Linux distributions often live and die on the strength of their respective communities. Such is the case with the Gentoo Linux distribution, which canceled its last release in 2007 but has now emerged in 2008 with a new release.
Tanned, rested and ready?
Developers are hopeful that the 2008.0 release will put Gentoo back on track as the project aims to regain momentum and mindshare with open source developers. The latest release of Gentoo comes on the heals of a hot release season for Linux. Red Hat, Ubuntu and openSUSE are all planning to release updates.
“From a community perspective, the 2008.0 release is a big deal as 2007.1 was canceled and never saw the light of day,” Gentoo founder, Daniel Robbins, told InternetNews.com. “So the fact that the Gentoo release engineering team was able to reset the release process, improve their interaction with the Gentoo community and then successfully release 2008.0 from the ashes of 2007.1 was a big achievement.”
Gentoo developers consider their distribution to be a meta-distribution since users can customize their distributions with the Gentoo Portage system of continuously updated packages. As such the 2008.0 release serves as an updated installation medium for Gentoo users and gives new users more recent versions of software for their base system.
“Gentoo releases are just snapshots in time of what packages are available,”
Gentoo developer Donnie Berkholz explained to InternetNews.com. “The biggest changes are related to the newer snapshot. The updated 2.6.24 kernel supports a vast amount of hardware that’s come out since 2007.0, which means it will be a lot easier to install Gentoo on new systems.”
The last milestone release for Gentoo was the 2007.0 release, which came out in May of 2007. Typically Gentoo releases more than one milestone release in a year but that didn’t happen in 2007.
“We canceled the 2007.1 release because after many cycles of work bringing in new security updates and fixing problems, it wouldn’t have come out till 2008,” Berkholz said. “Those same issues come up at every release, and the people building the release are only doing it in their spare time, so occasionally the real world interferes too.”
Berkholz added that releasing the betas of the 2008.0 release this time also opened up a new can of worms with the need to fix all the bugs everyone found in them.
“We’re very happy that users are reporting problems, but they definitely require a lot of time to fix,” Berkholz commented.
The other issue that has affected Gentoo recently is related to its legal structure. For several weeks this year the Gentoo Foundation, which oversees the general governance of the Gentoo Linux project, ceased to exist, thanks to a lack of as paperwork that was required to be filed.
“The foundation does still exist, and right now it’s focusing on approving its bylaws as well as its ongoing work on copyrights, trademarks and finances,” Berkholz said. “We’ve talked about broadening its scope to include the long-term direction of Gentoo, but it’s unclear how much agreement there is within the community.”
Berkholz is a member of the Gentoo Council, which is another governance layer within Gentoo. The Council according to its official description, “decides on global issues and policies that affect multiple projects in Gentoo.”
Gentoo Founder Robbins, who currently is not directly part of the governance of Gentoo today, has been a critic in the past of how the project he created was run. He’s cautiously optimistic about the current structure of Gentoo.
“The key thing is to have committed and competent people in key positions,”
Robbins commented. “Good people will find out how to make any governance model work well and will work hard to ensure that the existing model ends up serving the larger Gentoo community. We have seen some improvements on the Foundation side as well as some improvements related to involving Gentoo users more. These are welcome improvements and a good sign for the project.”
One of the things that the Gentoo community has talked about off and on for the last few years is a possible enterprise release that provides long term support for users. It’s something that Gentoo developer Berkholz notes won’t happen until people commit the time and energy to making it happen.
“As a council member, one of my focuses is improving the quality of our existing packages, which is one of the reasons some people want to see an enterprise release,” Berkholz said.
An enterprise release alone however isn’t necessarily the reason why Gentoo may or may not grow to be a larger player in the Linux market. There are both technical and people challenges that still need to be dealt with.
Berkholz is of the belief that if Gentoo creates a great developer community, they’ll build a great distribution, which will naturally draw users. Though there is a caveat.
“I do think there is an upper limit on our user base in Gentoo’s current form, because there’s only so many people willing to build from source,”
Berkholz noted. “As hardware gets faster, that does increase, but it’s still a matter of compiling OpenOffice.org for 3 hours versus installing a binary version of it in 5 minutes.”
Gentoo users typically compile their applications from source as opposed to using a binary packaged format. Binary packages are pre-compiled making them significantly faster to install. Building packages from source on the other hand allow users to customize their systems and build applications that are highly optimized.
Gentoo’s founder Robbins notes that there is still much that could be done to improve Gentoo and the issue of binary packages has always been a deficit for Gentoo.
“Overall, the major challenges are not technical but relate to collaboration with the larger Gentoo community, where a lot of innovation has happened and continues to happen,” Robbins said. “The official Gentoo project has tended to be dismissive of efforts that develop outside of the official Gentoo project, and I think it would be much better if the official Gentoo project turned into more of a community hub or a standards organization and acted in a supporting and coordinating role for these efforts.”