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The Spiral tribe – marking the end of Debian’s unpredictable release schedule

by Richard Hillesley

The launch of Debian 6.0 Squeeze may mark the end of Debian’s unpredictable release schedule, but it’s still the domain of FOSS purists, says Linux User & Develop columnist, Richard Hillesley…

This article is due to appear in issue 98 of Linux User & Developer magazine.The Spiral tribe - marking the end of Debian's unpredictable release schedule Subscribe and save more than 30% and receive our exclusive money back guarantee – click here to find out more.

Debian Squeeze was released in early February, two years after Lenny. Debian is too often characterised by complaints about the slow progress of its ‘stable’ releases and the community’s willingness to down tools in pursuance of its ethical remit as the bastion of free software development. Squeeze (also known as Debian 6.0) is the first instalment of a planned two-yearly release cycle.

Ian Murdock announced the imminent arrival of the first release of Debian on comp.os.linux.development on 16 August 1993. The name Debian was a prosaic concatenation of the first names of Murdock and his then girlfriend (later wife) Debra, so Debian is pronounced ‘e’ as in best and not as in sleek, a curiously personal name for such a community-oriented project. The announcement contained the seeds of much that was to feature later in Debian. The emphasis was on reliability, stability, ease of upgrades and package management, which have been the defining characteristics of all things Debian ever since. There were interim releases, but the first 1.x release didn’t arrive until Debian Buzz in June 1996.

Debian has never before had a predictable release schedule and so strategic point releases have sometimes appeared several years apart. Murdock himself once complained: “When is the next version going to come out? ‘Whenever it’s done’ doesn’t tend to be a very compelling answer for a broad swathe of the market, right?”

But then, for the Debian developer community, appealing to the market has never been that compelling. After all, the Debian ‘unstable’ tree, or ‘work in progress’ as it might be called, is stable enough to have been the basis for many other distributions. The Debian developers have always been more interested in getting it right, rather than getting it done.

Stable releases of Debian are just that, much like the enterprise versions of Red Hat and SUSE which are considered finished when they are deemed to be fit for the job. To experience Debian as it really is means dipping into the unstable and experimental branches from which Ubuntu and many other GNU/Linux distributions are derived.

The Debian community comprises 3,000 volunteers and operates by the rules of the ‘Debian Social Contract’, which defines the nature of the community, and the ‘Debian Free Software Guidelines’, which define the principles of free software development. One unscientific survey found that 76 per cent of Debian users run Debian unstable (nicknamed Sid), of which Mark Shuttleworth once wrote: “the two things that Debian developers absolutely agree on are first, the uncompromising emphasis on free software, and second, the joy of Sid.”

Shuttleworth himself was a Debian developer, and is said to have considered standing for election as Debian leader to push for more frequent releases. Later, he brought together a dozen or so Debian developers to map out his project to create a distribution of Linux that was capable of taking Linux to the masses. It followed that Ubuntu was based on a snapshot of the ‘unstable’ tree of Debian, which is merged into Ubuntu’s current code release every six months.

“Debian is the Tibetan Plateau of the free software landscape,” Shuttleworth once wrote of Sid, “elevated through the grinding efforts of conflicting passions to the point of forcing those who visit to get along in a somewhat rarefied atmosphere. It can be difficult to breathe up there, sometimes. It’s a bit like the Linux kernel itself: show up, with code, and take your place at the table. And the results are spectacular – Debian as a community creates what I believe is one of the great digital artistic works of the era, and frankly comes as close as I can think possible to actually delivering something that does meet all those conflicting agendas and goals.”

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