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Managing an open source community project is an art - especially when one is a for-profit company. As the examples of Oracle and the former Sun Microsystems have shown, it is not an easy proposition.

Sun found it difficult to make OpenSolaris an attractive enough proposition and Oracle, which bought Sun, had slowly jettisoned most of the open source projects it inherited.

There are tensions aplenty because the objectives of a for-profit unit and a community project could not be more different. On Tuesday, at SUSECon in Orlando, two SUSE employees attempted to shine the light on some of the issues that surround a company which has its own successful community project. Jos Poortvliet (above, left) functions as the community manager for openSUSE, while Robert Schweikert (above, right) is a public crowd architect and a member of the openSUSE board.

SUSE has a well-known Linux distribution, SUSE Linux Enterprise; there are both desktop and server versions. It set up openSUSE as a community Linux distribution back in 2005, soon after the Ubuntu distribution was released by Canonical.

There is an obvious advantage to SUSE having such a community project - there are many would-be free and open source developers who would love to contribute to a project but are unable to do so when that project is under the auspices of a proprietary entity.

The code from a community project gets tested rigorously by users who are happy with having a good distribution for their personal use. And then the code feeds into the enterprise distribution.

Individuals can easily contribute to a project like openSUSE, and, according to figures provided by Poortvliet, this is exactly what has happened. There are around 800 regular contributors to openSUSE, 500 maintainers and more than 6000 packages.

Poortvliet claims some 440,000 systems are running the distro, based on the number of systems which have been updated regularly over the last six months, a figure which puts it ahead of Red Hat's community distribution, Fedora.

As Schweikert put it, an enterprise has to offer support, has paying customers, has to be predictable, and offer certifications. It also has to offer customer deployment and upgrade cycles. Uncertainty has to be removed to the extent possible.

On the other hand, in openSUSE, there is little planning and the project stays as close to upstream projects as possible to spread the workload. There is no worry about proprietary applications, and developers drive adoption of the latest technology based on self-interest.

The question, Schweikert said, was how these opposing interests be managed, without too much friction.

"People who join come for the technology but stay for the people," is how Poortvliet explained the growth of a community project.

openSUSE is run by a six-member board; five are elected and one, the chairman, is from SUSE. Of the five, no more than two can be from a single company. And, yes, there are people from companies other than SUSE on the board.

openSUSE acts as the upstream for SUSE; its own upstream is individual free and open source software projects. At a given time, SUSE adopts openSUSE packages, based on customer and partner requests, development goals and desired functionality.

Packages are hardened, tested and fixed if needed and then go into the enterprise distribution. Other changes go to the upstream projects and then back to openSUSE.

Does SUSE dictate things to openSUSE? Most certainly not - and the case of the request to make Btrfs the default filesystem for the next release, version 13.1 of openSUSE, due out shortly, is a good example.

In this case, the request was made too late, according to Schweikert. There were many perceptions about Btrfs of which SUSE was unaware; the company was made aware of these. In turn, the community learned the true state of affairs, that there were a host of things to do, before this could be acted upon.

As a result, Btrfs will not be the default in openSUSE 13.1.

Another case which was cited is that of YaST, the venerable set-up utility that has been part of SUSE going back to the 1990s. It was mostly written in a language known as YCP and as a result there were no outside contributions.

However, there was a suggestion from several people in SUSE that this be rewritten in Ruby. They were willing to do the work. There was logic behind this: it would open the code for contribution, the workload could be shared and community members could add modules.

The result? From openSUSE 13.1 onwards, YaST would be Ruby-based, Poortvliet said.

The writer is attending SUSECon as a guest of SUSE.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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