This army is a diverse bunch.At a recent Linux conference,Jeff Bates,
one of the editors of the influential website Slashdot (www.slashdot.org),
pointed me toward the Debian booth,which was next to theirs.“If you
look in the booth,you can see that map.They put a pushpin in the board
for every developer and project leader they have around the world.China,
Netherlands,Somalia,there are people coming from all over.”
James LewisMoss is one of the members,who just happened to be in
the Debian booth next door. . He lives in Asheville,North Carolina,
which is four hours west of the Convention Center in downtown
Raleigh.The Debian group normally relies upon local volunteers to
staff the booth,answer questions,distribute CD-ROMs,and keep peo-
ple interested in the project.
LewisMoss is officially in charge of maintaining several packages,
including the X Emacs,a program that is used to edit text files,read e-
mail and news,and do a number of other tasks.A package is the official
name for a bundle of smaller programs,files,data,and documentation.
These parts are normally installed together because the software won’t
work without all of its component parts.
The packager’s job is to download the latest software from the program-
mer and make sure that it runs well with the latest version of the other soft-
ware to go in the Debian distribution.This crucial task is why groups like
Debian are so necessary.If LewisMoss does his job well,someone who
installs Debian on his computer will not have any trouble using X Emacs.
LewisMoss’s job isn’t exactly programming,but it’s close.He has to
download the source code,compile the program,run it,and make sure
that the latest version of the source works correctly with the latest ver-
sion of the Linux kernel and the other parts of the OS that keep a sys-
tem running.The packager must also ensure that the program works
well with the Debian-specific tools that make installation easier.If there
are obvious bugs,he’ll fix them himself.Otherwise,he’ll work with the
author on tracking down and fixing the problems.
He’s quite modest about this effort and says,“Most Debian developers
don’t write a whole lot of code for Debian.We just test things to make sure
it works well together.It would be offensive to some of the actual pro-
grammers to hear that some of the Debian folks are writing the programs
when they’re actually not.”
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He added that many of the packagers are also programmers in other
projects.In his case,he writes Java programs during the day for a com-
pany that makes point-of-sale terminals for stores.
LewisMoss ended up with this job in the time-honored tradition of
committees and volunteer organizations everywhere.“I reported a bug
in X Emacs to Debian.The guy who had the package at that time said,
‘I don’t want this anymore.Do you want it?’I guess it was random.It
was sort of an accident.I didn’t intend to become involved in it,but it
was something I was interested in.I figured ‘Hell,might as well.’”
The Linux development effort moves slowly forward with thousands
of stories like LewisMoss’s.Folks come along,check out the code,and
toss in a few contributions that make it a bit better for themselves.The
mailing list debates some of the changes if they’re controversial or if
they’ll affect many people.It’s a very efficient system in many ways,if
you can stand the heat of the debates.
Most Americans are pretty divorced from the heated arguments that
boil through the corridors of Washington.The view of the House and
Senate floor is largely just for show because most members don’t attend
the debates.The real decisions are made in back rooms.
The mailing lists that form the core of the different free software
projects take all of this debate and pipe it right through to the mem-
bers.While some discussions occur in private letters and even in the
occasional phone call,much of the problem and controversy is dissected
for everyone to read.This is crucial because most of the decisions are
made largely by consensus.
“Most of the decisions are technical and most of them will have the
right answer or the best possible one at the moment,”says LewisMoss.
“Often things back down to who is willing to do the work.If you’re
willing to do the work and the person on the other side isn’t willing,
then yours is the right one by definition.”
While the mailing list looks like an idealized notion of a congress for
the Linux kernel development,it is not as perfect as it may seem.Not all
comments are taken equally because friendships and political alliances
have evolved through time.The Debian group elected a president to
make crucial decisions that can’t be made by deep argument and consen-
sus.The president doesn’t have many other powers in other cases.
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While the Linux and GNU worlds are dominated by their one great
Sun King,many other open source projects have adopted a more mod-
ern government structure that is more like Debian.The groups are still
fairly ad hoc and unofficial,but they are more democratic.There’s less
idolatry and less dependence on one person.
The Debian group is a good example of a very loose-knit structure
with less reliance on the central leader.In the beginning,Ian Murdock
started the distribution and did much of the coordination.In time,the
mailing list grew and attracted other developers like Bruce Perens.As
Murdock grew busier,he started handing off work to others.Eventually,
he handed off central control to Perens,who slowly delegated more of
the control until there was no key maintainer left.If someone dies in a
bus crash,the group will live on.
Now a large group of people act as maintainers for the different
packages.Anyone who wants to work on the project can take responsi-
bility for a particular package.This might be a small tool like a game or
a bigger tool like the C compiler.In most cases,the maintainer isn’t the
author of the software or even a hard-core programmer.The main-
tainer’s job is to make sure that the particular package continues to work
with all the rest.In many cases,this is a pretty easy job.Most changes in
the system don’t affect simple programs.But in some cases it’s a real
challenge and the maintainer must act as a liaison between Debian and
the original programmer. Sometimes the maintainers fix the bugs
themselves.Sometimes they just report them.But in either case,the
maintainer must make sure that the code works.
Every once and a bit, , Debian takes the latest stable kernel from
Torvalds’s team and mixes it together with all of the other packages.
The maintainers check out their packages and when everything works
well,Debian presses another CD-ROM and places the pile of code on
the net.This is a stable “freeze”that the Debian group does to make
sure they’ve got a stable platform that people can always turn to.
“Making a whole OS with just a crew of volunteers and no money is a
pretty big achievement.You can never discount that.It’s easy for Red Hat
to do it.They’re all getting paid.The fact is that Debian makes a good sys-
tem and still continues to do so.I don’t think that there’ve been that many
unpaid,collaborative projects that complex before,”says Perens.
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When Perens took over at Debian he brought about two major
changes.The first was to create a nonprofit corporation called Software
in the Public Interest and arrange for the IRS to recognize it as a bona
fide charitable organization.People and companies who donate money
and equipment can take them off their taxes.
Perens says that the group’s budget is about $10,000 a year.“We pay
for hardware sometimes.Although a lot of our hardware is donated.We
fly people to conferences so they can promote Debian.We have a trade
show booth.In general we get the trade show space from the show for
free or severely discounted.We also have the conventional PO boxes,
accounting,phone calls.The project doesn’t have a ton of money,but it
doesn’t spend a lot,either.”
The Debian group also wrote the first guidelines for acceptable open
source software during Perens’s time in charge. . These eventually
mutated to become the definition endorsed by the Open Source
Initiative.This isn’t too surprising,since Perens was one of the founders
of the Open Source Initiative.
Debian’s success has inspired many others.Red Hat,for instance,
borrowed a significant amount of work done by Debian when they put
together their distribution, , and Debian borrows some of Red Hat’s
tools.When Red Hat went public,it arranged for Debian members to
get a chance to buy some of the company’s stock reserved for friends
and family members.They recognized that Debian’s team of package
maintainers helped get their job done.
Debian’s constitution and strong political structure have also inspired
Sun,which is trying to unite its Java and Jini customers into a commu-
nity.The company is framing its efforts to support customers as the cre-
ation of a community that’s protected by a constitution.The old para-
digm of customer support is being replaced by a more active world of
customer participation and representation.
Of course,Sun is keeping a close hand on all of these changes.They
protect their source code with a Community Source License that places
crucial restrictions on the ability of these community members to stray.
There’s no real freedom to fork.Sun’s not willing to embrace Debian’s
lead on that point,in part because they say they’re afraid that Microsoft
will use that freedom to scuttle Java.
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The Apache group is one of the more businesslike development teams
in the free source world.It emerged in the mid-1990s when the World
Wide Web was just blossoming.In the early years,many sites relied on
web servers like the free version that came from the NCSA,the super-
computer center at the University of Illinois that helped spark the web
revolution by writing a server and a browser.This code was great,but it
rarely served all of the purposes of the new webmasters who were start-
ing new sites and building new tools as quickly as they could.
Brian Behlendorf,one of the founders of the Apache group,remem-
bers the time.“It wasn’t just a hobbyist kind of thing.We had need for
commercial-quality software and this was before Netscape released its
software.We had developed our own set of patches that we traded like
baseball cards.Finally we said,‘We had so many paths that overlap.
Why don’t we create our own version and continue on our own.’”
These developers then coalesced into a core group and set up a struc-
ture for the code.They chose the basic,BSD-style license for their soft-
ware,which allowed anyone to use the code for whatever purpose with-
out distributing the source code to any changes.Many of the group
lived in Berkeley then and still live in the area today.Of course,the
BSD-style license also made sense for many of the developers who were
involved in businesses and often didn’t want to jump into the open
source world with what they saw as Stallman’s absolutist fervor.
Businesses could adopt the Apache code without fear that some license
would force them to reveal their source code later.The only catch was
that they couldn’t call the product Apache unless it was an unmodified
copy of something approved by the Apache group.
Several members of the group went off and formed their own com-
panies and used the code as the basis for their products.Sameer Parekh
based the Stronghold server product on Apache after his company
added the encryption tools used to protect credit card information.
Others just used versions of Apache to serve up websites and billed oth-
ers for the cost of development.
In 1999,the group decided to formalize its membership and create a
not-for-profit corporation that was devoted to advancing the Apache
FreeForAll/139-276/repro 4/24/00 9:31 AM Page 237
server source code and the open source world in general.New members
can apply to join the corporation, , and they must be approved by a
majority of the current members.This membership gets together and
votes on a board of directors who make the substantive decisions about
This world isn’t much different from the world before the corpora-
tion.A mailing list still carries debate and acts as the social glue for the
group.But now the decision-making process is formalized.Before,the
members of the core group would assign responsibility to different peo-
ple but the decisions could only be made by rough consensus.This
mechanism could be bruising and fractious if the consensus was not
easy.This forced the board to work hard to develop potential compro-
mises,but pushed them to shy away from tougher decisions.Now the
board can vote and a pure majority can win.
This seriousness and corporatization are probably the only possible
steps that the Apache group could take.They’ve always been devoted to
advancing the members’interests.Many of the other open source pro-
jects like Linux were hobbies that became serious.The Apache project
was always filled with people who were in the business of building the
web.While some might miss the small-town kind of feel of the early
years, the corporate structure is bringing more certainty and pre-
dictability to the realm.The people don’t have to wear suits now that it’s
a corporation.It just ensures that tough decisions will be made at a pre-
Still, the formalism adds plenty of rigidity to the structure. An
excited newcomer can join the mailing lists,write plenty of code,and
move mountains for the Apache group,but he won’t be a full member
before he is voted in.In the past,an energetic outsider could easily con-
vert hard work into political clout in the organization.Now,a majority
of the current members could keep interlopers out of the inner circle.
This bureaucracy doesn’t have to be a problem,but it has the potential
to fragment the community by creating an institution where some peo-
ple are more equal than others.Keeping the organization open in prac-
tice will be a real challenge for the new corporation.
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If there’s a pantheon for marketing geniuses,then it must include the
guy who realized people would pay $1 for several cents’worth of sugar
water if it came in a shapely bottle blessed by the brand name Coca-
Cola.It might also include the guy who first figured out that adding
new blue crystals to detergent would increase sales.It is a rare breed
that understands how to get people to spend money they don’t need to
The next induction ceremony for this pantheon should include
Robert Young,the CEO of Red Hat Software,who helped the Linux
and the open source world immeasurably by finding a way to charge
people for something they could get for free.This discovery made the
man rich,which isn’t exactly what the free software world is supposed
to do.But his company also contributed a sense of stability and cer-
tainty to the Linux marketplace, and that was sorely needed. Many
hard-core programmers,who know enough to get all of the software for
free,are willing to pay $70 to Red Hat just because it is easier.While
some may be forever jealous of the millions of dollars in Young’s pocket,
everyone should realize that bringing Linux to a larger world of com-
puter illiterates requires good packaging and hand-holding.Free soft-
ware wouldn’t be anywhere if someone couldn’t find a good way to
charge for it.
The best way to understand why Young ranks with the folks who dis-
covered how to sell sugar water is to go to a conference like LinuxExpo.In
the center of the floor is the booth manned by Red Hat Software,the
company Young started in Raleigh,North Carolina,after he got through
working in the computer-leasing business.Young is in his fifties now and
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Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested