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Why companies don’t support Debian

At a recent Australian Linux conference, Sam Varghese reported that two Debian developers pointed out that the Debian Project needs more corporate support for “men, money and machines” to advance the operating system.

They’re right. It does. They also pointed out that many companies, such as HP, IBM, Silicon Graphics and Google, either use Debian Linux internally, or actually incorporate it into products. For example, HP uses Debian “Etch” 4.0 in its new t5735 thin-client device. Right again.

Debian, either directly or through related Linux distributions such as Xandros, is used both by Linux enthusiasts and Fortune 500 companies.

Of course, you couldn’t prove that by the vast majority of Debian developers who never see a thin dime from their Debian work. Or, I should add, get access to new hardware, travel expenses to Debian developer conferences and so on.

The reason for this is twofold. First, Debian, as a developer community, has never wanted any kind of “business” organization or corporate partnerships or sponsorships. It is purely a volunteer operation and woe unto any would-be developer who tries to change Debian’s ways.

For example, in 2006, several Debian developers, led by Anthony Towns, the official Debian project leader at the time, decided to arrange for the two release managers to be paid for some of their efforts. In response to this, other developers refused to work on the next release of Debian. As Andreas Barth, a Debian release manager, explained at the time, the delay has resulted because, “Some people who used to do good work reduced their involvement drastically. There was nothing I could do about, and that happened way before I started full-time on release.”

At other times, there have been efforts to create a commercial alliance of Debian groups and Linux companies that made Debian-based distributions. They have always been met with strong resistance from the Debian community. Even the most important of these efforts, the Debian Common Core Alliance, which was led by Debian founder Ian Murdock, met with Debian opposition. The group, beset by the very community it sprang from, eventually changed leaders but still failed.

Debian doesn’t just turn on its own when they try to organize Debian in a more businesslike manner. The community also turned on the Mozilla Foundation because it restricted the use of its Firefox Web browser logo. So it is that today “pure” Debian distributions include IceWeasel, which is essentially a carbon copy of Firefox with a different, “freer” logo.

So, while I think Debian’s development needs radical change and commercial support, the community seems dead set against it. A large number of the developers would rather be free than beholden to any corporate entity. As CJ Fearnley, CEO of Linux service provider LinuxForce, and a long-time Debian developer, put it to me in late 2006, Debian is “Very, very messy at times. This is democracy in action!”

This comment points to another side of Debian’s problem with corporate support. Let’s say someone, say a company like Google, does give Debian a completely unrestricted gift of money or equipment. Who does Google give it to? The current Debian project leader, Sam Hocevar? That’s a one-year position.

The group itself? A fine idea, except it’s made up of more than 1,000 developers scattered across the world. It’s also, as Fearnley alluded to, not a very organized group. For example, the Debian Weekly News, a newsletter for the Debian community, doesn’t appear to have been published since July 3, 2007.

If Google were to decide to give financial support or PCs to what it determined to be the most “deserving” of Debian developers, it would only be following the path already taken by Anthony Towns, which proved to be a failure.

In short, there’s no there there in Debian. There’s no one to write a check to, and even if you did write a check to an individual, the other developers seem likely to turn against him or her.

Now, despite all this, Debian does keep going. It just released a major security update to Debian 4 late in 2007. But, it’s going to do things its own, cranky way.

If you want Debian to behave in a more businesslike way, if you want companies to support Debian, what you really need to do is to break away from Debian and make your own distribution on a more traditionally organized basis. This, of course, is exactly what Mark Shuttleworth did when he founded Ubuntu in 2004.

Ubuntu, as its deals with Dell and Sun show, has had little trouble finding corporate partnerships. For Debian, as it’s now constituted, that will never be an option.

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