The relationship between Debian and Ubuntu has been the subject of many
vigorous debates over the years, ever since Ubuntu's launch in 2004.
Six years later, the situation has improved and both projects
are communicating better. The Natty Narwhal Ubuntu Developer
Summit (UDS) featured—like all UDS for more than 2 years—a Debian
Health Check session where current cooperation issues and projects are
discussed. A few days after that session, Lucas Nussbaum gave a talk
during the mini-Debconf
Paris detailing the relationship between both projects, both at the
technical and social level. He also shared some concerns for Debian's
future and gave his point of view on how Debian should address them.
Both events give valuable insights on the current state of
Lucas Nussbaum's Debian-Ubuntu talk
Lucas started by introducing himself. He's an Ubuntu developer since 2006
and a Debian developer since 2007. He has worked to improve the collaboration
between both projects, notably by extending the Debian infrastructure to show
Ubuntu-related information. He attended conferences for both projects
(Debconf, UDS) and has friends in both communities. For all of these reasons,
he believes himself to be qualified to speak on this topic.
Collaboration at the technical level
He then quickly explained the task of a distribution: taking upstream
software, integrating it in standardized ways, doing quality assurance on
the whole, delivering the result to users, and assuring some support
afterward. He pointed out that in the case of Ubuntu, the distribution
has one special upstream: Debian.
Indeed Ubuntu gets most of its software from Debian (89%), and
only 7% are new packages coming from other upstream projects (the
remaining 4% are unknown, they are newer upstream releases of software
available in Debian but he was not able to find out whether the Debian
packaging had been reused or not). From all the packages imported from
Debian, 17% have Ubuntu-specific changes. The reasons for those changes
are varied: bugfixes, integration with Launchpad/Ubuntu One/etc., or
toolchain changes. The above figures are based on Ubuntu Lucid (10.04) while
excluding many Ubuntu-specific packages (language-pack-*, language-support-*,
kde-l10n-*, *ubuntu*, *launchpad*).
The different agendas and the differences in philosophy (Debian
often seeking perfect solutions to problems; Ubuntu accepting
temporary suboptimal workarounds) also explain why so many packages are
modified on the Ubuntu side. It's simply not possible to always do the
work in Debian first. But keeping changes in Ubuntu requires a lot of work
since they merge with Debian unstable every 6 months. That's why they have
a strong incentive to push changes to upstream and/or to Debian.
There are 3 channels that Ubuntu uses to push changes to Debian: they
file bug reports (between 250 to 400 during each Ubuntu release cycle),
they interact directly with Debian maintainers (often the case when
there's a maintenance team), or they do nothing and hope that the Debian
maintainer will pick up the patch directly from the Debian
Package Tracking System (it relays information provided by patches.ubuntu.com).
Lucas pointed out that those changes are not the only thing that
Debian should take back. Ubuntu has a huge user base resulting in lots of
bug reports sitting in Launchpad, often without anyone taking care of
them. Debian maintainers who already have enough bugs on their
packages are obviously not interested in even more bugs, but those who are
maintaining niche packages, with few reports, might be interested by the
user feedback available in Launchpad. Even if some of the reports are
Ubuntu-specific, many of them are advance warnings of problems
that will affect Debian later on, when the toolchain catches up with
Ubuntu's aggressive updates. To make this easier for Debian maintainers,
Lucas improved the Debian Package Tracking System so that they can easily
get Ubuntu bug reports for their packages even without interacting with
Human feelings on both sides
Lucas witnessed a big evolution in the perception of Ubuntu on the Debian
side. The initial climate was rather negative: there were feelings of its work
being stolen, claims of giving back that did not match the observations of
the Debian maintainers, and problems with specific Canonical employees
that reflected badly on Ubuntu as a whole. These days most Debian developers find
something positive in Ubuntu: it brings a lot of new users to Linux, it
provides something that works for their friends and family, it brings new
developers to Debian, and it serves as a technological playground for
On the Ubuntu side, the culture has changed as well. Debian is no
longer so scary for Ubuntu contributors and contributing to Debian is The
Right Thing to do. More and more Ubuntu developers are getting involved in Debian
as well. But at the package level there's not always much to contribute, as
many bugfixes are only temporary workarounds. And while Ubuntu's
community follows this philosophy, Canonical is a for-profit company that
contributes back mainly when it has compelling reasons to do so.
Consequences for Debian
In Lucas's eyes, the success of Ubuntu creates new problems. For many
new users Linux is a synonym for Ubuntu, and since much innovation happens
in Ubuntu first, Debian is overshadowed by its most popular derivative.
He goes as far as saying that because of that "Debian becomes less
He went on to say that Debian needs to be relevant because the
project defends important values that Ubuntu does not. And it needs to
stay as an independent partner that filters what comes out of Ubuntu,
ensuring that quality prevails in the long term.
Fixing this problem is difficult, and the answer should not be
to undermine Ubuntu. On the contrary, more cooperation is needed. If
Debian developers are involved sooner in Ubuntu's projects, Debian will
automatically get more credit. And if Ubuntu does more work in
Debian, their work can be showcased sooner in the Debian context as
The other solution that Lucas proposed is that Debian needs to
communicate on why it's better than Ubuntu. Debian might not be better for
everybody but there are many reasons why one could prefer Debian over
Ubuntu. He listed some of them: "Debian has better values"
since it's a volunteer-based project where decisions are made publicly
and it has advocated the free software philosophy since 1993. On the other hand,
Ubuntu is under control of Canonical where some decisions are imposed, it
advocates some proprietary web services (Ubuntu One), the installer
recommends adding proprietary software, and copyright assignments are
required to contribute to Canonical projects.
Debian is also better in terms of quality because every package has a
maintainer who is often an expert in the field of the package. As a
derivative, Ubuntu does not have the resources to do the same and instead
most packages are maintained on a best effort basis by a limited set of
developers who can't know everything about all packages.
In conclusion, Lucas explained that Debian can neither ignore Ubuntu
nor fight it. Instead it should consider Ubuntu as "a
chance" and should "leverage it to get back in the center
of the FLOSS ecosystem".
The Debian health check UDS session
While this session has existed for some time, it's only the second
time that a Debian Project Leader was present at UDS to discuss collaboration
issues. During UDS-M (the previous summit), this increased involvement
from Debian was a nice surprise to many. Stefano
Zacchiroli—the Debian leader—collected and shared the
feedback of Debian developers and the session ended up being very
productive. Six months later is a good time to look back and verify
if decisions made during UDS-M (see blueprint)
have been followed through.
Progress has been made
On the Debian side, Stefano set up a Derivatives
Front Desk so that derivative distributions (not just Ubuntu)
have a clear point of
contact when they are trying to cooperate but don't know where to start.
It's also a good place to share experiences among the various
derivatives. In parallel, a #debian-ubuntu channel has been started on OFTC (the
IRC network used by Debian). With more than 50 regulars coming from both
distributions, it's a good place for quick queries when you need advice
on how to interact with the distribution that you're not familiar
Ubuntu has updated its documentation to prominently feature how to
cooperate with Debian. For example, the sponsorship process
documentation explains how to forward patches both to the upstream
developers and to Debian. It also recommends ensuring that the patch
is not Ubuntu-specific and gives some explanation on how to do it (which
includes checking against a list of common packaging
changes made by Ubuntu). The Debian Derivative Front Desk is
mentioned as a fallback when the Debian maintainer is unresponsive.
While organizing Ubuntu Developer
Week, Ubuntu now reaches out to Debian developers and tries to have
sessions on "working with Debian". Launchpad has also been extended to provide a list of bugs with
attached patches and that information has been integrated in the Debian
Package Tracking system by Lucas Nussbaum.
Still some work to do
Some of the work items have not been completed yet: many
Debian maintainers would like a simpler way to issue a sync request (a
process used to inject a package from Debian into Ubuntu).
There's a requestsync command line tool provided by the ubuntu-dev-tools
package (which is available in Debian) but it's not yet usable because
Launchpad doesn't know the GPG keys of Debian maintainers.
Another issue concerns packages which are first introduced in Ubuntu.
Most of them have no reason to be Ubuntu-specific and should also end up
in Debian. It has thus been suggested that people packaging new software
for Ubuntu also upload them to Debian. They could however
immediately file a request
for adoption (RFA) to find another Debian maintainer if they
don't plan to maintain it in the long term. If Ubuntu doesn't make
this effort, it can take a long time until someone decides to reintegrate
the Ubuntu package into Debian just because nobody knows about it.
This represents an important shift in the Ubuntu process and it's not
certain that it's going to work out. As with any important policy change,
it can take several years until people are used to it.
Both issues have been rescheduled for this release cycle, so they're
still on the agenda.
This time the UDS session was probably less interesting than the
previous one. Stefano explained
once more what Debian considers good collaboration practices: teams
with members from both distributions, and forwarding of bugs
if they have been well triaged and are known to apply to Debian. He also
invited Ubuntu to discuss big changes with Debian before implementing
An interesting suggestion that came up was that some Ubuntu developers could
participate in Debcamp (one week hack-together before Debconf) to work
with some Debian developers, go through Ubuntu patches, and merge the
interesting bits. This would nicely complement Ubuntu's increased presence
at Debconf: for the first time, community management team member Jorge Castro was at DebConf 10 giving a talk on
collaboration between Debian and Ubuntu.
There was also some brainstorming on how to identify packages where the
collaboration is failing. A growing number of Ubuntu revisions (identified
for example by a version like 1.0-1ubuntu62) could indicate that no
synchronization was made with Debian, but it would also identify packages
which are badly maintained on the Debian side. If Ubuntu consistently has
a newer upstream version compared to Debian, it can also indicate a
problem: maybe the person maintaining the package for Ubuntu would be better
off doing the same work in Debian directly since the maintainer is lagging or not
doing their work. Unfortunately this doesn't hold true for all packages
since many Gnome packages are newer in Ubuntu but are actively maintained
on both sides.
Few of those discussions led to concrete decisions. It seems most
proponents are reasonably satisfied with the current situation. Of course,
one can always do better and Jono Bacon is going to ensure that all
Canonical teams working on Ubuntu are aware of how to properly cooperate
with Debian. The goal is to avoid heavy package modifications without
The Debian-Ubuntu relationships used to be a hot topic, but that's no
longer the case thanks to regular efforts made on both sides. Conflicts
between individuals still happen, but there are multiple places where they
can be reported and discussed (#debian-ubuntu channel, Derivatives
Front Desk at firstname.lastname@example.org on the
Debian side or email@example.com on
the Ubuntu side). Documentation and infrastructure are in place to
make it easier for volunteers to do the right thing.
Despite all those process improvements, the best results still come out
when people build personal relationships by discussing what they
are doing. It often leads to tight cooperation, up to commit rights to the
source repositories. Regular contacts help build a real sense of
cooperation that no automated process can ever hope to achieve.
to post comments)