Home Business IT Business Telecommunications Debian and Ubuntu: uneasy coexistence continues

Debian and Ubuntu: uneasy coexistence continues

In September 2006, an article titled "Debian and Ubuntu: uneasy coexistence" appeared in these columns, outlining why these two projects were not exactly the best of bedfellows.

Nearly three years later, following the announcement of a time-based freeze by the Debian GNU/Linux Project - and subsequent back-pedalling that this would not apply to the next release, Squeeze - it is evident that nearly as much bad feeling and suspicion still exists.

It is bubbling beneath the surface and major announcements like that cited serve to bring it out.

The announcement said that Debian would now effect a freeze in the December of every odd year - 2009, 2011 and so on - and aim to release in the Northern spring of the following year. This means that the freeze ahead of the next release, Squeeze, would have to be done and dusted in four months.

Given the increasing corporate use of GNU/Linux, there has been pressure on Debian from various quarters to adhere to some kind of time-based release process. This pressure increased no end after the emergence of Ubuntu, based on the unstable branch of Debian, which has tied its releases to the six-monthly release cycle of the GNOME Desktop Project.

Debian developers responded (start of a long discussion) with surprise and, in many cases, anger, to the announcement which was made during the project's annual conference, DebConf, held, this year, in Caceres, Spain.

Many expressed surprise that such a major announcement was made without any discussion on the mailing lists.

It didn't take long for one, Sandro Tosi, to write: "I'm considering how we can get this decision undone. Anyone up for helping with that?"

When the Debian release manager, Luk Claes, referred to the announcement as a proposal, Marc Haber shot back : "Nobody would have objected to a proposal. This was a press release, which has already been picked up by the major news sites. You didn't propose anything, you announced a decision."

The Ubuntu factor didn't take long to surface. When a non-developer, Tshepang Lekhonkhobe, wrote , "How about using this opportunity to help fulfill the Shuttleworth dream of freezing both Ubuntu LTS and Debian at the same time?", the answer came back in a flash from Bernd Zeimetz: "The only reason for this dream is to make sure that Debian fixes the Ubuntu bugs for free."

Another developer, Peter Samuelson, wrote: "There've been a lot of rumors (sic) that the 10 months until squeeze freeze has more to do with trying to benefit Ubuntu LTS, than anything about "momentum". This unfortunately sounds a lot more plausible to me."

Others raised the point that if Debian and Ubuntu made releases at the same time, Debian would have much older software in its stable release compared to the Ubuntu release - and this would probably mean that when it came to choice, the number of people opting for Ubuntu over Debian stable would increase.

Debian has three branches of development - the stable branch receives only security updates, the testing branch receives new packages from the unstable branch and finally becomes the next release, and the unstable branch, which most developers use, is the entry point for new and updated packages.

No doubt the Ubuntu project was aware of the backlash the announcement would provoke. Which is why the chief technology officer of Canonical, Matt Zimmerman, was out there spinning the line that the announcement did not mean that Debian was planning time-based releases.

But Zimmerman did not explain what people mean when they say "freeze by year-end" and "release by spring" if not time. He is not in any position to speak for the Debian project, anyway. His weak explanation, that a time-based release meant the announcement of a particular release day like Ubuntu, was just that - weak.

Any hint that Debian is doing something that would benefit Ubuntu more than itself is sufficient to bring all the old anger to the surface - and Zimmerman doesn't want this, given that Ubuntu, despite being nearly five years old, has still not forked enough from Debian to stand on its own feet as most forks do.

To go back to the history of the Debian announcement, the project leader Steve McIntyre told iTWire that it all began with a release team meeting back at the end of May, "where there were a lot of discussions on a lot of topics in this area.

"All the RT (release team) folks were invited, but unfortunately not quite everybody could attend. Since that point, we've had some unfortunate problems with timing of vacations and people being busy with exams etc. which is why we had not made any announcements thus far.

"We discussed possibilities for the next release, and quite a few options were suggested. The most favoured proposals included working with the Ubuntu folks to see if we could sync up with the freeze of their next LTS release, but no firm decision was made. The plan was to bring proposals forward to the rest of the project to allow for further planning before a decision would be made."

"Luk Claes presented his proposal for a 2-year "freeze cycle" plan at DebConf... and that was well received in general. He also proposed that we could freeze quite soon for Squeeze, specifically to allow the sync to happen quickly. That also seemed to be well-received at the time, so he thought it would be a good plan to go ahead with it.

"Later discussions on the project mailing lists show that quite a large number of people don't like that specific piece of the plan, as it doesn't fit in with their own plans for Squeeze. Others are unhappy about the way the plan itself was announced, or that they were not consulted more about the ideas in advance. I have some sympathy with these people, and we're discussing things some more at the moment.

"A couple of people have seen the Ubuntu name mentioned and immediately criticised the idea of closer collaboration. That's a real shame, but unfortunately not entirely unexpected.

McIntyre's comments were made before the decision to freeze in December 2009 for Squeeze was rescinded.

The mailing list discussion was a long one; Werner Baumann summarised things neatly when he pointed out that two synchronisations between Debian and Ubuntu had emerged from the discission.

Baumann saw one scenario as follows: "Debian freezes in December; Debian developers concentrate on fixing RC bugs; Ubuntu developers concentrate on including newer versions of major software packages; When the number of RC bugs in Debian is low enough Ubuntu freezes; Ubuntu and Debian release at approximately the same time; With this model Debian developers will bear the main burden of bug fixing while Ubuntu will use the time to integrate newer software packages."

And the second: "Debian and Ubuntu freeze at the same time (December?); Debian and Ubuntu developers coordinate in fixing RC bugs Debian and Ubuntu release at about the same time; With this model the burden is shared and both operating system will be at the same state with respect to the main components; Differences will be according to different philosophy (questions asked by the installer, components and configuration of a standard installation, what is "user friendly"); There may be also differences in the versions of main software packages, but this differences would be clear at freeze time and due to different philosophy.

He summed it up thus: "While I think model 2 could prove useful for Debian and Ubuntu I can't see what Debian would gain from model 1. I believe this discussion would look very different if Ubuntu says it agrees on model 2," Baumann wrote.

To go back a bit, the friction between the two projects has always existed. In 2005, the founder of the Debian project, Ian Murdock, was concerned enough to call for timely release cycles by the Debian project. At the time, 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 appeared at that time 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 in 2006 - an occurrence cited by one developer as his reason for leaving the Debian project.

Back at that time, some of the common frustrations felt by the Debian crowd were outlined by long-standing Debian developer Martin Krafft in a lengthy posting on his blog soon after the conference. And another Debian veteran, Joey Hess, voiced fears that Ubuntu was reducing Debian to "a supermarket of components."

And today, judging by the mailing list discussion which was gone through after the Debian announcement, it looks like we are back in that 2006 timeframe.


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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.