For some Linux distribution projects, new releases come twice a year. That had been the plan for Gentoo Linux this year, until it canceled its current planned release — the second time it’s done so in the past 12 months.
But the news doesn’t necessarily mean a setback for the project.
Instead, Gentoo developers said they are pushing a new model for their distribution — one that eschews the conventional release wisdom used by Red Hat, Novell, Debian and others. Instead of fixed releases, Gentoo is promoting its vision of a live, continuously updating distribution. In practice, that effort revolves around its weekly minimal images, which are then supplemented with customized installed packages.
“We need to work harder to communicate the relative irrelevance of releases in a live distribution like Gentoo,” Gentoo developer Donnie Berkholz explained to InternetNews.com. Releases “have an overly large impact on what non-Gentoo users think of the health of the distribution, so problems with a small team within Gentoo are magnified in their effect on public opinion.”
The news comes as Gentoo continues to face not only competition from competing Linux releases but also persistent organizational issues. The Gentoo 2008.0 release came out in July, following the cancellation of the 2007.1 release. Gentoo developers had scrapped the 2007.1 release, citing limited time and effort to devote to the release — the same basic reason why 2008.1 has now been canceled.
Working to distance itself from the concept of regular releases may help the group save some face. It’s also in keeping with the fact that the entire concept of releases is a bit different for the Gentoo crowd.
Its developers consider their distribution to be a “meta-distribution,” since users customize their distributions with the Gentoo Portage system of continuously updated packages. Berkholz added that official releases in Gentoo generally only have ever had two purposes: to provide new hardware support for installation, and to create some buzz around the distribution.
“The new hardware support should be covered by the weekly minimal CD images, and of course, it’s possible to install Gentoo from nearly any CD that will boot any Linux distro,” Berkholz said. “To make up for lack of buzz with less-frequent releases, we’ll need to work harder to publicize the innovation happening in Gentoo on a daily basis.”
Berkholz argued that community feedback toward the new approach is generally very positive. Still, not everyone is thrilled that Gentoo dropped its 2008.1 release.
“I was disappointed to find out that the 2008.1 release was canceled,” Daniel Robbins, Gentoo’s founder, told InternetNews.com. “I was hoping that the Gentoo project would turn the page after the cancellation of the 2007.1 release. However, you need to balance out this bad news with the good news of Gentoo’s recent improvements in the way they interact and involve the larger Gentoo community.”
Robbins also said he’s also concerned about the impact the cancellation has had on the perceptions about Gentoo Linux held by people outside of the project.
“Any time you cancel a scheduled release, it does not reflect well on the health of an open source project,” he said. “But there is a silver lining to all this.”
Robbins suggested the development could spur some changes among the project’s developers.
For one thing, he said he believes Gentoo’s development model is broken, and suggested that tools like git, the distributed version control system created by Linus Torvalds, should be used.
Additionally, Robbins suggested that Gentoo begin using a completely automated tool for building releases. In his opinion, the project suffers from using a tool called catalyst to build new versions of its distribution — a liability, since he said it lacks official documentation and isn’t up to snuff for Gentoo’s use.
He added that he has developed his own streamlined release build tool, used to builds new “Funtoo” releases of Gentoo on his personal workstation once or twice a day, which he posts to his own site.
“So I’d think that Gentoo could do it at least twice a year,” he said. “It is not that hard.”
“This tool will allow anyone to easily build a Gentoo release, and could also be used by the Gentoo project to build weekly or even daily releases if they wanted,” Robbins added. “I am trying to help by giving the larger Gentoo community the tools they need to collaborate better, so that Gentoo development can happen in a more efficient and decentralized way. That will allow Gentoo to innovate and improve at a much more rapid pace.”
Berkholz, meanwhile, also said that moving to a distributed version-control system like git is something that he’d like to see happen at Gentoo. He also said he’d like to see increased quality.