Report from Debian Conference

By Andy Oram
August 6, 2010

Debian is a tremendously open community. They have to be, because a GNU/Linux distribution is a compendium of software taken from a huge range of sources. Most of the topics I encountered at the Debian Conference in New York City this week concerned outside activities or sources of software. It's a Red Queen's race integrating everything into the amazing distribution that is Debian.

One conference track, for instance, covered Java packaging, which has changed a lot since Sun opened up Java's licensing. There were sessions on coordinating with the Ubuntu project and on working with enterprise projects such as Samba.

We also held a community outreach track (which I helped a little to assemble). Its topics included bringing open source software into government, which was the topic of one talk I delivered (now on video in Ogg Vorbis format, bringing open source software into educational institutions, and recruiting community members to do documentation, which was the topic of another talk I delivered.

The latter talk (on video), which started with a discussion of FLOSS Manuals but broadened to include the relationship of documentation to product design and other topics, drew about 30 people, which was impressive for a 5:00 PM presentation after a long day. Many participants wanted to write and showed that they cared about good documentation. I've found that FLOSS Manuals, with whom I'm a volunteer, brings out a latent desire among free software advocates to promote it more effectively through educational materials.

I heard relatively few mentions of "Linux" this week. The Linux kernel remains, of course, the foundation on which everything else in Debian is built, but Linux-specific topics such as filesystems and networking weren't the major topics of discussion. (One team, I'm told, worked during the upcoming DebCamp on IPv6 support, which was available on the conference network.)

Debian started as an all-volunteer community--a break with the commercial basis of former GNU/Linux distributions--and has remained one. Everyone who prepared and worked at the conference was a volunteer. Even the expert audio and video staff were volunteers, using free software that the Debian community developed to do real-time editing and webcasting.

So there's no equivalent of Red Hat or Novell backing Debian (although they obviously have sponsors, as well as companies that offer professional support) and one attendee who works for a supercomputing firm said that the firm refused to support Debian because they lacked that commercial core.

Yet Ubuntu turned to Debian, and Knoppix turned to Debian--over a hundred distributions have turned to Debian for a robust underpinning that they trust not to go away. These are over a hundred signs of a successful community.

I was able to attend only the first half of the conference, so I'll cover a few of the talks I attended and then wrap up with some general observations.

Mark Shuttleworth dissects Unity

Since leaving his CEO job at Canonical and allowing others to take control of day-to-day management, Shuttleworth says he has pursued projects of particular interest to him. High on his list is Unity, the Ubuntu variant aimed at iPad-like netbooks. He went through a series of screens showing how the designers refined Unity's design over time, simplifying it, stripping out elements, and reducing chrome (decorations). The system is meant to run on either Qt or GNOME.

Architecturally, Unity is interesting for its use of D-Bus to tie applications to the underlying system. To save screen real estate, each time the user brings up an app, the screen displays the app's menus as part of a general system menu , as on the classic Mac OS. To make this possible, the application sends information over D-Bus. The same mechanism allows related applications (audio apps, for instance) to share a box on the screen.

Shuttleworth stressed the heightened role that search plays in the Unity user experience. Users of modern cell phones know how much quicker it is to type a few characters into a search box than to find a particular app, navigate through several menus, etc. An effective search-driven interface is quite hard to pull off, requiring a lot of coordination throughout the system.

Shuttleworth said that a search-driven interface reduces the importance of the filesystem hierarchy and the file in general as the unit of storage. A facility like GNOME Do can allow searches to run simultaneously on the local system and an Internet search engine. There was a lot of audience discussion at the end of the talk about the pros and cons of search versus traditional navigation.

Free software in education

A large audience filled the room for this lively panel, which included teachers, a librarian, and technologists. Most of the readers of this blog will already understand the value of free software in educational settings, so I won't laud it redundantly here. Besides obvious benefits such as lower costs and the possibility of customization, panelists and audience members discussed the quality of openness as an educational value in itself. The idea of something you can't take apart and look inside puts a crimp on education.

From a young age, it's suggested, students can be encouraged to pursue their reactions such as "This feature sucks" or "Why doesn't the machine do...?" and turn them into change requests. At slightly older ages they can learn some programming and actually contribute changes to the software they use every day. Thus, free software develops initiative and citizenship.

Gale Brewer on open government

A city counselor in New York, Gale Brewer, has pushed transparency and public participation in government for several years. Bandwidth economics, network neutrality (which has just broken out in the news again over the past couple days), computers for lower-class people, and open data are all on her agenda. She spoke to an overflow crowd at the conference, explaining why New York City's pressing needs for education and economic opportunity call for these efforts.

Cloud computing and Eben Moglen's networking plan

A small service provider at the conference chatted with me one morning and came out with an interesting long-range view of cloud computing. He believes that Infrastructure as a Service is a historical oddity that will disappear over time.

The thrust of his argument is as follows: large sites such as overprovisioned servers over the past several years, somewhat as 1990s telcos such as MCI WorldCom overbuilt long-range fiber. Seeking ways to monetize their extra capacity, and taking advantage of the spread of high-speed networking, and other sites recreated the old timesharing model in the form of Infrastructure as a Service.

The reason my colleague thought this form of cloud computing would be short-lived was that Moore's Law (should hardware designers find a way around today's power and heat problems) will lead to pocket-sized devices that can act as servers. If you could easily run as big a site as you need from your bedroom, why would you entrust your operation to a third party?

I can see several arguments against his thesis, including the Parkinson's Law of computer bloat (people always find a way to use new capacity) and the importance of redundancy for both storage and computing. But it was an interesting point of view, and it came to my mind later as I heard Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center deliver an update on his ongoing campaign to bring low-cost networking to everyone in the world, displacing the telecom oligopoly in the process.

Moglen's scheme involves cheap ARM-based processors, peer-to-peer networking, and free software for security and proxying. The room was packed for his talk, and it generated a lot of detailed questioning. I'm told that a lot of activity later in the conference centered on his plan.

Debian as an open community

I was being provocative at the beginning of this blog when I described the Debian community, because many people associate Debian with prickly exchanges on mailing lists and an attitude of "Don't bother with us unless you're as smart as we are." I saw nothing of this at the conference. A wide range of people were present and were accepted with open arms.

I suspect that the bad reputation comes from the typical problem people who haven't studied the sophisticated communication skills required to make email friendly. Furthermore, the Debian community is certainly smart, talking all the time about such things as how to hack the filesystem on a USB key to get a system running on it. And they insist on the highest quality at all times.

Furthermore, Debian developers and users are typical advocates: to outsiders they present their beloved system as the solution to the world's problems, while internally they engage in ruthless criticism in the quest to improve things. They probably don't see why newbies or visitors should be spared the candor they inflict on each other.

The conference itself was a potent mix of work and play. The moment when I first walked in seemed to be a work phase, with the lab oddly quiet as dozens of people silently typed away at laptops. But there was also a wine and cheese party--people around the world brought offerings--a trip to Coney Island, and other community-building fun.

It should be noted that the Debian community makes priorities of diversity and international participation, with affordability being an important part of the equation. Many developers' attendance was subsidized, and the local organizers invested a huge amount of effort in finding dormitory space and low-cost meals to ease the burden of traveling to one of America's most expensive cities.

I also can't leave the community aspect of the conference without thanking Columbia University, and particularly the heads of its computer science department, for doing so much to accommodate the hundreds of motley visitors, giving us the run of their facilities, and joining with us. As just one example of their dedication, when I came in at eight in the morning on Sunday, I was met by the head of the computer science department. She had stayed in the dorms overnight!

The Ubuntu relationship

The previous topic naturally brings to mind another oft-discussed issue: the tension between the Ubuntu and Debian communities. When a colleague told me he was hesitant to bring his Mac to the Debian conference, I joked that I was nervous booting up Ubuntu. We both did fine.

A few years ago, relations were indeed strained. The main problem seemed to be difficulties getting changes to packages in Ubuntu back upstream to Debian. Cultural differences also played a role, and perhaps some envy among Debian developers at the popularity of Ubuntu and at its corporate backing. Ubuntu liaison Jorge O. Castro says things are going well now, and that disagreements or misunderstandings will always crop up in situations where hundreds of people on each side are dealing directly with each other. Ubuntu tells people submitting change requests to start with Debian if the package originated there, and has rules for taking Debian patches.

A metaphor for free software

Coming to New York City reminded me of an old story I heard in elementary school. The story has been handed down to generations of students in the U.S. and is part of our cultural substrate. I have even heard it retold by people who didn't grow up in the U.S., so it's worth a moment of examination.

According to this story, a bunch of Dutch sailors arrived at the tip of Manhattan in the 1600s and "bought" it for $24 worth of trinkets. The story was enshrined in the school curricula and textbooks clearly as a justification for the European occupation of the Americas. After all, those stupid Indians didn't know the value of what they were giving up. Thee tale obviously made a powerful impression in an age when New York City was the center of global culture, the largest and richest city in the world.

In an age more tolerant of diversity, of course, anthropologists eventually looked into the story and exposed it as so much bull. In brief, the Dutch sailors could not have bought Manhattan because the aboriginal peoples who lived there had no concept of land ownership.

As I understand these anthropologists, the Indians probably thought they were granting the sailors some hunting and fishing rights. This would make sense because those resources were limited and worth negotiating for. Meanwhile, the sailors thought they were buying the island. I see in this disparity the nugget of why the world is in such a mess now.

But is not my purpose here to dump on the European settlers or their American descendants. We've got to accept what happened, take the best what emerged from our history, and forge ahead. The United States has been the source of many wonderful ideas exported to the rest of the world. And one of these ideas is free software.

The beauty of free software is that it doesn't merely return to an imagined aboriginal paradise of shared resources. Free software gives everyone a chance to contribute the best from his or her creative talents, while also allowing them to take the shared results and build a sustainable business or career. In effect, free software continuously expands the hunting and fishing grounds. (Animal rights activists will have to pardon the metaphor.) At the Debian conference, I saw this process flower.

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