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Thursday, 14 September 2006 23:45

Debian and Ubuntu: uneasy coexistence

It's considered a good thing that a free software project never really has to die - if the person who started it gives up, another can always take the code and run with it.

However at times the business of basing one project on an existing one does tend to cause some friction. And this is more so when the projects are as visible and high-profile as Debian GNU/Linux and Ubuntu.

Debian is a free software project that began in 1993 - it has its own guidelines, a social contract, and puts out a high-quality distribution. As the developers are all volunteers, there is no fixed timeline for releases. While several other Linux distributions have used Debian as their base, none has gained so much prominence as Ubuntu, a project that began in 2004 and is now arguably the most popular among beginners and intermediate-level users.

The Ubuntu developers are all paid for their work. Some of them are former Debian developers; there are some who contribute to both distributions. The Ubuntu project is owned by Mark Shuttleworth, a former Debian developer who made his pile by founding Thawte, a company which provided digital certificates and internet privacy. He sold the company to VeriSign in 1999.

Ubuntu is based on the unstable branch of Debian; one of its advantages has been that with paid developers, it has been able to promise and put out a release every six months. Shuttleworth has made no secret about the fact that while Ubuntu will be free, the company behind it, Canonical, will provide support at a cost. By contrast, Debian's release schedule is based on the principle that something will be released when it is ready; the last release, Sarge, came out in mid-2005, nearly 3-1/2 years after the previous release.

Debian's decision-making is done with all developers contributing if they wish; in the case of Ubuntu, Shuttleworth is the final authority when sticking points arise. At times, seemingly pointless flamewars erupt on Debian mailing lists and go on for days.

In recent days, the differences between the two groups has been brought into focus by the resignation of Mark Garrett from the Debian project. Garrett had been a developer for four years and was one of those who threw his hat in the ring for the post of project leader last year. (Australian Anthony Towns won the election for leader). Garrett made a public statement about leaving in which he praised the more rigid structure of Ubuntu; in his own words "having one person who can make arbitrary decisions and whose word is effectively law probably helps in many cases."

(The irony of Garrett's words is that here we have a developer of free software actually expressing a preference for the what appears to be more of a "cathedral" model of development. The word "cathedral" was coined by open source advocate Eric S. Raymond to characterise the way proprietary software development took place - he contrasted it with what he called the "bazaar" model. The best example of the latter, Raymond postulated, was the Linux kernel.)

Friction between Debian and Ubuntu has been developing for some time; last year, the founder of the Debian project, Ian Murdock, was concerned enough to call for timely release cycles by the Debian project. He also urged that an attempt be made to keep the growing family of Debian derivatives united around the common core of the distribution.
At least some Debian developers appear to think that Ubuntu takes more than it gives; this led in part to some wearing T-shirts with the words "F--- Ubuntu" at the annual Debian conference in Mexico this year. Some of the common frustrations felt by the Debian crowd were outlined by long-standing Debian developer Martin Krafft in a long posting in his blog soon after the conference. And another Debian veteran Joey Hess has voiced fears that Ubuntu is reducing Debian to "a supermarket of components."

Elaborating on this, Hess wrote: "My main motive for contributing to Debian is to make Debian the best distro I can; I don't mind if others use that work, especially if stuff gets contributed back. But it's long been clear to me that the most important added value to Debian is not adding another package to the shelf, but finding new ways to integrate our software together."

He went on to say: "...contributing individual patches back to Debian is simply not enough for Debian to share Ubuntu's improvements. It puts Debian at best in the position of wasting a lot of time trying to play catch-up and figure out how a collection of patches to different packages fits together into a coherent overall improvement."

How the differences will be resolved remains to be seen. But everyone who has any interest in either camp would surely be hoping that things will be worked out in a mature manner in such a way that both projects can move forward.

Disclosure: the author has been a user of Debian for the last six years.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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