessions
over the four-day event featured updates from major open source graphics
and design applications like Scribus, Inkscape, and Gimp, research and
technical demonstrations, and debates on critical issues such as usability,
the rise of non-free web applications, and combining free software with
profitability. All of the conference presentations and Q&A sessions were
recorded by Bazargan, and are now available
online in multiple video formats.
Comments (13 posted)
As the maintainer for the ext4 file system, Ted Ts'o was the perfect
speaker to open the recent NLUUG Spring Conference with the theme "File
systems and storage". In his keynote at the conference in the
Netherlands, he placed into context some developments and changes in file
system and storage technologies.
His central question was: why has there been a flowering of new file
systems showing up in Linux in the last 18 months? New file systems that
have recently become available in the mainline kernel include ext4, btrfs,
and UBIFS. The next Linux
kernel release, 2.6.30, adds three new file systems: Nilfs, Pohmelfs, and exofs (formerly
known as osdfs). Ts'o said that "it's now a fairly exciting time for
file systems" and he added that this is partly thanks to Sun:
"Sun woke up the field with their file system ZFS and they should
deserve credit for it. Before the appearance of ZFS, the development of
file systems virtually stood still for decades." At the moment, the
Linux kernel tree lists 65 file systems, although most of them are
optimized for a specific task and are not much used. Ts'o sees this as an
opportunity for developers to experiment and innovate.
Of course the development of all these file systems doesn't come out of
the blue. They are driven by some new developments in storage technology,
such as the advent of solid state drives (SSDs), data integrity fields, and
4K sectors. SSDs have especially changed a lot in the storage stack:
"The shift from relatively slow hard disks to fast SSDs means that
many assumptions in the storage stack don't hold anymore." Even though
Ts'o expects SSDs not to replace HDs completely, he sees the shift as an
interesting opportunity: "This spurs a lot of development, as people
are finally talking about changing storage interfaces."
One change that is happening now is the shift from 512-byte physical sectors
to 4K in hard drives. The abstraction of 512-byte sector sizes
has been here for decades, and it's not easy to change, as the
transition affects a lot of subsystems that don't accept a 4K sector size
currently. For example, the partitioning system and the bootloader require
changes because they both rely on the fact that partitions start from the
63rd sector of the drive, which is misaligned with the 4K sector
boundary. A proposed solution is to align 512-byte logical sectors in a way
that the first logical sector starts from the second octant (512 bytes) of
the physical first 4K sector. However, Microsoft Windows spoils the party
because it starts the partition table at a 1M boundary, which is
incompatible with this "odd-aligned scheme". According to Ts'o, this is one
of the reasons why storage vendors like to talk to open source projects:
they want to move forward instead of holding on to legacy solutions. It
remains to be seen whether Windows will join the party.
Another change that Ts'o deems important is object-based storage. Instead of
presenting the abstraction of an array of blocks, addressed by their index
in the array (as traditional storage systems do), an object store presents
the abstraction of a collection of objects, addressed by a unique id. If
the operating system uses object-based storage, it stores an object with an
id, without having to know overly low-level details such as the sector or
cylinder of the block on the hard drive. When the operating system wants to
read the object later, it only has to know the object's id. Ts'o sees many
advantages in this approach: "With object-based storage, the
operating system can push more intelligence into the hard disk, which is
better placed anyway to make intelligent decisions and improve
Ts'o also notes that abstractions such as disks, RAID, logical volume
management, and file systems are more and more blending into each
other. "Maybe those different interfaces don't make sense anymore?
ZFS figured this out very well by building all those interfaces under the
umbrella of the file system, and btrfs will do something similar."
But he warns that this doesn't mean that people should settle with ZFS or
btrfs: "I hope that developers will keep exploring abstractions to
find the right interfaces." Ts'o also expressed his hope that the
license incompatibility between ZFS (CDDL) and Linux (GPL) would get
As a typical example of the proliferation of specialized file systems,
Jörn Engel talked at the NLUUG conference about LogFS, his scalable file system
for flash devices. Because most current file systems are designed for use on
rotating drives, and because flash-based storage has some quirks, Engel decided
to design a file system explicitly for flash. He started with a fast
filesystem (FFS) style
design and adjusted a lot of the algorithms to work better with flash. For
example, for copy-on-write, FFS rewrites blocks in place after the
copy. Because flash storage cannot be simply overwritten, a flash block
must be erased and rewritten in two separate steps, a requirement which can
cause serious performance problems. Engel's solution was to
use a log-structured design instead. Another issue was that the journal is written
often to the storage. Because there are limits to the number of
times a block of flash memory can be erased and rewritten reliably, Engel's
solution is to move the journal from time to time.
Engel said that LogFS is almost ready for use. He is still chasing one
hard-to-replicate bug, but, after that, he plans to submit the code for
inclusion in the Linux kernel tree. LogFS should be better than JFFS2 on
larger devices, because JFFS2 stores no filesystem directory tree on the
device. This means that JFFS2 has to perform a time- and memory-consuming
scan when it mounts the file system, building the directory tree at
that time. Putting the tree on the device, as LogFS does, reduces mount
time and memory requirements.
At the NLUUG Spring Conference a lot of recent developments were talked
about, not only regarding file systems, as Ts'o showed, but also higher in
the storage stack. Michael Adam for example stressed that Samba, which
started as a free re-implementation of Microsoft's SMB/CIFS networking
protocol, allows for setting up a clustered CIFS server, a feature that
current Microsoft servers do not offer.
The NLUUG Spring Conference was an interesting event thanks to the breadth
of the topics presented. On the one hand there were introductory talks
about the possibilities of ZFS, the virtual filesystem libferris and
practical experiences with WebDAV. On the other hand, visitors could get
some first-hand and highly specific information about the future direction
of projects like DRBD, device-mapper and LogFS. This way, the conference
had something for everyone: it gave a broad overview of the current state
of the art in file systems and storage, while providing enough technical
details for those interested in it. At least your author came home with a
better understanding of file systems and storage in the Linux ecosystem.
Comments (7 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: Random numbers for ASLR; New vulnerabilities in gnutls, kernel, ldns, squirrelmail,...
- Kernel: Seccomp and sandboxing; TuxOnIce: in from the cold?; Which I/O controller is the fairest of them all?
- Distributions: Looking forward to Fedora 11; Frields: Is this your stop?; Kongoni GNU Linux; Ubuntu is the Linux Usability Leader (LinuxPlanet)
- Development: The KDE Social Desktop's first appearance, Qt goes public, new versions of SQLite, SQLObject, sqlparse, TestDisk, Pyzor, Jopr, psutil, Zenoss, GNOME, Inforama, Whirlygig USB RNG, Wine, SquirrelMail, GNUmed, OO.o, JUnique, SfePy, SyncML, LDTP, GIT, monotone.
- Press: Trademarks: The Hidden Menace, LAC coverage, Dekoenigsberg interview, Hervey interview, Jyrinki interview, facts about ODF, Ubuntu One cloud service.
- Announcements: 2020 FLOSS roadmap call for contribution, FSF free software activist internship program, Gnash needs donations, Intel and Nokia partner on oFono, MontaVista Linux 6, new rPath CEO, R6xx/R7xx 3D guide, open-source awards, Black Hat Vegas, openSUSE Community Week, PHP TestFest, Linux.com relaunched.