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.
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.