host of a Debian miniconf; that, in turn, was where relatively new Debian
leader Stefano Zacchiroli delivered a relatively high-energy
"state of Debian" talk. According to Stefano, Debian is doing great, but
can do better yet; he has some ideas for how to make the project better.
Debian has grown a lot since its origin back in 1993. At this point, it
holds around 29,000 packages and is the base for some 120 derivative
distributions. There have been eleven major releases over the life of the
project, with the twelfth getting closer. The project has about 900
developers, plus about 120 "Debian maintainers" working on it. It would
seem that Debian is going strong.
Still, Stefano says that there is a certain amount of FUD going around the
project, often voiced by Debian's developers themselves. Those developers
worry that other distributions release more often, innovate more, and have
more users than Debian does. Also, somehow, those distributions seem to
get more credit. In this context, Stefano asked: is Debian still better,
and is it still relevant? His answer was "yes" on both counts.
So why is Debian better? Freedom and independence were at the top of
Stefano's list. Debian, he says, has pushed the concept of free software
more strongly than most other distributions, and certainly more than the
company-backed distributions have. As a result, Debian's users are more
aware of freedom-related issues. Debian is free software from the bottom
to the top - even down to the firmware anymore. There are no non-free web
services either, for users or for developers.
Most high-profile alternatives to Debian are tied to companies, which means
that, to some extent, they are answerable to those companies. Debian is
not, which gives the distribution the freedom to make its own decisions.
And, in fact, project governance is, according to Stefano, one of Debian's
strengths. It is, at its core, a "do-ocracy," where any developer is
entitled to make all decisions related to his or her own work. For group
decisions, reputations are tightly tied to the work that each developer has
done. So those who do the work make the decisions; Debian's decisions are
not imposed by any outside entity.
Finally, Stefano asserts that Debian is better because of the quality of
the distribution. The "release when it is ready" policy may lead to slow
and unpredictable releases, but it also enables stable releases. And, in
Debian, most package maintainers are experts on the software they deal
That said, Debian can be better yet. To that end, Stefano is trying to
encourage Debian developers to take more responsibility for the quality of
the distribution as a whole and to step up to get the work done. At the
top of his list is helping to get releases out the door; that responsibility, he
says, does not just lie with the release team. Debian developers should
"be bold" and, once they have dealt with their own release-critical (RC)
bugs, they should go off and fix RC bugs in other packages as well.
In other words, Stefano is pushing Debian developers to use the
non-maintainer update (NMU) process to push fixes into other developers'
packages. Traditionally, Debian has given its developers a high level of
control over their packages; an NMU is seen as an action to be taken only
when there is a dire need to do so. Stefano thinks that NMUs should be
done much more frequently; the "delayed" mechanism should be used to give
the package maintainer a chance to respond to the changes.
The use of NMUs is at the core of Stefano's RC
bug of the week initiative. He has performed some 180 NMUs fixing RC
bugs without hearing a single complaint from the maintainers involved.
Instead, he often gets thanks. On occasion, the maintainer has overridden
the NMU with a different fix, but that's good too: it still means that the
bug gets fixed. All told, Stefano thinks it has been a successful
initiative which should be adopted by others.
With regard to the perception that Debian lacks the manpower to get jobs
done, Stefano says: be that manpower. In particular, he would like to see
more developers joining core teams which are having a hard time getting
their work done. It is, he says, harder than ranting on the mailing lists,
but it is also more productive and satisfying. There is also, he says, a
feeling that Debian has reached a point where there is too much inertia to
make large changes. But it shouldn't be that way if developers jump in and
simply make those changes happen. Along the way, developers shouldn't always try to
seek consensus on
the mailing lists; there will always be vocal, dissatisfied minorities but
they shouldn't be able to keep things from getting done.
Speaking of the mailing lists, Stefano would like to see Debian become a
more attractive community to be a part of. Things have improved a lot over
the years, but they can improve further yet. The project cannot afford to
lose people who are unable to develop a thick-enough skin to work within
the community. So he would like to see more active discouragement of bad
behavior, both privately and publicly.
Finally, it would be good, he says, to reduce the barriers to participation in
Debian. One of the best things that could happen there would be to improve
the documentation of Debian's processes and procedures. A posting to
debian-devel-announce is not, he says, documentation; there is no central
organization and it is hard for newcomers to find later on.
With Stefano, the Debian project seems to have picked a more energetic and
more communicative leader than in the recent past. He seems determined to
make use of the soapbox the project has loaned him to push the project
toward improving itself. Time will tell how much Debian's famously
independent-minded developers are willing to follow Stefano's lead, but his
goals - better releases and a more pleasant, more engaged community - seem
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