Enterprise Unix Roundup: Debian Thins the Ranks

Enterprise Unix Roundup: Debian Thins the Ranks


March 18, 2005

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Michael Hall
Amy Newman

We'll go on the record admitting to a deep admiration for the Debian project and its most famous product: Debian GNU/Linux.

With 8,710 packages and a meticulously coordinated release schedule that encompasses 11 architectures, the project produces one of the best, most stable Linux distributions going, and it does so without compromising a

We'll also on record describing Debian's release schedule as "glacial." The last major release of Debian single jot of the idealism behind Free Software.

One of the most frequently cited reasons for the project's tardiness between major, stable releases is support for eleven architectures: Debian runs on everything from ARM to S/390s. If an official Debian component isn't running on any of those architectures, the distribution on the whole isn't soup.

So many people cheered when members of the Debian release team came back at the beginning of the week with a proposal to scale back a little on what constitutes a "supported architecture" for purposes of a Debian release. The current version of Debian moving toward stable release ("Sarge") would not be affected by the new proposal, but it could have a radical impact on the scope of supported hardware in the next planned release ("Etch").

According to an e-mail from release manager Steve Langasek, the team wants to apply a series of criteria (including whether a particular piece of hardware can still be purchased new, and whether the Debian project itself has the hardware available for binary builds) that could, according to Langasek, "reduce the set of candidate architectures from 11 to approximately 4 (i386, powerpc, ia64, and amd64)."

Everything Debian does is freely available under the provisions of the GNU General Public License (GPL), so even if the project isn't supporting as many architectures as it once did, the raw materials are there for anyone to come along, pick up the pieces (which are well-architected in the generic), and port Debian to their preferred hardware.

The proposal does not, as some reports imply, spell an end to all Debian support for the architectures that don't make the cut: The project would continue to provide some support through its "second-class citizen" architecture, wherein builds for the architectures involved continue to be provided as part of Debian's "unstable" distribution. The unstable branch of Debian tracks the very latest software updates prior to introducing them as part of the testing release. It thus acts as a filter to ensure test branch users are shielded from critical, system-disrupting bugs.

There will be fussing in and out of the Debian project over the proposed changes. The project conducts its business in an open, democratic manner, and it's a stomping ground for some very opinionated people.

The change isn't a small one: Debian has staked much pride on providing a stable distribution for so many architectures, and a few people will be left with less support for their preferred architecture.

But that's where one of free/open source software's advantages comes to the fore: Everything Debian does is freely available under the provisions of the GNU General Public License (GPL), so even if the project isn't supporting as many architectures as it once did, the raw materials are there for anyone to come along, pick up the pieces (which are well-architected in the generic), and port Debian to their preferred hardware. The project would be powerless stop him or her, even if it wanted to.

It's like we pointed out two weeks ago: Linux and much open source and free software are less valuable unto themselves than they are valuable as the starting point for something else. They're often nothing more than freely available raw materials waiting for someone to come along and do something interesting. That's an idea recently echoed (albeit with an eye on money) by Sun's Jonathan "Just Being Quotable" Schwartz, who noted of his company's recently open-sourced Solaris and open source software in general, "the money's not in the access to the product, it's in the services and value delivered around the product."

In the Debian project's case, its release team is proposing to cut down the number of houses it builds with its big pile of raw materials, but it's leaving behind all the blueprints, a respectable pile of wood, and some tools for anyone who wants to come along and build something useful. That's the process Debian has always represented so well, both in its idealism and its product.

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In Other News

» IBM launched a SUSE Linux development and certification program for ISVs. The program will be available at nine of its 25 Innovation Centers. The centers will offer testing and provide online resources to create applications compatible with IBM and the applicable Linux distribution. This announcement comes three months after Big Blue launched a similar program for Red Hat developers.

» Netcraft's latest stats, released earlier this week, highlight Red Hat's community-based Fedora Core Linux as the fastest-growing Linux distribution in use on Web servers. Red Hat distros in general continue to own the majority of the Linux Web server market. According to Netcraft, from September 2004 to March 2005, Fedora Core was on 405,682 sites, an increase of about 122 percent from the 182,421 sites at the beginning of the period. During the same period, the total number of Red-Hat-based Web servers declined 1.2 percent; however, Red Hat remains in the top spot overall with 1,610,427 sites. Netcraft estimates that the combined Red Hat Linux and Fedora numbers comprise around 50 percent of the market.

» In the name of simplification, Sun is replacing the Sun Community Source License (SCSL) with three other licenses. The Java 2, Standard Edition (J2SE) 5.0 (released late last year), the soon-to-be-released Java Distribution License (JDL), and the Java Internal Use License (JIUL) will be made available for use with J2SE source code. Sun has opted to divide the SCSL to make its licensing options less daunting in terms of both size and complexity. The three licenses will play a part in Sun's new transparency mission, codenamed Project Peabody, for the Java platform. All three licenses will offer developers a peek into the J2SE source code.

Recent Updates

  • SurgeMail was updated to version 2.2g3. The changelog is brief: It has removed the option to delete domains in certain contexts to prevent accidental deletions and conflicts with multiple administrative users.

  • SMTP server Postfix was updated to version 2.2.0. The changelog includes mention of newly built-in IPv6 and TLS support, SMTP client connection reuse, better handling of addressing for local and outbound mail, and more flexibility in the handling of ESMTP features.

  • QuickMail Pro was upgraded to version 3.5.2. The changelog notes improved handling of HTML mail, more flexible designation of ports for the SMTP listener, and several other interoperability and bug fixes.

  • The KDE Foundation released version 3.4 of its open source desktop operating environment. The new release boasts improved accessibility via a KDE text-to-speech framework that integrates with a number of KDE desktop applications and contains more than 6,500 bug fixes.

  • Fedora Core 4 Test 1 was released this week. The release notes weren't available as we went to press, but the brief announcement on the project's home page notes that the new release includes "GCC 4.0, GNOME 2.10, and KDE 3.4, as well as support for the PowerPC architecture."

Tips of the Trade

Partitioning hard disks is one of those jobs every system administrator must do sooner or later. In the Unix/Linux world cfdisk, fdisk, and sfdisk partition, and mkfs creates filesystems on the partitions. All four are powerful utilities for creating disk partitions on Unix, Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. However, they are also destructive: They cannot alter an existing partition without destroying the data.

parted is the GNU command-line utility for creating or resizing moving partitions without damaging data. It also works on any Unix, Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows partition.

QTParted is a graphical front-end to all of these command-line disk-partitioning and filesystem-creating programs, which simplifies the whole process considerably. With QTParted, you can create, resize, delete, or format any partition with a couple of mouse clicks. It supports all of the major Linux and Windows filesystems: FAT, NTFS, ReiserFS, ext2/ext3, XFS, and JFS. Although it runs only on Unix/Linux, Knoppix includes QTParted, so in reality, you can use it on any system, regardless of OS.

The only downside of QTParted is that it is not actively maintained at this time. However, since it is licensed under the GPL, anyone can pick up the project and continue development. Hopefully that means this excellent program will not be orphaned!

Carla Schroder writes the Tips of the Trade section of Enterprise Unix Roundup. She also appears on Enterprise Networking Planet and Linux Planet, covering Linux from the desktop to the server room.

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