From 20th to 23rd of October 2010, the second international openSUSE conference
took place in Nuremberg, Germany. With the motto "Collaboration across
Borders", all users, contributors, and supporters of the openSUSE project
and free software in general were invited to four days of learning,
discussing, and hacking. More than 250 openSUSE enthusiasts came to
Nuremberg, and it was an excellent opportunity to see how the openSUSE
project is doing these days.
Get your ass up
Hendrik "Henne" Vogelsang, a founder and board member of the openSUSE
project, gave the first keynote, "Get your ass up!". He kicked off his
presentation with a question to the audience about how old they thought
SUSE was. People tend to forget that SUSE is one of the oldest
distributions: it's already 18 years old. Compare that with Debian which is 17 or Red Hat/Fedora which is 16. People from all over the world have been using SUSE since they were very young, and it has a large user base. But at the same time, the community is very young: the openSUSE project was founded only 5 years ago, and Henne explained that it has only become a real open source project very recently: "For the first 3 years we really struggled in the transition from a company-made product to an open source project. Only when Factory was opened in 2009, openSUSE became really open."
This means that openSUSE is in a unique position: it is a very young project with a very old distribution and a very large user base. According to Henne, now is the time to take advantage of this position and make a difference: "We have no rules, so we have all freedom to start to do things today." And he immediately followed this with the advice to take responsibility:
There is no big dark overlord in the background who fixes things if we fail or who tells us what to do. Novell won't, the openSUSE board won't, the team leaders won't, the strategy team won't. It's you that makes the difference, so step up and take responsibility.
Then Henne highlighted some examples of people that stuck their neck out and made a difference. Andrew Wafaa spearheaded a MeeGo version of openSUSE, Smeegol. This is not a Novell-initiated project (although there are some Novell people contributing as individuals), but completely done by volunteers. The openSUSE wiki is another example of the power of individuals: when the openSUSE project was started 5 years ago, one of the first things some volunteers did was starting with a wiki. And a couple of months ago, the openSUSE wiki team launched a complete overhaul of the wiki with a new structure, theme, and search engine. Last but not least, Henne praised the strategy team and community manager Jos Poortvliet for investing their time.
He also stressed that you don't need to wait for an OK from everybody before you start with such an initiative: just make the difference, consensus is not needed. One of the things often stopping us from stepping up is the fear of duplication, he explained: "Why do we offer 8 desktop environments, why do we have Vim, Emacs and Gedit, why do we have KDE's Plasma Netbook and MeeGo for netbooks, and so on." According to Henne, there is nothing wrong with this: duplicated efforts are not a waste of time, because we can't all possibly want the same things. His advice is simple: don't let other people tell you to not do something because someone else already did it; we need diversity. He put it somewhat bluntly: "If you want to help, then help; but if you see someone doing something you are not interested in, just shut up and get out of the way."
Another thing that discourages people to step up is the fear of failure. But of course, if you always take a safe route and don't fail, then the project never really advances, never innovates. That's why it's so important to let each other fail and pick each other up after that. Henne's last advice in his talk is a direct consequence of this approach: "Don't always think things through: you can't always have a 100% solution. Even if you have a small idea, try it out. Be playful, this is what open source is about." All in all, Henne's talk was a great reminder of the responsibility that each individual community member in an open source project bears.
OpenSUSE's community manager Jos Poortvliet presented an update about the strategy discussion we wrote about in June and in September. He started his talk with a remark: "When I joined Novell, I was glad that this discussion was going on, because I hadn't a really good idea of what openSUSE was either." He summarized that a strategy has two main goals: to help make decisions, and to help focus. Both goals are needed not only for technical matters, but also for marketing. For example, if the openSUSE marketing team decides to create a leaflet, the result should obviously depend on the target audience and the goals of the distribution. For instance, will you present the openSUSE Build Service and YaST in the leaflet? Probably not if you're targeting beginners. And will you make a default choice for a desktop environment? If you target beginners, you can choose for the users so they don't have to; but if you target power users, you pick a default desktop environment but allow choosing, or you include all necessary information for the users to make an informed choice themselves.
Jos also made it clear from the beginning that a strategy is not a vehicle to limit the community: he referred to Henne's message that you should not tell people not to do something, and he added that this holds even if it's something going against the strategy. And in a philosophical mood, he said "If you're not seeing yourself in the strategy document, the document has to change; not you!" In a free software community, people will always work on all sorts of things, but if you have a clear identity (not just "We are just another Linux distribution, and we're green") and clear goals, it's much easier to invite and attract other people.
The current openSUSE vision and strategy proposal is published on co-ment, a web-based document collaboration and annotation tool. The target user of openSUSE is described like this:
We cater to beginner or advanced users who are interested in computers and want to experiment, learn or get work done. We offer them a stable and comfortable computing experience which does not limit their freedom of choice, offering sane defaults and easy configuration.
Jos gave some hypothetical examples: if you're an audio professional and need JACK and a realtime kernel, you are one of openSUSE's target users. And if you're a student new to Linux but wanting to learn and experiment, you're also a target user. The strategy also spells out what openSUSE offers:
We are the openSUSE Community - a friendly, welcoming, vibrant, and active community. Within the openSUSE Project we provide an open and innovative atmosphere to collaboratively work on a variety of distribution- and packaging related technologies and products.
Our development philosophy is stability and flexibility rather than being bleeding edge; innovative community infrastructure; and actively seeking collaboration with the wider Free and Open Source community.
The openSUSE project is built upon three pillars mentioned in the above quote: the community, the distribution, and the infrastructure. Therefore, the strategy proposal describes all three pillars. The community ("the heart of the openSUSE project") is described as collaborative and contributing improvements to upstream projects. Moreover, the community works closely with companies in its ecosystem that provide additional value, including support and enterprise offerings on top of or derived from openSUSE technology. Also, the barrier to becoming part of the openSUSE community should be lowered wherever possible. And last but not least, the proposal emphasizes that openSUSE aims to foster the development of free and open source software, but takes a pragmatic approach to what they ship to their users. Jos explained this as "We prefer to ship free software, but we'll not screw our users if they want audio or Flash support."
The openSUSE distribution is described as follows:
The openSUSE distribution offers a powerful, stable core and enables everybody to contribute additional packages and tools through the openSUSE Build Service: freedom and choice are our keywords.
Jos added that one of the goals of the distribution is a good out-of-the-box experience based on sane defaults. The freedom of choice is exemplified in a wide software selection and compatibility with other operating systems, including Windows and Mac OS X. The last pillar of the project is the infrastructure:
The freely available openSUSE tools and services aim to support the collaborative development process within openSUSE and we encourage other projects to leverage them for their own usage.
This infrastructure part refers to one of the really strong points of the openSUSE distribution in recent times. The openSUSE Build Service makes it possible to make up to date packages available for multiple current releases, even for other distributions. Moreover, with the Kiwi build system and SUSE Studio, the project provides technology to easily build openSUSE derivatives in the form of live images, appliances, and even full distributions. Your author experienced that this is not just theory: when he wanted to create a Dutch version of the openSUSE 11.3 KDE4 live CD this week and his first attempts failed, he asked Jos who could help him and got an immediate response from openSUSE Boosters Will Stephenson and Stephan Kulow. After some configuration changes and two kiwi commands, the result was the desired Dutch live CD.
The strategy proposal also lists some things that openSUSE doesn't focus on. For example, it won't oversimplify the system to the point where configuring it becomes harder: "We prefer flexibility over an extreme focus on ease of use". OpenSUSE will also not aim at having the latest and greatest in shipped releases, nor will it provide feature upgrades for a shipped release. But flexibility also means that if you really want to install the latest packages, you can through the openSUSE Build Service. This way, you preserve the stability and integrity of the rest of your system.
After the presentation, there was plenty of time for questions, and questions there were. A valid criticism that was raised is that the wording of the current strategy proposal is too developer-centric. Jos agreed that this is the case and said that he wants to address this in a next version. Another person had the opinion that the strategy proposal is too boring and negative (he summarized it as "We don't want to be selfish like Ubuntu or unstable like Fedora"), to which Jos answered that a strategy document is indeed boring, but that it's needed to build upon and to create exciting marketing material.
Someone else remarked that this strategy doesn't seem actionable: "How will it change how we do openSUSE? What are the next steps?" According to Jos, this strategy is indeed not sufficient, some people need to step up and really move the community forward to its goals. Someone else proposed to split the document into a short one with a sexy high-level description of the strategy, and an implementation document that describes how the community will implement this strategy. The latter document can then talk about detailed things like openSUSE not doing feature upgrades for a shipped release.
openSUSE and Novell
Gerald Pfeifer, Director of Product Management at Novell's Open Platform Solutions Business Unit and thus responsible for all SUSE Linux Enterprise products and SUSE Studio, was the keynote speaker on Friday, with a talk entitled "openSUSE and Novell: an unlikely couple?" In his talk, Gerald tried to answer some misconceptions about how openSUSE and Novell work together. He started by stressing that there is no such thing as "Novell employees" as opposed to "the community": many of the employees of Novell's Open Platform Solutions business unit, even in the management team, have a history with free software. "A lot of Novell employees are part of the community, and these people with their feet in both Novell and the openSUSE community are not only important for openSUSE but also for Novell." As a side note, he remarked that it even doesn't make much sense to talk about "the openSUSE community", as there is an openSUSE kernel community, openSUSE forums community, openSUSE wiki community, openSUSE KDE community, openSUSE GNOME community, and so on, all behaving differently.
So why does Novell support the openSUSE community? Gerald presented Novell's twofold goal: increase the share of Linux as opposed to other operating systems, and maximize the amount of openSUSE and SUSE Linux Enterprise used. But even just awareness - if people know what openSUSE is - is already important. That said, Novell is a company with shareholders and a board, and it has certain rules and regulations to follow. For instance, a company is supposed to increase revenue or decrease costs with every action it takes, so Gerald explained that Novell can't fulfill each request from the openSUSE community like "Why don't you add 50 more people to the openSUSE Boosters team?"
Obviously Novell needs openSUSE because it is the base for SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE). Gerald made this clear: "It's very hard to develop an enterprise Linux distribution every three to four years if you don't base it on a current distribution." For SLE, Novell does a lot of quality assurance, so it becomes more ripe and stable than openSUSE, but Gerald stressed that stability is not a side criterion for openSUSE: "OpenSUSE is not a crash test facility for our enterprise Linux distribution, and it never was meant to be: I want it to be as stable as possible." He admitted, though, that there was at least one painful case where this went wrong: many SUSE users will remember the broken update mechanism in SUSE Linux 10.1.
One of those areas were Novell has a clear focus on contributing to openSUSE directly is the openSUSE Boosters team. These are thirteen people paid by Novell to support and "boost" the openSUSE community: they don't develop specific projects or maintain specific packages, but if they see a stumbling block for users or contributors, they remove these obstacles, e.g. in the areas of documentation or infrastructure.
But Gerald emphasized that Novell is contributing a lot more people to
the openSUSE project than just the Boosters: there is for example the
security team, the openSUSE community manager Jos Poortvliet, kernel
people, a GCC maintainer who maintains GCC packages for openSUSE even if
these versions are not and will not be used in SUSE Linux Enterprise
(Richard Günther), and so on. Moreover, Novell contributes hardware
and other infrastructure, and even pays legal costs, e.g. for checking
license compliance. Tools like the openSUSE Build Service and SUSE Studio,
developed by Novell, are directly beneficial to the openSUSE community as
well. Of course, Novell also provides significant contributions to upstream projects of various sorts, which also benefits openSUSE.
Gerald concluded his talk by saying that it's important both for Novell
and openSUSE that openSUSE stands more on its own feet: "I want to
see more openSUSE volunteers at next year's conference." His
reasoning was: the more Novell needs to direct efforts to baseline work,
the less will land higher up the stack in terms of innovation. That's also
why he said that Novell is very supportive of an openSUSE Foundation,
e.g. by investing quite a bit of lawyers' time for the needed legal work.
After his talk, Gerald left some room for questions, which were
numerous. Andrew Wafaa asked the most interesting one from the point of
view of the relationship between Novell and openSUSE: why doesn't Novell
open up its internal mailing lists? Gerald's answer was that internal
mailing lists will always exist, and other companies working with open
source projects also have them. Some conversations should just remain
internal to the company. However, he has seen several cases of discussions
on an internal mailing list, e.g. about the kernel, where someone mentioned
openSUSE and someone else requested taking the matter to the opensuse-kernel mailing list. "At Novell, we all keep an eye on which discussions benefit from being done publicly." Someone else in the audience added the remark that the openSUSE community also has a responsibility here: "Keep the openSUSE mailing lists friendly, otherwise not only external people but also Novell employees get scared and discuss their stuff on the internal mailing lists."
Between focus and anarchy
These three talks give a good picture of what is going on in the
openSUSE community right now. The presence of Gerald's talk in the schedule
seems to suggest that Novell feels the need to defend the specifics of its
relationship with openSUSE to the community. His assurance that Novell is
very supportive of an openSUSE Foundation should be nice to hear for
members of the community who want a stronger and more independent
distribution that is able to attract more corporate sponsors.
The two other talks had somewhat contradictory messages. While Henne emphasized that everyone can do what they want in the openSUSE project, Jos tried to convince his audience that openSUSE needs a focused strategy to attract new people. Both of these approaches have some truth in them, but combining them will be a delicate task for the project. If everything is possible, like Henne maintains, then openSUSE will be a wonderful playground for technology enthusiasts and anarchist programmers, but most people from outside the community may be scared to join this chaos. On the other hand, if openSUSE chooses a strategy that is too focused, it may be easily able to attract new people that are interested in its goals, but it may alienate many of its current users.
The trick will be to fine-tune the current strategy to the point where
most members of the community will choose to focus on the strategy's goals themselves, while those who want to explore other topics still have the freedom to do so. In practice, this doesn't seem a big change from the current situation, but it's important that people who contribute or want to contribute to openSUSE now have some written guidelines. Coupled with Henne's reminder that each individual community member bears responsibility for the project, the message is clear: now that openSUSE seems to have figured out its place in the Linux ecosystem, it's time to take action.
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