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Debian developers set to party

Twenty cities around the globe, ranging from Bangalore in India to New York in the USA, will be hosting parties this weekend. More are expected to announce they are joining in as the week progresses.

There is nothing unusual in that - people party every weekend - were it not for the fact that these parties are all being held to celebrate the release of Wheezy, version 7.0 of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution.

It would strike the average individual as the craziest reason to host a party. But then the whole idea behind the Debian project is somewhat crazy. That it has been in existence for two decades and runs so well is beyond compehension.

The upcoming stable release is really no big deal. Regular users of Debian do not even bother about it. The packages in the stable release are all quite dated and the distribution is used mainly for servers.

There was a time when users would wait for the release, in order to upgrade. They had no choice; the other option was to use the unstable stream, which, as its name indicates, can leave one with a broken system that only a technically advanced user can fix.

Things changed some years back, when an outstanding developer named Anthony Towns (for the record he's from Brisbane) built on an idea from the grand old man of Debian, Bdale Garbee, and created something called the testing stream, some kind of a rolling release.

Packages that come into this stream are pretty stable and very rarely do they break. There was nothing between unstable and stable until Towns worked his magic.

As Garbee told iTWire some years ago, "...there was this issue in the early days of Debian, the way we did a stable release was to take a snapshot of unstable and then work to try and close the gaps on it. The proposal that I made was that we think about the possibility of an intermediate step that would be subject to a set of mechanised rules to ensure that the worst breakages that showed up in unstable would not be there, and yet it would be as fresh as possible. It seemed to me that would give us a big step in the right direction towards being able to make a release."

The testing stream is what all Debian users should be running on their desktops. Yet this fact has not got the right amount of publicity.

But then that's another hallmark of Debian. The 1000-odd developers put together what is arguably the best GNU/Linux distribution, yet they are not crazy about publicity. The work, it would appear, is its own reward, quite an insane notion in the Facebook era when people like the Kardashians are the benchmark for many.

But then Debian is nothing if not unusual. For one it has yearly elections. That smacks of egalitarianism, where every developer gets a vote.

Any sense of socialism is quickly dispelled by the leaders of various teams within Debian who can act in the best autocratic traditions. Not from bad motives, but only to ensure that things move ahead.

Developers are constantly involved in debates, arguments, discussions and plain old slanging matches about this or that aspect of this package or that.

And Debian is the one project which has developers who are even more devoted to software freedom than the good folk at the Free Software Foundation.

Debian is the only major distribution without a financial backer. It is made up of volunteers, some of whom are very big noises in free software circles. The money to run the project comes from donations. Yet it has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

Coming to think of it in these terms, there is a very good reason to join the party this weekend.


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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.