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News and Editorials

Distribution-friendly projects - Part 1

March 26, 2008

This article was contributed by Diego Pettenò

[Editor's note: This article, which looks at the interactions of software projects and distribution providers, will be presented in three parts.]


In today's world most users of Linux don't build their system from scratch by downloading the sources of the applications and libraries they need and building them by hand. Most users will use one or more distributions (the ones that best suit their needs), and they'll stick with the packages provided by the distribution for as long as they can.

Power users may know how to get the software they want and build it so it runs, but the average user won't go around looking for software that is not readily available to them. The job of a distribution is, of course, to provide as much software as its users will need, sometimes changing the software so that it suits the needs of its users better.

The distribution's developers, the so-called downstream developers, have different responsibilities compared to the original software developers, the upstream developers. The former are responsible directly to their users, while the latter are usually more focused on implementing their software correctly for their own standards (which means for instance implementing a protocol exactly as described by the standard, or supporting a file format exactly as it should be).

Most of the time, these two objectives are compatible with one another, and users face an interface that hides the details of the implementation. Sometimes though there are user requests that upstream developers won't acknowledge, for instance: to parse a file that was written improperly by a commonly-used tool (maybe a proprietary tool that does not support free software). In these cases, some distributions tend to edit the source, creating a modified version for that particular distribution, with a different behaviour, interface, or what not.

It's because of cases like this, especially in the last few years, that there have been many arguments between original developers and distributions, which sometimes involved legal threats, forks or removal of software from distributions' repositories. It's not fun to watch these arguments going by, and sometimes it's all because of differences in opinion between the developers, or in how their experiences have affected their views.

Starting with the idea that everybody wants to have the software they wrote used, this article will try to explain what distributors want and why they ask the original developers to cooperate toward that goal. People who worked both as an upstream developer and as a downstream maintainer usually know what is being done with their code in a distribution and why. For people who have only seen one side, understanding of the needs or the reasons of the other side might be a very difficult task.

Technical and philosophical needs

The majority of the points where upstream and downstream have different views can be divided into technical and philosophical points. On the technical side, distributors need to make the software build on their system, without lots of workarounds, and it should follow the same behaviour as other software in their setup. On the philosophical side, they have needs relating to user requests and expectations. Users expect some consistency in how software looks and behaves on their system. Often, both of these kind of matters relate to the policy (written or unwritten) of that distributor.

While one might actually expect a philosophical debate between developers on formats and how to implement a protocol, it's difficult to understand how so many arguments are caused by different technical requests. Unfortunately even the technical needs are often different between upstream projects and distributions. The only way to accommodate both is to provide choices, something that more times than not is considered bad by the upstream developers, who do not want the complication of too many choices.

I sincerely doubt there will ever be a time when all the upstream developers and the downstream maintainers will be on the same page, but it is possible to at least try to understand what the other side wants, and see if it's possible to cover their needs, without regressing. Even if that means increasing the complexity a bit. It is true that most of today's tools, in every area, are more sophisticated and complex than their equivalent years ago (tens of years for computer tools, hundreds of years for other areas).

[This ends part 1 of this article. Part 2 will look at the technical needs of distributions and the upstream developers. Finally, part 3 will cover the philosophical concerns and present some conclusions. Stay tuned for part 2, which should air in two weeks.]

Comments (9 posted)

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