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Debian, Ubuntu patching up rocky romance

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Touchy feely time

I used FOSDEM to get a feel about the current state of Debian, and about relations with Ubuntu, recently rocky. According to Lars: "As far as I can see, Debian is doing well and is getting ready to freeze for release later this year, and I don't see anything on the radar to prevent that from happening." And that as to the Ubuntu relationship: "I hear it is getting better all the time." He pointed me to Zack for a more official point of view.

By email, Zack explained where he'd been putting his recent efforts: focusing on package quality "we release when it's ready", freedom, independence, no dictator/'owner'/capture. For the derivative distros, such as Ubuntu, and the 'transitive derivatives' - those two or more steps derived from Debian, recognising that they present Debian's efforts to a much wider audience and can focus on customisation (Ubuntu stands out on both counts).

He talked about making patches flow more easily back up from derivatives, and also being better about spreading the love, giving credit where it's due and remembering that "Free Software" is more important than any one of its individual parts.

I put it to Zack that he's doing a very touchy-feely social interaction job in a very techy world where most of us are not naturally life's extroverts with a high emotional IQ.

Zack told me: "That feeling of yours is correct. And it's also normal for the role of the DPL [Debian Project Lead]: I'm in charge of Debian 'politics', if you want, most of which is about interaction with representative[s] of other projects and communities which form the Free Software ecosystem in which Debian lives. I've been trying to show people why Debian role is important there, bringing facts with me.

"Regarding the techy part, I promised to the Debian community to put on hold my tech activities while in charge as DPL, and I've respected that (which has been very good for my mental health!)"

I asked what specific steps he'd taken to improve the working relationship with Ubuntu: was it management-speak and bonding sessions, or more write access into one another's repositories?

Myths dissolved

So far, he has collected Debian feedback on what was not working; presented it to Ubuntu to dispel some myths; presented a vision of why all communities should "do the right thing"; presented a vision of why Debian is important in part because it is at the root of an ecosystem of distributions; and participated in discussions with the Debian community on interaction with derivatives. This last point has seen Zack dispelling more myths and highlighting the good stuff received from derivatives. He says: "We too often tend to focus on the bad stuff only, ignoring the rest."

His new patch model improves the flow and reduces viscosity, and Lars' rethinking suggests some of the same lower friction and latency. Wouldn't a more incremental and automated approach that includes automatic testing on package/patch submission/update mean that some of those contributions would be able to jump the queue and be injected far closer to, well, Linus' repository in effect?

Zack disagreed. "We really want humans to triage patches and decide if they should be forwarded upstream or not. Not doing so would result in poor quality submission that would upset upstream; it would happen at the Debian-Ubuntu frontier pretty much as it would happen at the Other upstream-Debian frontier.

"What we want to encourage, at all steps, is a culture of doing the right thing for Free Software and work with your upstream so that they adopt your changes – if/when they are worthwhile," he said. ®

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