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Debian Lenny: A Linux Valentine Release

Linux lovers rejoice -- you'll also be getting a present this Valentine's Day in the form of the Debian Lenny release.

Lenny, named after a character in the Disney/Pixar film "Toy Story," marks the first major Debian release since Etch in April 2007.

It's an important milestone for the distro, which is the basis of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution and competes in the broader Linux ecosystem against Red Hat and Novell SUSE, among others. In 2008, Debian celebrated its 15th anniversary as it continues to remain a relevant community-based Linux distribution.

Yet Lenny also suffered from debate over issues fundamental to the nature of Debian, which served to delay the release. Still, the wait has been worthwhile, Steve McIntyre, Debian's project leader, told InternetNews.com.

"There are a lot of changes that have happened since Etch," McIntyre said. "Of course, what's interesting will vary hugely depending on each user's particular needs. The vast majority of the changes are new versions of the software that we package."

Among the new software packages included in Debian Lenny is the 2.6.26 Linux kernel and driver improvements to expand hardware support. Lenny also makes major enhancements to the Debian installers, making them more flexible and easier for most users, and for the first time, there will also be Blu-ray images available in addition to regular DVD installation media.

Other improvements may not be as obvious.

"There are a lot of things that we've changed that may not be immediately visible to the end user, but will help us in our day-to-day work as developers," McIntyre said. "We have a new version of debhelper, a key tool used in building Debian packages, and there are even more automated quality tests in the lintian tool that helps us find bugs as we go."

Sparking debate

The release hasn't been without controversy, however. Debian Lenny comes after debate in the Debian community around software freedom and application inclusion.

During the Lenny development cycle, a number of differences were settled only by Debian General Resolution (GR) votes, in which the distro's developer base casts ballots to decide the issue at hand. McIntyre said the points of discussion raised in the community led to important decisions -- even though they are still not fully resolved.

One related to how contributors fit in to the overall picture.

"We had some discussions about how we should recognize the contributions of various people within Debian," McIntyre explained. "We've had a history of there being a long and complex process that people have to follow to become fully-fledged 'Debian developers,' with full upload and voting rights, but there has not been a standard way for other people, such as translators, to gain similar rights."

McIntyre added that he believes this was a debate long overdue for Debian, but to ensure the developers could take care of their immediate work on Lenny without distraction, a GR tabled further debate until after its release.

A second major vote took place concerning another big issue: What should Debian do about various parts of the system that don't quite meet the community's high standards on software freedom?

Specifically, concern had arisen over developers' use of code that doesn't fit with Debian's guiding principles. The distribution relies on a guiding document called the Debian Social Contract, which is part of the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG), originally drafted by open source luminary Bruce Perens. The guidelines Perens drafted were later used as a boilerplate for the Open Source Definition, the defining document of the open source movement.

"The difficult question is always whether we should hold up our release to try and fix all of the reported licensing bugs, or whether we should instead release with some known bugs and work on improving over time from one release to the next," McIntyre said. "So far, we have each time voted to make a release and undertake to make the next one better."

He added that unfortunately, the timing of the vote had been less than ideal, coming up late in the Lenny cycle and delaying the release.

"We have a lot of people with a passionate interest in making Debian the best free software distribution possible, but sometimes we disagree on some of the finer details," McIntyre said.

A similar debate over Social Contract issues hit Debian in 2004 while developer were prepping the Sarge release.

In spite of the hold-up, McIntyre said Lenny still managed to ship within its original schedule. According to McIntyre, the distro aims for an 18- to 24- month major release cycle.

"Obviously, we'd like to be at the shorter end of that range, but we're more concerned about making good releases than rushing them out and making mistakes," McIntyre said.