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
his Debian Manifesto. “Rather than being
developed by one
individual or group, as other distributions of Linux
have been developed
the past, Debian is being developed openly in the
spirit of Linux and
The primary purpose of the Debian project is to
finally create a
distribution that lives up to the Linux name. Debian
is being carefully
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

“Distributions are essential to the future of
Linux,” Murdock wrote in
manifesto. “Essentially, they eliminate the need for
the user to locate,
download, compile, install and integrate a fairly
large number of
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
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
deal of ongoing effort from the creator to keep the
and up-to-date. It is one thing to put together a
system from scratch;
is quite another to ensure that the system is easy
for others to
is installable and usable under a wide variety of
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
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
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
advertising non-functional or extremely unstable
“features” of their
products to customers, and worse, many customers
were not told that
was free or distributed under GNU’s General Public
License (GPL).

The Debian Project was to be the answer, with a
design process intended
ensure the system maintained the highest quality
while reflecting the
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
for a year, with funding from the Free Software
Foundation. Today,
has more than 1,100 people registered as developers,
and an additional
have applied to join the project’s ranks.

To make the Debian dream become a reality, the
project adopted an
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,
Debian Free Software Guidelines, were later adopted
as the Open Source

“People often ask me what I would identify as
Debian’s most important contribution to the world,”
Murdock said in a commentary for sister site, “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

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
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,
Motorola 68k, MIPS, PowerPC, Sparc, UltraSparc, HP
Hitachi SuperH.

Since its foundation under Murdock, Debian has had
seven leaders
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
from the movie Toy Story). Woody, first
released in July 2002,
support for the IA-64, HP PA-RISC, MIPS (big
endian), MIPS (little
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
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).”

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