Fedora 10: the GNU/Linux Desktop Steps Forward

Monday Nov 24th 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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The new release of the Fedora GNU/Linux distro hopes to define the free software desktop for years to come.

Any release of a GNU/Linux distribution marks a milestone in a continuous cycle of software development. However, Fedora 10 promises to be a larger milestone than most, both for its development community and users, according to Paul W. Frields, the Fedora leader and chair.

On the one hand, its release on November 25 is being accomplished despite a major security problem and the need to deal with a rapidly growing community – and reputation – in the free and open source software (FOSS) ecosystem. On the other hand, in many ways the release could be seen as an infrastructure release, with many of the changes being either improvements of existing features, or the first stage in the ongoing development of new features.

The release has been delayed three to four weeks thanks to a major security breach in the Fedora and Red Hat repositories that was discovered in mid-August and not fixed until September 10th. This is not a major slip, Frields points out, considering that earlier releases have been delayed one or two weeks for mere bug-fixing, but the effort to avoid even further slippage was intense. Following best practices for security and taking no chances, the Fedora infrastructure team spent a hectic few weeks rebuilding the distro's repository system from the ground up, also taking the opportunity to add a few improvements at the same time.

Looking back, Frields suggests that the effort would not be possible except with free software.

"You can see that there's a really compelling story for the IT world here about what free and open source software can accomplish," he says. Still, the situation has affected the release schedule by requiring some high-level decisions. Discussions are still ongoing, but it now appears that Fedora 11, which is likely to be the basis for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6.0, will also be a month late, but that the less important Fedora 12 may have only a five-month development period to bring the release schedule back into sync.

In addition, as the result of the security crisis, Fedora now plans to issue new encrypted authentication keys for all its repositories with each release as a general precaution. "Even though we're confident that we dodged that bullet," Frields says, speaking of the security crisis, "We want to make sure that we dodged it by a continent rather than by the next town over."

Living with growth

A less stressful but still demanding background issue is the rapid growth of the community. According to Frields, membership in the Fedora community has gone from under 2000 to over 15,000 in the last year. Frields attributes this growth to a number of factors, including the effort under his leadership to make the steps in becoming part of the community easier; the doubling in size of the ambassador program, Fedora's grass roots evangelism effort; Fedora's emphasis on good relations with the upstream community (that is, the individual projects that go into a distribution), and the realization by business that Fedora is the place to see the content of upcoming releases of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

However, even more importantly, Frields suggests that Fedora has developed a strong and distinctive brand. "We've had countless discussions about questions like, 'What is the audience for Fedora? What is the marketing plan for Fedora? What is our mission? What is our objective? And these discussions are all held in public," Frields says. "These aren't things that are declared by Red Hat behind the scenes -- these are things that are done in the community. And, when we arrive at the answers, we put them out in public for everyone to look at. That way, we can put everybody on the same page for spreading the message about how Fedora works.”

Frields summarizes the Fedora brand as having four pillars: Freedom, Friends, Features, and First. In other words, the distribution makes a point of shipping only free software (aside from some firmware blobs for device drivers), building links both within and outside the community, including innovative features, and being the first both with features and community organization.

"I think Fedora really is the heart of free software. We're able to provide what other open source communities need, and I think it's what makes us such a vibrant part of the free software ecosystem," Frields says.

However, while such a reputation is gratifying, it also represents a tremendous organizational and diplomatic challenge, as well as constant reappraisal, especially because the project is growing so quickly.

Release features

Even without such challenges, Fedora 10 promises to be an ambitious release. On a philosophical level, Fedora 10 is the first Fedora release to tackle the problem of kernel drivers dependent on proprietary firmware blobs. Although Frields states, "Fedora's position is that firmware is something that you can't consider in the same way as code that is running on a CPU," he concedes that there are users who would prefer not to install it. For those who wish to avoid proprietary firmware, Fedora 10 has now moved them to a single package called kernel-firmware, making a philosophically free system easy to obtain.

Other features look forward to the upcoming Red Hat Enterprise Linux release, such as improved tools for virtualization, support for larger numbers of virtual machines on a single system, and improved features for creating appliance tools.

Such tools anticipate an increase in Fedora-derived appliances, which in turn raise legal issues about trademarks. Taking a cue from Debian, Fedora is meeting this anticipated demand by announcing a Fedora Remix mark to identify appliances build on Fedora that are not actually part of Fedora.

Explaining his support for the Fedora Remix mark, Frields says, "I wanted to free up our brand -- not to muddy it, but, on the contrary, to allow the community to spread our brand further. We still retain our clear Fedora trademark, but what we've done is come up with one that is usable by the community. People can use it without any dispensation, with or without our knowledge, and they can use it to help drive not only interest in our community, but their product. To expand your brand, sometimes you have to loosen the reins."

At the same time, Fedora 10 includes an array of improvements to basic infrastructure, ranging from a faster boot time to a rewriting of the Pulse audio system for faster response time and lower power usage. One of the most obvious infrastructure improvements is to Fedora's network manager, which can now be configured so that a single machine can become an impromptu network hub for other machines in the room.

However, perhaps the most significant new feature is the first stage of a system for installing software on demand via PackageKit, Fedora's graphical software installer. In Fedora 10, this system begins with the ability to install audio-visual codecs as you need them. Although users will have a choice whether to proceed with the installation, this feature is intended as a way to help users get the software they need without having to search for the correct package -- an often daunting experience for new users.

In Fedora 11 and later releases, Frields suggests, this basic capacity will be expanded in other ways. For instance, users who click on a file format that requires a program that their system lacks might be given a chance to install the program immediately. Similarly, if a document requires an uninstalled font, then users could install the font before opening the file. Users could even be presented with a list of possible options, complete with ratings from other users to help them make an informed choice about the software they install.

With this system, Frields says, "We're going to be in a situation beyond what a proprietary software company can offer, because they're in the business of selling software and we're in the business of giving software away. We're going to take that central tenet of free software life, and we're going to bring that power to every desktop user, even those who don't know anything about package management." If successful, this new feature could be the largest improvement in GNU/Linux software installation since the introduction of automatic resolution of dependencies.

Conclusion

"I really think that Fedora 10 is going to be one of our best releases ever," Frields says. "This is the first Fedora release ever in my experience that we've actually managed to clear all of our list of [release-]blocking bugs. Typically, we look and we have six, and we have to say that we'll fix two of them and the other four will have to be fixed in a point release. We've done really well in this release" -- all the more so because of the behind-the-scene challenges.

"What you see in this release is the setting of stages," Frields says. "In some cases, we've gone 50 or 75 percent of the way into a feature. In other cases, we've tightened up a previously introduced feature or two to a much higher degree of performance. We're also setting the stage for things that are going to define the free software desktop for years to come.

"This is where Fedora has pretty solidly staked its claim: If you want to see a feature first, you're going to look at Fedora."

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