The Mageia distribution was formed in September 2010 when a group of former Mandriva employees combined forces with motivated community members to fork the software and form a non-profit association to manage the distribution and its assets. The project founders cited a lack of faith in the faltering Mandriva S.A. company, which had recently laid off much off the development team. As we discussed last week, the state of Mandriva is still unclear, while Mageia made its first stable release in June 2011, and is now nearing its second.
Gauging the health of an open source project is a tricky undertaking. Oliver Burger recently announced that the release schedule for Mageia 2, would be pushed back, with a final release now slated for May 15th. To some that would indicate cause for concern, but to be fair even large and well-established projects occasionally slip on their release schedule, as happens frequently with Fedora.
In the announcement, the revised Mageia 2 schedule was described as the result of outstanding bugs resulting from migration to systemd for initialization and dracut for initial ramdisk creation, as well as usability changes to the DrakX installer. Moving to systemd and dracut will bring Mageia more in line with Red Hat and Fedora, which should simplify packaging and development for the smaller project in the long run. The very first Mandrake release was based on Red Hat, back in 1998, and the distribution remains roughly compatible in other respects (including use of RPM as the package format). On the packaging front, though, Mageia also chose to embrace RPM 4.x, while Mandriva took to the rival RPM 5.
While the original Mandrake shipped with KDE in place of GNOME as the desktop environment, a distinction still maintained in the latest Mandriva release, Mageia offers both. The latest development build for Mageia 2 (beta 3, released April 18), is provided as a live CD in both GNOME and KDE versions, for both 32-bit and 64-bit architectures, and in five different language packs covering distinct regions of the globe. If that is not enough options, there are also three DVD ISO images (each of which includes KDE, GNOME, and LXDE): one for 32-bit systems, one for 64-bit, and one with both.
Beta 3 ships with kernel 3.3.1, KDE 4.8.2, and GNOME 3.2, which puts it slightly behind in its GNOME packages. There was talk of migrating to Grub 2 and btrfs as well, but both moves appear to have been pushed back until after Mageia 2. There are also several outstanding issues regarding video driver support (detailed in the Mageia 2 errata).
I tested the GNOME version of beta 3 (since I am more familiar with GNOME) on a 32-bit system. Although I was bitten by the video driver bug described in the errata, the desktop experience is snappy, and Mageia provides a good, well-rounded GNOME 3 experience. The live CD version includes most of the same standbys you will find in any contemporary distribution: Firefox 10 (the extended support release), LibreOffice 184.108.40.206, Evolution, Empathy, and so on.
Mageia does differentiate itself by offering its own system and configuration tools, derived from Mandriva. They do a better job than most distributions of presenting configuration options in human-readable form (e.g., "Set up a new network interface" rather than "Network Manager"), although die-hards might object to the pervasive use of the word "administrator" in place of "root." The Rpmdrake software-update tool is also unique to the Mandriva heritage; it is a tree-view driven installer and update manager akin to most others, but it also separates applications into multiple levels of categorization and allows you to filter updates based on whether they are security fixes, bugfixes, or general updates, and to distinguish between GUI applications, non-GUI applications, and metapackages.
Governance and community
Perhaps a better way to assess how a new distribution is getting along is to look at the vitality of its community and contributor pool. On this front, Mageia appears to be in good shape. The distribution hosts both mailing lists and web discussion forums for users, as well as the typical IRC option and a number of developer-team-specific mailing lists. Both the forum and community list are active — there are about 1500 registered forums users, and the list tends to generate on-topic threads that involve multiple active parties. That is in contrast with the scenario we have all seen from time to time when one or two people tend to dominate every discussion.
But although the list traffic is healthy, one thing does stand out about it. Even on the mageia-discuss list, which is "about Mageia general discussions: future plans, community, association, ...," development discussions account for the bulk of the traffic. Installer issues, casual bug reports, build notes, and debates over package selection are commonplace. What this suggests is that Mageia's user community is still largely composed of developers and packagers, rather than end-users. This is a good indicator that the contributor pool is motivated and engaged, but it also indicates that the distribution has yet to break through to the mainstream public.
The mageia-dev list is even higher traffic, particularly package maintainers push updates in preparation for the Mageia 2 release. The project's organization is interesting; it has an elected board that takes responsibility for the governance of the non-profit foundation and overall mission-and-direction questions, and a separate community council in charge of planning, coordination, and production. Board members are elected to one-year terms, but the seats on the community council are filled by three representatives from each team (development, packaging, QA, documentation, translation, infrastructure, etc). There are currently 13 members.
That governance model is in the minority among large, established distributions. OpenSUSE, Fedora, and Ubuntu all include corporate appointees in their governing bodies. Debian does not, naturally, as it does not have a corporate sponsor, but its technical committee is charged primarily with technical policy duties, and can only overrule a developer decision by a 75% majority vote. Mageia's board and council appear to function rather casually, as befits a young project. Dispute resolution and major technical crises have yet to strike the distribution in a big way (although there were decisions to be made leading up to the Mageia 1 release) — but if history teaches anything about open source projects, the disputes will come.
Mageia's founders wanted to insulate the distribution against business concerns that would endanger the future of the software product itself — with good reason, considering the recent financial woes on Mandriva's side. But a small distribution needs more than legal protection to make itself successful in the marketplace. As a result, Mageia's recent moves to bring the distribution back in line with the system stack used by its RPM-based contemporaries are just as important as its community structure; they make development more sustainable by relying on healthy upstream projects, rather than expending limited resources on roll-your-own components.
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