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Fedora @5: How a Community Approach Works

Seeing the Fedora Project pass its five year milestone got me thinking about the early days of the community-based Linux distribution and how far it's come.

At the time of its launch, I was plenty worried. Red Hat (NYSE: RHT) was effectively killing off its namesake Linux distribution – Red Hat Linux -- and turning over the development into a community-based Linux distribution called Fedora Core.

How could Red Hat do such a thing? Long-time users like me were calling it total madness and surely a recipe for disaster. History has proven me wrong. Today, Fedora is a successful and popular Linux project that proves the community model can work.

But it took some trials. In the early days of 2003 and early 2004, countless numbers of Red Hat Linux users migrated away from Red Hat to SUSE Linux, Mandrake (now Mandriva) or Debian in order to protest Red Hat's moves in the Fedora story.

In January of 2004, Red Hat officially ended legacy support for older Red Hat Linux versions (including the one that I was running and supporting at the time, Red Hat 7.3). A few months later, Red Hat Linux 9.0, the final Red Hat Linux release hit its official end of life and with it an era came to an end.

Red Hat was no longer in the retail Linux business. Its business focus was on Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I remember being at a Linux event in Toronto in 2004 when Red Hat founder Bob Young and Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik confronted a crowd of users and explained the merits of the new approach. The idea then as it is now is that the community model can fuel innovation faster than a corporate release cycle.

Fedora is supposed to be representing the leading edge of Linux development, the fruits of which could then be hardened in Red Hat's Enterprise Linux offerings.

Today, the community free effort feeding the enterprise paid effort is now a model copied by countless numbers of other open source vendors. But five years ago, that simply was not the mainstream approach. Red Hat Linux was available for free, but many also bought it in boxed versions at retail and many paid for support as well.

Back then, the idea of getting the entire project for free just seemed totally absurd to me. I figured that small users (like myself) would be left out in the cold. That's a fear that didn't truly materialize.

Over the course of the last five years, the Fedora Project has tried to live up to its founding vision with no less than 9 full distribution releases and has millions of users.

A key to Fedora's success has been that each distribution release really has pushed the envelope forward on Linux. With the Fedora 2 release in May of 2004 Red Hat included SELinux (security enhanced Linux), which adds mandatory access controls to the Linux kernel.

With Fedora 3 released in November of 2004, Red Hat further improved its SELinux policy controls. SELinux is now a cornerstone of Red Hat's enterprise Linux security efforts.

The Fedora 4 release in June of 2005 included a new Fedora Foundation effort to further improve the community governance of the project.

With the Fedora 5 release in March of 2006, virtualization became a core component for the community Linux distribution. Fedora 6 released in October of 2006, further improved virtualization with new GUI tools for management.

Customization was the key theme for the May 2007 release of Fedora 7. Fedora 8 expanded on the customization with new 'spins' (compilations of Fedora) in addition to new packaging technology.

The most recent Fedora 9 release which came out in May of this year expands on the desktop experience for Linux users.

Needless to say, it's been a busy and productive five years for Fedora. Certainly challenges remain with upstarts like Ubuntu and old competitors like SUSE Linux continuing to push their own innovation curves on Linux. But Fedora has not only successfully continued the legacy of its Red Hat Linux forebears, it has actually expanded it.

Happy Fifth Birthday Fedora. Let's see what happens at 10.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor for InternetNews.com.