Building On-Ramps on the Fedora 12 Highway

Tuesday Nov 17th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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Fedora is building a community of contributors, as opposed to a community of consumers.

"It's all about building on-ramps," says Paul W. Frields, the Fedora Project Leader. “As a community, we tend to be oriented towards getting people involved in the open source process, rather than towards getting everyone to switch from whatever they're using now."

It's an orientation that Frields sees as central to the GNU/Linux distribution's rapid growth over the last five years, as well as the focus in the new Fedora 12 release.

"A lot of people jump to the conclusion that, because there's some polish [in Fedora 12] that we're trying to appeal to the Joe Average kind of user," Frields says. "But the more correct way of saying it is that we want a distribution that works really well for our community members. We're building a community of contributors, as opposed to a community of consumers."

Frields explains, "If you look at any group, there's going to be 80-90% who will just take what they're given. They'll use it, but it's very rare that you get any feedback or participation from those folks. That's just how the consumer mind set works. What we're always trying to do is encourage people, to give them a smooth on-ramp to move from that kind of mind set to the mind set that free and open source software permits of getting involved.

"That getting involved can be as simple as helping someone else with an installation. Or it might be filing a bug when you find a problem with a particular piece of software. By providing those smooth on-ramps, we're always trying to encourage people to become part of the open source process. We're trying to get people to move up from being consumers, people who just take what they're given and trying to turn some percentage of them into participants or contributors."

With this attitude, Frields says, the Fedora community is not especially interested in "getting everyone to switch from whatever they're using now." Instead, the goal is to create a distribution that encourages community contributions and makes getting involved easier.

Asked whether this goal might limit Fedora's growth, Frields disagrees strongly. "When you succeed at building something well for a target audience," he suggests, "Generally those outside that audience are also going to enjoy it more. Your primary focus can't be to try to appeal to everyone, because, in trying to appeal to everyone, you're not going to do a great job of appealing to anyone fully.

"If you look at any of the well-designed gadgets, cars, or homes -- anything that benefits from better polish and integration -- what you'll find is that when those things are built with someone in mind --that is, to appeal to a certain group -- they tend to be very appealing to others as well. People sense that better sense of design, and, and a side effect, more people will give it a try."

Building Inclusiveness

According to Frields, this philosophy is responsible for Fedora's steady growth over the last few years. He claims that the number or those who have signed the project's Contributor License Agreement has roughly doubled in the last year to just over 16,000. He also claims similar growth rates for Fedora Ambassadors, the community's grassroots evangelists, Fedora Artwork, and Fedora Docs, which produces the distribution's documentation.

"Team leaders take as a very serious goal that they always have new ways to grow contributions," he says. "And people always have a way to engage and get a sense of ownership of a little part of the project. It gives people that bonding, that satisfaction that what they're doing is important. It not only gives people new skills, but also new ways of collaborating."

The key to this growth, Frields says, is "an accepting community -- making sure that the community is a friendly place, a place where people can come and feel energized, where they can feel positive and can feel secure that what they're doing is going to be accepted by their peers -- accepted, of course, after critical review. It's an open forum where opinions can be bandied about easily, but, at the same time as we do that, it's always important for us to maintain a very civil discourse."

One concrete step that Fedora has taken to maintain that civility is organize a group of monitors that will intervene on a mailing list when the discussion veers from ways and means towards personal attacks. The monitors will try first to get the discussion back on course, but, if that proves impossible, they will suspend discussion for a while in the hopes that it can be resumed later.

"It's a very careful road we want to travel," Frields says. "You don't want to censor new and different ideas. But I liken it more to a coffee shop where the free exchange of ideas is really great, but, if someone gets a little too loud, you ask them to calm down a bit, so that everyone can enjoy the ambiance. And occasionally, a fight might break out, and you have to send those people away and say, 'You can come back when you've got your stuff together and learned how to be a constructive member of the community.' So far, we've only had to stop threads two or three times that I'm aware of in the past year. It's almost as if having the policy itself is enough to convince people that we were serious about having a more constructive and thoughtful community."

Frields particularly hopes that this attitude will encourage greater participation by women -- an issue that has become more mainstream in the past few months in the free software community. At the same time, he makes an effort to emphasize the contributions that women make to Fedora, citing people like Mairin Duffy, the design team leader, and filesystem expert and kernel contributor Valerie Aurora.

"I think the way we can make sure that we are making free software a good place for women is simply to make it a good place for all people,” Frields says. “That goes hand in hand with that theme I've talked about earlier: That if you make things better for your contributor audience, you're likely going to make things better for a lot of other people, too."

The philosophy and the release

So how is the Fedora philosophy reflected in the latest release?

To start with, Frields, who has written documentation himself, points to the fact that the growth in Fedora Docs has enabled it to produce "the largest body of content that we've ever done for a Fedora release."

Licensed Under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license, this new documentation has the potential to make Fedora the prime provider of documentation for distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux and CentOS that already depend on Fedora as a primary source of code.

Another reflection of the community philosophy is a strong emphasis on finishing details -- everything from the letter spacing on icons to the positioning and behavior of tool hints. "I don't think we set out that way at the start of the cycle," Frields says, referring to the development process, "But I think that you'll see in this release and in future Fedora a little more attention to polishing items to make sure that above the hood the paint job looks as good as the engine driving it.”

One new on-ramp that Frields has great hopes for is ABRT, the new automatic bug-reporting tool. Unlike other reporting tools like GNOME's Bug Buddy, that assume an advanced user capable of reproducing a crash, ABRT reduces filing a bug report to "filling out a one-line message saying what you were doing when the program crashed." Otherwise, ABRT does most of the work, recording the code associated with a bug, tracking statistics about the bug, and adding it to any existing bug report to eliminate duplicates.

Otherwise, "We've got something for just about everyone," Frields says. "If you're a desktop productivity user, we have better mobile broadband and we have dead simple Bluetooth tethering to your 3G phone. Web sites are able to publish Fedora packages using a simple HTML object tag, and we now support a number of Broadcom chipsets out of the box [for wireless cards].

"For people who are developers, we have the latest Eclipse, the very popular integrated development environment that's a little more powerful than it was before. It integrates with the new release of System Tab, which hardcore developers can use to diagnose problems, or to diagnose places where their code may be making numerous system calls where they could get by with only one.

"For system administrators, we have a huge assortment of virtualization features -- things like the Kernel Shared Memory (KSM) feature. If you have multiple copies of very similar environments running on guest machines, KSM will actually go and find memory pages that are identical from one guest to the other, and it will eliminate the duplicates and point all the guests to a shared copy of the page." In some cases, Frields report, KSM can result in a saving of up to 80% of the RAM used.

Looking to the next release

Codenamed Constantine, Fedora 12 is barely out the door. Yet already, Frields and the rest of Fedora's planners are thinking ahead to future releases.

"We've been giving some thought to ways that we can not only encourage new and different types of innovation, but also to make sure that we can provide the most stable environment for our contributors that's possible," Frields says. "At times, that can conflict with our desire to have the latest and greatest software, but I think that there are some ways that we might be able to move towards a more disciplined approach to our stable releases as well as Rawhide [the nightly development build].”

Another area that the Fedora community hopes to improve is quality assurance. The hope is to automate it -- "to make sure that we are offloading as much work as possible to machines and are simply collecting reports on it," as Frields expresses the goal. "We're not yet taking advantage of all our tools as much as we could." In addition, new automated quality assurance tools are being developed, "so that, in the future, we should be able to concentrate on some ore subtle interactions and user-testing, and spend a little less time on things like running the installation tests."

On the desktop, Frields says, "We are trying to get a good idea of a user profile that makes sense for Fedora -- a user profile that is not necessarily an Everyman, but a user profile that is going to help us guide the decisions we make on processes and desktop design across the board."

This profile may be of most benefit to newer users, but Frields adds, "I really believe that there isn't a clear divide between very technical users and very non-technical users. I tend to think that the decisions we make to have a better, more polished Fedora benefit everybody. All of us are living in that environment day to day, so we really all benefit from decisions to polish."

Talking about the GNU/Linux desktop in general, Frields says, "We've known for a long time that Linux is sometimes rough for people to use. We also know that one of the old saws about the community is that we're really good at the first 80% and it’s the last 10-20% that we really need to improve. But I think that's well understood in the community. What matters is whether you're going to do something about it or not -- and, when you do it, the question is, 'Do you do it in a way that is beneficial to the whole open source community and is in keeping with the ideals of free software?' In the Fedora project, we take that very seriously. We take seriously our commitment not only to talk the talk, but walk the walk.

"We have an incredibly vibrant community that is growing all the time, we've got one of our best releases ever, and I think people ought to check it out. I can't tell you how often I've heard from people who tried Fedora in the past and maybe gone off it for one reason or the other. But I think people tend to think of a product that they used two or three years ago and not understand that open source moves very, very quickly. The distribution that you tried two years ago is not the same as it was. There's so many improvements both under and over the hood that I think it would behoove anyone to give it a try."

If anyone doesn't give the new release a try, Frields seems to imply, it won't be for the lack of an on-ramp to the Fedora Highway.

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