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Debian: 15 Years Old and at the Crossroads

The story of how Ian Murdock developed Debian while a student at Purdue and named the distribution for his girlfriend and himself has been told countless times. Many people, too, know that Debian is not only one of the largest distributions, but also the basis for countless other GNU/Linux distributions -- including five of the top ten listed on Distrowatch -- as well as a model for community based free and open source software (FOSS) projects.

Yet, as Debian celebrated its fifteenth anniversary on August 16th, the venerable distribution finds itself facing problems of scaling from within and competition from newer distributions without. What has the project done right, and what has it done wrong? And what is its future?

To find answers to these questions, I consulted past and present Debian Project Leaders. Their opinions (which are strictly personal, and represent neither Debian's nor their employers') paint a complex picture of one of the oldest, largest, and most influential FOSS projects today.

Looking backward

For Steve McIntyre, the present Debian Project Leader, Debian's most obvious accomplishment is the combination of growth. "We started in 1993 with one lone developer, Ian Murdock," McIntyre says. "Today, we have over 1,000 registered developers scattered all over the world, with thousands more in the community working on parts of the system: packages, documentation, and translation."

In the next release, which is due this fall, he estimates that Debian will include 23,000 packages and provide support for ten different architectures, ranging from i386 and AMD64 to the PowerPC or SPARC -- figures that no other distribution even comes close to.

Yet, despite Debian's size and diversity, McIntyre adds, "We can also fairly claim to be one of the most stable and reliable distros, too. We don't expect our users to ever have to re-install their systems."

At the same time, McIntyre expresses pride in the project’s ideals, which are expressed in such documents as The Debian Constitution and The Debian Social Contract. "All of our development is open and free, with (of course) full source available for people to work with at every stage of our development. We don't hide problems -- our bug tracking system is open for people to search or browse without requiring logins. [And], as we have grown, many of those ideas have spread to the rest of the Linux community."

Ian Murdock, the first project leader, expresses similar pride in Debian. However, in contrast to McIntyre, Murdock reserves his praise chiefly for the project's development model and package management system.

Apart from the Linux kernel itself, "We were one of the first projects to understand that the real power of open source software is to include the community," he says. "There's been a lot about Debian that just happened, but that was very deliberate. I was a student, I had limited time, and I knew that I wasn't going to be able to do all this myself, so we set out specifically to figure out how we could leverage a distributed workforce. I remember that, when the project started, people were saying that farming out all these pieces to developers would never work -- but it actually worked out pretty well. I think that Debian's influence in how open source development is done can't be overstated."

Murdock also singles out the package management system. "It was really the first Linux distribution to adopt the package system from Unix," he says, referring to the now-universal habit in GNU/Linux of dividing software to be installed into separate pieces. At the time, he says, the package system was necessary due to slow Internet connections and the ability to squeeze software on to floppies, but he adds that "it turned out to be a really good metaphor for system management, too."

The early inclusion of dependency resolution (having packages offer to install other software that they needed to run) was especially influential, and has now spread beyond Debian to the rival .RPM package system as well.

More recently, former project leader Martin Michlmayr emphasizes, Debian has a record of overcoming many longstanding problems.

"I think Debian has come a long way in the last few years," Michlmayr says. "We have tackled several key problems that have troubled us for ages. From a technical point, we've made Debian much easier to install, configure, and use. Processes- and community-wise, we have made a lot of changes. You'll find that the Debian community is quite pleasant and that, to a large extent, we no longer deserve the bad reputation of a hostile community."

Talking of the project's growing tendency to handle responsibilities in teams, Michlmayr continues, "Finally, there have been major improvements to our core teams. Many of our teams have had structural problems for years and showed little activity. But lately we've been able to add new contributors to a number of teams, such as the release, security, and FTPmaster teams, and there's a lot of energy in those teams."

Problems today

On its fifteenth anniversary, members of the Debian project can look back at a steady stream of accomplishments. However, many internal problems remain.