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Bruce Perens on UserLinux

Get ready for a bulletproof distribution

Bruce Perens, cofounder of the Open Source Initiative and long-time leader of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution, announced plans at the November 2003 Desktop Linux Consortium event in Boston to start a project called UserLinux. UserLinux is to be a Linux distribution based on a subset of Debian that will target large and small business desktops and servers. Bruce is currently continuing negotiations with his customers while also beginning to put the first broad brush strokes on UserLinux as a technology.

A key aspect of the UserLinux strategy is to build on a solid open source software core and then augment that core with customer-funded engineering work to support further software development, certification, support, and service.

Bruce and Paul Nowak discussed what UserLinux is and what it means to software users and to open source developers.

LWM: What does UserLinux mean to corporations and other organizations that will be paying for the software engineering and using the software?
Linux vendors like Red Hat really are not in a position today to be able to support the software they distribute. If you look inside Red Hat, they have 300 engineers but only a tiny fraction of those actually support the software.

UserLinux is taking the approach of "let's have a lot of support companies working together as equals on UserLinux, so that you can find the expert that you need, and so that competition drives quality up and prices down. Let's encourage service providers to differentiate themselves by specializing in niche markets that they know well. I want there to be so many UserLinux service providers that you'll be able to find a company that specializes in supporting dentists in Minnesota. And I don't want to own any part of that company - I just want to be its equal partner in developing the UserLinux system." And when you think of it this way, it turns out to be an approach that is particularly good for the more technically challenging markets because those are the markets that a Red Hat or SUSE can't go to. Red Hat is bound by strategies that enhance shareholder value, so they have to focus on the big market.

But, because software follows Pareto's law, which says 80% of the users are easy to satisfy, we should find that UserLinux is very good for a lot of users, not just the challenging markets that we initially build UserLinux for.

LWM: What are examples of technically challenging vertical markets?
Industries that first have special hardware are often the most challenging. Industries that require special software applications are often the next most challenging. Finance, science, and the creative arts are examples.

Existing Linux vendors are driven to look at the large body of users - the 80% that are easy to satisfy - and because of that, the users with technically challenging requirements may never have the issues that are important to them addressed.

LWM: Users are one important aspect of UserLinux; developers are another. What does UserLinux mean for developers?
For developers, UserLinux means a fair partnership. If Red Hat had not come out with Fedora, I would have described what a fair partnership means, but with Fedora there an example of what an unfair partnership is so I will focus on that.

Fedora is Red Hat trying to implement a project like Debian. Only Debian has been around for over 10 years - longer than Red Hat - so Red Hat is just reinventing Debian but with the corporate constraints of Red Hat layered into the policy surrounding the project.

Mike [Michael K. Johnson, technical lead of Fedora and Red Hat employee], is a good person, but Mike represents Red Hat and when a decision needs to be made that runs counter to the needs of Red Hat, Mike is limited in what he can do. This is already happening with the Fedora Leadership Document.

On December 2, 2003 (two days before this interview), Red Hat came out with the second draft of the Fedora Leadership Document (http://fedora.redhat.com/about/leadership.html). In this draft, Red Hat eliminated voting because they want control, which they freely admit in the document is because they don't think voting works. Debian has over 10 years of successful voting, so I think the record shows that voting could work on technical and political issues if a Red Hat corporate agenda were not involved.

With Red Hat in total control, developers should ask themselves if they want to be an unpaid employee of Red Hat - that is what working on Fedora means. It's not an equal partnership. It's a relationship in which Red Hat sets the agenda, and the technology developed through the Fedora community will end up in Red Hat products.

It's almost humorous that Red Hat has never been able to get package management to work as well as Debian's apt-get. Debian has over 12,000 packages, several times more than Red Hat has RPMs, but Debian's system works because all software either resides in the Debian repository or links to the repository for all its dependencies.

UserLinux is going to have Debian as a base but with 12,000 packages, we cannot hope to support all of Debian, so UserLinux will focus on a subset of Debian and certify that we can support that subset. To do that, we are going to have to make choices. We are going to have to pick a GUI, and that's going to be a tough decision with a lot of strong views involved. If a customer later wants us to support another GUI, we will if that customer is willing to pay for the work involved. We are going to have to pick one Web server, and Apache II looks like the choice there. We are going to pick one mail transfer agent. Things like this. Debian is really high-quality software throughout, but our intent is to make this subset of Debian something that we can make bulletproof and something we can support.

When we engineer software or modify code as part of UserLinux, our intent is to merge that back into Debian. If for some reason we can't get it back into Debian, we will create our own separate repository under UserLinux.

[Editor's note: UserLinux has matured since the December interview and is now testing working distributions and iso images. Core software packages have been selected for Server, Enterprise Desktop, and SOHO/Home developer targets. Core packages include GNOME, Apache, PostgreSQL, Python (as the primary scripting language, but PERL is included too), and more. For more information see www.userlinux.com/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?PackageFramework.]

LWM: What will the UserLinux policy be on closed source software? Specifically, what if the video hardware folks insist on close sourcing the software drivers for their video cards?
We are in a terrible situation with the 3D video drivers today. I've discussed this with one of the UserLinux customers and they feel the same way. For example, for over one year, we could not get the gamma, which is like contrast, to adjust correctly on a 3D video driver. This is a 15-minute fix in open source software.

So the problem with NVIDIA and ATI is that we cannot properly maintain drivers with complete APIs and correct optimizations. Most of the trade secrets on video technology are in the hardware, but I think part of the issue is that the video card folks do not want to open the source because they think it will enable people to see what patents they are using in their products.

It's not a good situation, but new entrants are coming into the 3D video market that may make someone want to open the source. One of our customers needs 3D video so we will need to address this issue.

LWM: Enterprise software from Oracle and other providers has been a big boost to the adoption rates of commercial Linux distributions like Red Hat. How does UserLinux view these relationships or partnerships with large enterprise software vendors?
Of course it's better to have Oracle customers when you approach Oracle.

If you really look at Oracle, the message Oracle is sending when they advertise and market Oracle on Red Hat or Oracle on SUSE is that Oracle runs on Linux. Oracle is really pairing up with Linux, not Red Hat or SUSE.

It's also not that big of a deal for Oracle to integrate into a new Linux distribution. Oracle is on a distribution called "Miracle Linux" from Japan and Oracle certifies that distribution - I think Oracle owns 50% of Miracle Linux.

.  .  .

Bruce and I did not have time to cover the way UserLinux will interact with existing service and support vendors or with a range of other aspects of the UserLinux effort. For more information, please review the UserLinux white paper at http://userlinux.com and the LinuxWorld.com article about UserLinux at http://linuxworld.com/story/38270.htm.

More Stories By Paul Nowak

Paul Nowak first used Linux in 1995 while migrating from Sun to Linux at the University of Michigan. He used Linux in subsequent IT projects including web, telecom, telemetry and embedded projects and is currently CIO of a small professional association based in Washington D.C.

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Most Recent Comments
Maynard 03/23/04 07:08:42 PM EST

But the upgrade is FREE. Once you have a subscription, you are entitled to an upgrade. It costs you nothing extra, if you want it.

RHAS 2 IS still supported. They make good on their EOL promise on it, should you still want to use it instead of uprading to the new version.

Redhat cannot continue to support every OS they make indefinitely. Its not about your freedom. In fact, you have all the freedom to keep using it, but you cannot expect support on an EOL'd distro. Its entirely uneconomic. Its nto even about your freedom, if I can reiterate. If you really want the extra support, I suppose you can make them an offer which would cover their costs.

RHAS 2.1 is in maintenance mode until 31-may-2007. That is still a long time away from now. And they still provide the free upgrade if you want to. So it you were using it, there is absolutely no need for panic. It has life in it yet.

slack_jaw 03/23/04 08:32:23 AM EST

While it is true that I am not exactly up2date with RH's offerings (I checked briefly), wasn't trying to make a dishonest comparison. The point I was trying to make is that RH released a server-edition that was behind on their workstation edition, too, some time ago. For good reasons, for all I know. But nevertheless.
But you make another point, which is that RHAS doesn't ship anymore. And it is, or soon will not be, supported anymore. In other words, RH asks us to please participate in their upgrade-treadmill. Or more bluntly, RH tries to out-microsoft microsoft. This mean that *my* freedom of choice is limited to what RH supports, and how long they support it. While this may be good for you, it sucks for me.

Maynard 03/23/04 06:33:12 AM EST

You betray yourself slack_jaw. RHAS does NOT ship anymore. It was replaced by RHEL, which is a full suite with different capabilities. Comparing Debian and RHEL is a joke. Debian is a good general purpose distro, and for those who want to choose from an infinite number of configurations. If you are comparing a distro that came out years ago with one which just had another update, then you are being a tad dishonest or you are not very knowledgeable.

RHEL has the following.

GNOME 2.2 or KDE 3.1

Kernel is 2.4 with many capabilities from the 2.6 series backported for their enterprise customers. An example is NPTL.

It is Oracle certified.

It is LSB 1.3 compliant.

I could go on, you can go to redhat.com to see for yourself.

slack_jaw 03/23/04 05:57:36 AM EST

deficiencies of rpm (but maybe not apt, yum, up2date etc, since I don't know them): no dependencies(fixed in the other I understand, tho), version incompatibilities, distro incompatibilities (RHrpm, SuSe rpms, Mandrake rpms ...)

And, BTW, RHAS is maybe more backward than a std. deb install.

but my point was that *I* (not necessarily you, tho) prefer Bruce & grass-roots-support helping me make a living than me helping RH make a fortune. It is, IMHO, more in line with OS philosophy than megacorps & megabucks.

And, as to history, I think Bruce has been involved in deb longer than RH exists. And, loo and behold, Bruce has a product, deb, or rather, the community has. On which very many wonderful things have been build sofar.

But, more importantly, a monoculture is a dangerous thing. I would prefer RH doing its own thing (and I wish them luck with it), and Bruce his thing. I don't see (since they seem to have different target audiences) what the problem is with that. And if they do compete, well, the market will determine which one wins.

Maynard 03/22/04 05:47:58 PM EST

What deficiencies of rpm are you talking about.

What is wrong with Fedora. Redhat has made it very clear it is very bleeding edge. I personally do not think the way to increase Linux adoption is to cannibalize the little market Linux already has. Which is what Perens clearly is trying to do. rule of thumb, anytime someone badmouths some other product instead of actually telling us what their product s good for, they have no product worth much.

RH is obviously doing something right, otherwise they wouldn't be the biggest. Perens will do good to learn from them rather than dismiss them.

apt is ported from the debian variety, but that does not mean it doesn't use its job. Besides, apt is an extras package in Fedora, but you wouldn't know that if you don't use Fedora. Apt was ported by people who wanted it, redhat had never used it. The only distro that used it extensivly was Conectiva. Fedora uses up2date and yum, although up2date can use apt an yum repositories.

Yum is better in many ways than apt for rpm.

I think Perens should really start talking after he has something, not before. And then we can judge his product accordingly.

slack_jaw 03/22/04 12:14:59 PM EST

seems like some of the linux zealots have found a home with Fedora recently, no? ;-)

Anyway, Bruce is taking up the (oft heard) voice that linux needs standardization in order to gain large scale acceptance, and DOING something instead of blabbering. AND creating employment opportunities for you and me (as opposed to a corporate giant-wannabe).

Also, I don't see why UL _must_ have the same "conservative" style Debian maintains (with very good results, IMHO), such as a 2.2. kernel.

Finally, I DON'T see any reason to be proud of apt for RH or Fedora, since it is a) just adapted from apt-get, and b) a covering blanket for the deficiences of rpm.

All in all an initiative to applaud, I think.

And no, I am neither a debhead or a RHowdy. Just because I like my freedom of choice, and experimenting, doesn't mean I think everybody should be like me. Businesses (and most normal users) have different requirements. But I am not convinced that docs are all that necessary since I seldom meet a user who RTFM's. Stuff (according to the needs of the many) should _just_work_.

If UL can give the many that much, Bruce (and Paul, and countless others) gave linux the key to the world.

(P.S. standardization here means have 1 tool for 1 job, and have that tool do the job well, if not better)

Robert 03/21/04 10:45:15 PM EST

Perl better be included!

efp 03/21/04 07:39:35 PM EST

You're forgetting Gentoo. It is quite a satisfactory and extremely customizable distribution.

About Red Hat, Bruce Perens is probably right. Corporate custodianship of free software will never work. Look at the strange buildings left behind by Netscape (Mozilla), IBM (Tomcat) and others.

The power of free software is the fact that the project drifts to where the users want to take it. Corporate custodianship invariably pushes in other directions. So, indeed, I won't waste time with Fedora. It will turn into a strange building -- out of place in its environment -- and eventually they will give it up, if only, because, in the end, they also have to make money, and they won't from something like Fedora.

Maynard 03/20/04 05:03:48 PM EST

I think increasing revenue is definitely not the sign of trouble.

Redhat does more than just put together parts and hope to sell it. They put together solutions. It does exactly the 20% which Perens was talking about. It has clients coming and saying they want such a feature, and then they go and provide that feature, doing lots of regression testing and back porting to give their clients what they need.

Debian is high quality but SO out of date. It defaults to a 2.2 kernel the last time I tried it. And just try telling a company to run 'unstable'. I hope you do not believe the myth that Debian unstable is as stable as normal RHEL.

Redhat has a product tree which is maintained. Debian is one huge tree where you choose you own confuguration. Show me Debian's provisioning modules, or their developer suite, or their portal server, or their cluster suite. Or their nice database. Not just postgressql. I am talking something well documented and supported. The answer is none of these for a reason. Debian is fine for running non critical webservers and other non critical systems.

How quickly does Debian respond to security issues. redhat is always first to update when these issues arise. That is what people are paying for.

corolandus 03/20/04 04:41:02 PM EST

I think RedHat is in trouble. Most of what it does and what it charges for can be done just as well by an open source project. That is what UserLinux is doing. Basically, the customers are working together with the developers to produce an enterprise-ready version of Linux. And if you think an open source project can't produce a high-quality version of Linux, just look at Debian.

Maynard Kuona 03/20/04 03:03:32 PM EST

I think Perens needs to first make his product work well before he goes off and badmouths Redhat. They have done more for Linux than he has done, and still do to this day.

If Perens wants to run a business where he lets the community make the decisions, then I will confidently make the prediction that his business wil fail, if he is tryign to run a business here. Redhat cannot take the base of their product and tell people to make all the decisions and then they just package the end result. Fedora belongs to them, and they want to keep it that way.

c'mon 03/20/04 06:43:37 AM EST

UserLinux rocks,... jadda, jadda, ... Others suck,... jadda jadda, ... me Perens, me the best, ... jadda jadda

Acording to Perens, human evolution sucked until he and UserLinux poped up.

btw. (Perens if you read) I run Fedora now for a long time, and never suffered your package management troubles, maybe you still run RH 7.x, but the rest of the world is happy with yum and apt (yes, for your info, apt does work on RH and it does it's job just as on debian)

ex. Debian user

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