Some Initiatives Resulting From DebConf10

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

By CJ Fearnley

I attended DebConf10 in early August at Columbia University in New York City. I thought I’d document some of the initiatives that resulted from that event.

I attended the Debian Policy BoF. It inspired me to start reviewing Debian Policy and led to my submission of a bug report to improve the description of the archive areas in Debian. In the BoF (Birds of a Feather) session, Russ Allbery requested help from everyone including non DDs (Debian Developers) to make policy clearer and more descriptive, so I obliged. I see that the negotiated text has been accepted and included in the git repository for the next release.

During the Debian Science sessions that I attended (see especially the video from the Debian Science Round Table), the idea of engaging upstream providers (software projects that are packaged by integrators like Debian) more effectively was discussed. This led me to draft a proposal that I posted to the Debian Project mailing list: Improving coordination / support for upstreams. There was precious little feedback, but I think it is a profoundly important issue: how do we improve coordination of upstreams with projects like Debian that integrate their software. So far there is very little infrastructure or knowledge about this important issue in the management of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software). How do you think we should start to address this problem?

I helped with the herculean task of getting Sage, a FOSS mathematics system, back into Debian. After discussing the issue during the Debian Science track at DebConf10, I met Lucas Nussbaum in the hacklab and he (with help from Luca Falavigna) managed to get the old buggy version of Sage removed from unstable (apparently, this version was causing support issues for the upstream Sage community, so this was a positive step forward). I also submitted five bugs (#592349, #592354, #592425, #592426, and #592429) about new upstream versions that are needed. I posted two detailed reports of work needed on packaging Sage for Debian to appropriate mailing lists. Getting Sage into Debian is the kind of big FOSS management challenge that I’m excited about. But I will need a lot of help to make progress. Let me know if you are interested in contributing to the effort!

Finally, for the record, here are links to the sessions where I participated in the discussion (video is available): Bits from the DPL, SPI BOF, Enterprise Infrastructure BOF, Mathematical Software in Debian, Overall presentation of Debian Science, and Debian Science Round Table.

Attending Debian Day and DebConf10 Next Week

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

By CJ Fearnley

Since I’ve been involved with Debian GNU/Linux for over 15 years, it is exciting that I will be able to attend the first two and a half days of DebConf10 including Debian Day from Sunday to Tuesday August 1–3.

I am particularly looking forward to the following sessions: Pedagogical Freedom: Debian, Free Software, and Education, Beyond Sharing: Open Source Design What are the challenges for the collaborative design process?, FLOSS Manuals: A Vibrant Community for Documentation Development, Bits from the DPL, The Java Packaging Nightmare, Collaboration between Ubuntu and Debian, How We Can Be the Silver Lining of the Cloud, Enterprise Infrastructure BOF How enterprise technologies such as Kerberos, LDAP, Samba, etc can work better together in Debian, Using Debian for Enterprise Infrastructure Stanford University: A Case Study, and more (see the schedule for each day).

I’m also hoping I can also attend on Thursday when the math and science focused sessions will be held, but I’ll have to see how next week’s schedule works out in the office. If you are coming to DebConf, I’ll see you there!

Organizations Learning to Contribute to FOSS “The Right Way”

Friday, May 7th, 2010

By Elizabeth Krumbach

A couple weeks ago I wrote that I would be attending the 4th Annual Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit. I wrote about much of my experience there and at the Open Source Business Conference back in March over in my personal blog: “Lessons from Open Source Business Conference and the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit”.

However, I also wanted to make a post here to cycle back to some of what I learned from the Collaboration Summit in relation to my March 30th post about contributing, “How and why contributing to FOSS can benefit your organization”. In this post I discussed using community tools, getting involved in the community and what steps you could take to get there. This was based upon several years of my own involvement in the FOSS (Free/Open Source Software) community directly and now my experience working for a company which makes FOSS contributions.

The talks at the Collaboration Summit strengthened my resolve in and increased the clarity of my understanding about the right way of going about contributing to FOSS as a company. At this conference there were multiple talks from major companies and figures within the FOSS business world which drove home the need for working with the community. All of these companies had stories about how they had tried to contribute to FOSS and struggled because they went about contributing as a walled off company rather than contributing just like other contributors did and using the same tools that contributors did.

A keynote which really stood out and succinctly discussed all of this was Dan Frye‘s talk, “10+ Years of Linux at IBM” (video). The first half of the keynote discusses the progress of Linux within IBM, but then he moves into discussing contributing itself. Some of their take-aways were that they needed to get involved directly with small contributions and do away with closed-door meetings and canned corporate responses, IBM employees were empowered to become community members. They needed to learn to collaborate with the community to develop higher quality solutions than they could have in-house, and to start these discussions with the community early in the brainstorming process. Related to collaboration, he also discusses control, and how a company does not have it within a community and needs to learn to deal with that, instead what a company should strive for is influence within a project to help guide direction and priorities. He also suggests never creating a project. Instead he encourages companies to join a project that’s close to what they need and work with them to take it in a direction that can benefit everyone and reach their goals and scratch their itches.

What struck me most at the conference regarding the subject of contributing is they are all reaching the same conclusions about the proper ways to successfully contribute. In the end, they learned that they must fully collaborate openly throughout development with the open source communities they’re working with.

How and why contributing to FOSS can benefit your organization

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

By Elizabeth Krumbach

At first glance, the ecosystem in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) world can seem a bit complicated. There are several ways to get software: project websites where you can download it directly, use a software management tool that your Linux distribution provides, or you may also be able to install a Linux distribution that includes everything you need right out of the box! Once you understand this ecosystem, you can find where your contributions would be most useful, and why contributing is beneficial to your organization and the FOSS community.

So, where does this all begin? FOSS often originates with a project which maintains the source code for the software and provides its own development and support infrastructure.

A Linux distribution is a carefully culled collection of software from these upstream projects which makes a complete operating system and even includes a lot of application software. This collection of software is tested and prepared to run securely and maintainably together. Debian is built upon this model.

Some distributions of Linux use Debian as a source project unto itself. There are a number of Linux distributions based on Debian, including the popular KNOPPIX and Ubuntu distributions. Being “based on Debian” can mean several things, but it primarily means they draw from the software repository at some point in the release cycle, and they use the Advanced Packaging Tool (apt) to manage this software. In these cases Debian is an intermediary between the original FOSS project and the “children” distributions which may also pull from original software projects to expand upon what Debian provides to target their particular focus.

So where in this software ecosystem should your organization contribute? Why would your organization choose to contribute to Debian rather than to the original project (“upstream” of Debian) or a project like Ubuntu (“downstream” of Debian)? It really depends on your goals.

If your organization is interested in using FOSS in a way which requires rapid development, new and diverse features released quickly, or specializations that the distribution may not easily support, you will probably want to work directly on the upstream project. Frequently this requires programming experience, but many projects need other kinds of help such as bug reports in the form of feature requests which they may be able to satisfy in later releases. In these cases, contributing to development in these projects directly is the best way to meet your needs in using and building upon the software.

If your organization needs to use FOSS in a stable, maintainable and secure way, you should probably work directly with Debian. The primary duty of most developers within the Debian community is working on the “packages” which make up the operating system: creating, updating, patching, tracking their security and handling bugs, forwarding details and patches to the upstream projects when applicable. This is what maintains the solid, core operating system that makes up not only Debian, but the child distributions which depend on it, and which could not exist without it. By contributing to Debian you’re also contributing to Ubuntu, Knoppix, and dozens more, improving the tool shelf for everyone (related: Given 250,000 tools on the shelf, how do you manage them?). Contributing to Debian also helps the upstream projects, taking the burden off of them to provide installation documents and support on Debian and placing that upon you, plus making their software more readily available to users through a simple search through the Debian repository.

If the target of one of Debian’s children better meets your organization’s needs which cannot be achieved through Debian directly, then by all means contribute directly to it. Child distributions already exist which focus on everything from being an Open Source LiveCD toolbox (like KNOPPIX) to being a polished desktop operating system (like Ubuntu). As an example, even within Ubuntu’s family there are targeted projects, like Edubuntu, focused on education by packaging and shipping a collection of educational software and a project devoted to making your computer a PVR like TiVo called Mythbuntu which works with the MythTV project to easily deliver their software on a platform. Contributing to projects like these also expands the open source ecosystem and may be the preferred method to reach your organization’s goals.

Understanding the way in which these projects and distributions work together and selecting a place in the workflow for your organization to contribute is the first step. But perhaps a more important question is why you’d want to work on a FOSS project instead of doing in-house development. The benefits for the FOSS community are obvious, they will reap the benefits of having your expertise, from having the packages in Debian and beyond, but are there benefits for your organization?

I believe there are big benefits, which include:

  • Peer review of packages and software now and in the future
  • Processes for asking the community for assistance
  • Bug reporting infrastructure, which may include patches submitted by community members
  • Procedures to become informed about security problems and policy changes
  • Free collaborative resources provided for FOSS projects (Alioth for Debian,  SourceForge, LaunchPad or the Apache Foundation, etc) for development, including development mailing lists and hosted revision control systems like git, bazaar, svn.
  • Opportunity to learn key FOSS development strategies and industry “best practices” via freely available documentation, chat rooms, forums and mailing lists

In short, by putting the time in to releasing software, packaging for Debian or work in children distributions, you not only are doing good for the FOSS community, you get to take advantage of the plethora of tools, resources and people available to assist in the development process.

Contributing to FOSS: A Business Perspective

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

By Elizabeth Krumbach

Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting at the Central Pennsylvania Open Source Conference on the topic of Contributing to FOSS (slides available here).

In the talk I explored the many ways individuals can get involved in FOSS (Free and Open Source Software), briefly covering everything from programming to artwork to documentation. As diverse as these contributions are, the common thread is close collaboration with the project itself. In particular, following the procedures in place for contributing to the project is essential. The talk also reviewed some of the benefits of contributing to FOSS, which include career advancement and the ability to expand your professional network.

Although my presentation focused on individual contributions, these lessons also apply to how businesses benefit by contributing to FOSS. When a business approaches a project they should attempt to build a symbiotic relationship with the community. Such a relationship involves following the established community procedures so that your contributions can be easily adopted by the project. Useful scripts and code developments made within the company that can be useful to the greater public should be contributed back and packaging of popular software within the company can be submitted for inclusion and use by the greater community. Testing and bug reporting based on experience using FOSS on their production (or development) systems can provide important information for FOSS developers about the health and status of their projects.

Benefits for businesses that we at LinuxForce have seen first hand are referrals for projects based on documentation work completed on popular community websites (such as Debian-Administration.org) and feedback on our approach leading to improved best practices and building a reputation as experts. By sharing code with projects, others can build upon it to produce more functionality than your team could muster on its own, creating better software for everyone. Additionally, our involvement has allowed us to foster development of Debian packages for software that is used by our clients by, for instance, improving automatic database configuration support and making sure up to date packages are included in releases.

In conclusion, when a business contributes to FOSS they can help drum up business by building a reputation and doing real work within the community, and they help their customers by being on the forefront of development direction and discussions for software that is vital for their own organizations. Contributing to FOSS is good for business, good for your customers, good for the community, and good for the FOSS ecosystem in general.