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Debian Celebrates 10 Years of Innovation

The Debian Project, founded with the ideal of truly tapping the potential of an open source development model to create a new distribution of Linux, will celebrate its 10th anniversary Saturday, with parties in 21 countries across the globe.

On August 16, 1993, the concept of a Linux distribution was relatively New and the Internet -- as we know it today, anyway -- was in its infancy. Linux itself had only been introduced to the world two years previously as the hobby project of a graduate student at the University of Helsinki ("Hello everybody out there using minix -- I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones," Linus Torvalds told members of the comp.os.minix newsgroup on Aug. 25, 1991).

But two years later and a continent away, Ian Murdock, an undergraduate student at Purdue University, latched onto the idea of taking the Linux kernel and combining it with open source tools from The Free Software Foundation's GNU Project (which was primarily supporting GNU Emacs and GCC at the time) to create a non-commercial Linux distribution that could compete effectively in the commercial market.

"Debian Linux is a brand-new kind of Linux distribution," Murdock wrote in his Debian Manifesto. "Rather than being developed by one isolated individual or group, as other distributions of Linux have been developed in the past, Debian is being developed openly in the spirit of Linux and GNU. The primary purpose of the Debian project is to finally create a distribution that lives up to the Linux name. Debian is being carefully and conscientiously put together and will be maintained and supported with similar care."

When Murdock initiated the Debian Project, Linux distributions already existed, but were getting little real attention from developers.

"Distributions are essential to the future of Linux," Murdock wrote in his manifesto. "Essentially, they eliminate the need for the user to locate, download, compile, install and integrate a fairly large number of essential tools to assemble a working Linux system. Instead, the burden of system construction is placed on the distribution creator, whose work can be shared with thousands of other users. Almost all users of Linux will get their first taste of it through a distribution, and most users will continue to use a distribution for the sake of convenience even after they are familiar with the operating system. Thus, distributions play a very important role indeed."

He continued, "Despite their obvious importance, distributions have attracted little attention from developers. There is a simple reason for this: they are neither easy nor glamorous to construct and require a great deal of ongoing effort from the creator to keep the distribution bug-free and up-to-date. It is one thing to put together a system from scratch; it is quite another to ensure that the system is easy for others to install, is installable and usable under a wide variety of hardware configurations, contains software that others will find useful, and is updated when the components themselves are improved."

At the time, Murdock noted, there were a fair number of distributions that began as "fairly good systems," but little attention was paid to maintaining them over time.

"A case-in-point is the Softlanding Linux System (better known as SLS)," Murdock wrote. "It is quite possibly the most bug-ridden and badly maintained Linux distribution available; unfortunately, it is also quite possibly the most popular. It is, without question, the distribution that attracts the most attention from the many commercial "distributors" of Linux that have surfaced to capitalize on the growing popularity of the operating system."

And that, Murdock maintained, was bad news, because the distributors were advertising non-functional or extremely unstable "features" of their products to customers, and worse, many customers were not told that Linux was free or distributed under GNU's General Public License (GPL).

The Debian Project was to be the answer, with a design process intended to ensure the system maintained the highest quality while reflecting the needs of the user community. To do this, Murdock proposed to make the process entirely open, bringing in developers with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds who would develop Debian in a modular fashion. Contributors would have the opportunity to construct or maintain the individual components that interested them and fit within their areas of expertise.

It began as a small project, involving a few Free Software hackers backed, for a year, with funding from the Free Software Foundation. Today, Debian has more than 1,100 people registered as developers, and an additional 200 have applied to join the project's ranks.

To make the Debian dream become a reality, the project adopted an extensive set of policies and procedures for packaging and delivering software, backed up by tools, automation and documentation implementing all of Debian's key elements. The most prominent of the project's guidelines, the Debian Free Software Guidelines, were later adopted as the Open Source Definition.

"People often ask me what I would identify as Debian's most important contribution to the world," Murdock said in a commentary for internetnews.com sister site, LinuxPlanet.com. "I believe it's Debian's decision to adopt a community-based development model. As far as I know, this marks the first time that a project intentionally set out to be developed by the community that used it. This is a central and critical component of the power of the open source movement--after all, if you remove the community from open source software, it's just software. In a lot of ways, Debian showed that "the Linux development model," as we called it then, could work for other projects, and that was a significant step forward."

But Debian has made other contributions as well, Murdock said.

"Debian's biggest technical achievement was its package system, dpkg," he said. "Before Debian, Linux was typically distributed as a series of floppy disk images, which was convenient for the majority of us who didn't have Internet access but which made the system highly coarse-grained and very difficult to upgrade."

The package system concept, which Murdock said Debian borrowed from Unix, made it possible to upgrade the system piece by piece and eventually allowed software updates to be delivered online.

Organizationally, Murdock said Debian's emphasis on project management and infrastructure was its biggest achievement.

"It's one thing to have a great idea that generates interest, it's another to have the necessary infrastructure in place so that, when the masses show up to lend a hand, they can contribute," he said. "In the early days of Debian, the package system and packaging standards we put together ensured that independently developed pieces came together into a cohesive whole. Later, as the number of Debian developers swelled from dozens to hundreds to more than 1,100, a project management infrastructure took shape to handle this massive task."

He added, "Last, and in my mind most importantly, has been Debian's constant reminder that the strength of Linux is the "ecosystem" around it and not the product itself. This has been a crucial factor as Linux has grown from a non-commercial, hobbyist curiosity to multibillion-dollar industry."

The project says it is currently the only distribution that is open for every developer and user to contribute their work, and the only significant distributor of Linux that is not a commercial entity.

The Debian GNU/Linux software distribution currently includes the Linux operating system kernel and thousands of prepackaged applications, with support for numerous microprocessors, including Intel i386 and above, ARM, Motorola 68k, MIPS, PowerPC, Sparc, UltraSparc, HP PA-RISC, IBM S/390 and Hitachi SuperH.

Since its foundation under Murdock, Debian has had seven leaders (Murdock stepped down from that role in March 1996), including Bruce Perens, Ian Jackson, Wichert Akkerman, Ben Collins, Bdale Garbee and current leader Martin Michlmayr.

The current stable distribution is Debian 3.0, code-named Woody (all versions since Debian 1.1, code-named Buzz, have been named for characters from the movie Toy Story). Woody, first released in July 2002, added support for the IA-64, HP PA-RISC, MIPS (big endian), MIPS (little endian) and S/390 architectures, and was the first Debian release to include cryptographic software, as well as the KDE desktop. The release contains more than 8,900 packages and 7 binary CDs.

The project is working on the testing distribution (code-named Sarge), which will become the next stable release. Most development efforts first make their way into the unstable distribution (code-named Sid), which currently has more than 12,000 binary packages.

"The commercialization of Linux is at a crossroads, and it is much the same crossroads that Unix reached in 1993," Murdock said. "The delicate balance of the Linux ecosystem, which is what makes Linux valuable, is being threatened by a certain few who would like nothing more than to own it. To the extent that any company is successful at "productizing the ecosystem," the ecosystem will cease to be an ecosystem, and the very thing that is different about Linux, the very reason that we are all here, will be gone.

"Some say that Linux will never suffer the fate of UNIX because of the GPL--and from a community perspective, they're right. No company will be able to "own" Linux, because Linux is not ownable.

"My concern here is not the Linux community, which will do just fine either way, but rather Linux in the commercial sector. There are more ways to lock in commercial users than just intellectual property, and we're seeing this strategy play out today. The Linux opportunity is enormous, and the opportunity is in the ecosystem around Linux, where any number of companies, large and small, can benefit and coexist. It would be a shame if this ecosystem were to be destroyed.

"At LinuxWorld last week, a number of people asked me what Debian could do to make itself a more viable alternative to the commercial distributions in the enterprise market. That shouldn't be Debian's focus. The focus shouldn't be on following the commercial distributions where they want to lead us, but rather on taking the lead--for example, by working with and strengthening existing vendor-neutral, community-owned standards efforts such as the Linux Standard Base (LSB)."