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Fedora defines its vision

By Jake Edge
October 6, 2010

After a long period of discussion and deliberation, the Fedora project has started to put together concrete answers to the questions that have been swirling within that community: "What is Fedora?" and "Who is Fedora for?". The Fedora engineering steering committee (FESCo) recently approved a policy on updates that will govern how package updates are applied to the various Fedora branches, while the Fedora board has come up with a "vision statement". Both of those will help answer the questions, but they aren't complete answers, at least yet, and meanwhile there are other community members, like Mike McGrath, who are proposing major shifts in the direction of the project.

The vision statement is meant to serve as an overall guide to what Fedora is and why it exists in a single sentence. Obviously it isn't a manifesto, but is, instead, a succinct guide that can be used at a high level to decide what fits for the project—as well as what doesn't. The final draft was presented by Fedora project leader Jared Smith for comments in advance of a board meeting to discuss it, which was held on October 1. Some wordsmithing was done to the draft at that meeting, which resulted in:

The Fedora Project creates a world where free culture is welcoming and widespread, collaboration is commonplace, and people control their content and devices.

That wording was adopted at the October 4 board meeting, and the the project is still putting together some background and rationale statements to go along with it. The next step, according to Máirín Duffy's meeting summaries for the September 27 and October 1 board meetings, is to come up with tangible goals for specific special interest groups (SIGs) and teams within the project that are based on the vision. In addition, the board will set high-level priorities that FESCo and others can use to set their own goals. Based on that, the vision statement will be used to make each Fedora release more focused than we have seen in the past, with the board and other leaders trying to shape the efforts of Fedora volunteers into a more cohesive whole.

Update policy

Once the release is made, the update policy will kick in to try to calm the flood of updates that tend to follow any release. In particular:

[...] we should avoid major updates of packages within a stable release. Updates should aim to fix bugs, and not introduce features, particularly when those features would materially affect the user or developer experience. The update rate for any given release should drop off over time, approaching zero near release end-of-life; since updates are primarily bugfixes, fewer and fewer should be needed over time.

This necessarily means that stable releases will not closely track the very latest upstream code for all packages. We have rawhide for that.

That stands in sharp contrast to some of the updates that have been pushed in the past (e.g. KDE) just to provide additional features. Security updates are handled somewhat differently, particularly for packages where upstream doesn't provide a backport and it would be "impractical" for the package maintainer to make that change. In that case, subject to the judgement of FESCo and the maintainer, it may make sense to move forward to a new release that is supported by upstream.

In addition to the overall philosophy that is meant to slow down the updates train, there are more stringent requirements for critical path packages. Those are the packages that are considered essential functionality without which the system is unusable. That includes various system-level packages (kernel, init system, X server, etc.), but has been augmented by the updates policy to include things like desktop environments, important desktop applications (Firefox, Konqueror, Evolution, Thunderbird, etc.), and the package updating tools (PackageKit and friends). In order to push out an update to any of those packages, even for a security update, it requires a two or higher "karma" sum in Bodhi, and one of the positive votes must come from a proven tester.

For updates that do not affect the critical path, the requirements are relaxed somewhat. Those updates can either pass the criteria for the critical path, reach a (presumably lower) karma threshold specified by the maintainer, or spend at least a week in the updates-testing branch. But, once again, it is stressed that the changes should not affect the ABI/API or user experience "if at all possible".

Different direction?

McGrath's proposal is to shift Fedora from a packaging organization into more of a development organization, with a focus on providing open source "cloud" applications and services. While it fits in just fine with the vision statement, it is a radical departure from what most folks think of as Fedora. The reaction on the fedora-advisory-board mailing list has been, not surprisingly, mixed. Some community members are excited about a shift in that direction, while others are less so.

There is a real question, though, how Fedora would go about making this change, even if the board and community were completely behind it. As Jesse Keating points out:

Again, what exactly are you proposing the board do then? It's not as if the board has resources they can say "stop working on foo, start working on bar", or have resources to go out and hire Bob, Jim, and Sue to start working on bar.

Keating is concerned that McGrath's proposal will be "another drive-by 'hey, we should be doing THIS thing over here, somebody should look into that.'" But McGrath sees it as a bigger project, that might involve other organizations, so it is something that the board would have to facilitate:

I'm proposing a complete reorganization of The Fedora Project. Leave FESCo and their current role as it is. Figure out how to create a new FESCo type org for this new goal. I'm proposing the board find/request the resources to make this happen. Contact the likes of mozilla perhaps even google. Look around and see who else is interested in contributing resources and see if this is feasible. If the board's job isn't to set vision, policy and find resources, what is it?

Free (as in freedom) cloud services have been on the minds of lots of FOSS advocates lately. Many folks are increasingly locking their data up in proprietary web applications, at least partially because there are no alternatives. It may be too late to disconnect the general public from services like Facebook, but even the staunchest free software advocate would be hard-pressed to point to a free, working alternative. If no one in the FOSS world starts working on cloud applications, we will remain stuck in that uncomfortable position.

There are hopes that things like Diaspora will fill the role of Facebook for privacy and freedom-conscious users and there are some other nascent efforts to fill in other holes, but there isn't, yet, any umbrella project that is looking at the whole picture. That is what McGrath would like to see Fedora evolve into. It seems like that may be a hard sell for the Fedora community (and its sponsor Red Hat), but it would be a very valuable project for some new or existing FOSS organization to take on.

Conclusion

While it may seem rather late for Fedora to be hashing these things out (after 13, nearly 14, separate releases over seven years), it is a sign that the distribution has reached a critical mass. Over the last year or two, there have been various factions pulling Fedora in different directions, and without much guidance from the board or FESCo. Those competing interests have finally caused the project to really consider its focus and direction. There are undoubtedly those who will be unhappy with the update policy, possibly to the point of leaving the project, but for those that remain, it should make it a friendlier, and easier, place to work.

Comments (2 posted)

Brief items

Distribution quote of the week

Not cool. It's like you're getting kids under the drinking age all fired up about a new club, and when they actually show up, they are bounced at the door. How rude! If you're going to recruit folks like this to help Linux out, Linux needs to be something they can be inspired by — something they can actually use. Otherwise, why will they care? And for the few who either are inspired already and see the potential, or who find out about free software & culture on their own and have some interest in it, it's not just that they have to gear up just to be able to join your project — there's alternatives calling out to them that are more welcoming and far easier to get started with.
-- Máirín Duffy

Comments (3 posted)

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