Debian GNU/Linux: 15 Years Old and at the Crossroads: Page 2

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"A question of increasing importance," Michlmayr says, "is how Debian and other projects that mainly rely on volunteers can keep up with projects that have more contributions from companies. There are several areas where we're trying to catch up." On the other hand, he adds, "there are some features Debian had sooner than most (such as support in the installer for encrypted root) or where other distros don't come close, such as support for Network Attached Storage devices."

More seriously, the question arises of how long Debian can continue to grow. Murdock remembers several occasions when the project seemed to have reached its natural limit, but, at its present size, Debian is already larger than most companies, and the continued ability to grow can no longer be assumed by anybody.

"We work very well already, despite that large size, due to the way in which we can devolve most of the work down to individuals or small teams," McIntyre says. "As the project continues to grow, however, the communications overhead could become more of an issue. And, as we use more and more resources and spawn more and more teams to support our system, the amount of work needed to coordinate those will of course grow, too."

In fact, Murdock suggests that Debian is already significantly hampered by its size. "As it's grown, it's taken on the characteristics of any large organization," Murdock says. "There's bureaucracy, and there's lots of red tape." As an example, he points to the often long waiting list for people undergoing the lengthy process of becoming official developers.

More specifically, Murdock says that Debian's "single biggest weakness" is the fact that, as the project struggles to manage growth and preserve its ideals, it no longer attracts what he calls "the impassioned leader figure," the benevolent dictator who can make decisions efficiently and keep the project to a definite timetable while keeping the group united.

Murdock suggests that such a leader "is indispensable for any organization, whether it's a company or an open source project." However, it is hard to see how the project could keep its preference for openness and consensus on major policy with such a leader. Nor, perhaps, as a relentlessly non-commercial project, does Debian need efficient decision-making to the same degree that a for-profit corporation does.

Future challenges

All the same, Murdock may have a point when he suggests that the benevolent dictatorship of Mark Shuttleworth explains why Ubuntu, which is based on Debian, has surpassed its ancestor in popularity. Regular releases and a commercial arm in the form of Canonical might very well be more reassuring to many software users than the participatory democracy of Debian.

The popularity of Ubuntu, Murdock suggests (as well as, he might have added, the popularity of specialized Debian-derived distributions such as Knoppix and Damn Small Linux) may very well mean that Debian's role is changing. Instead of being the distribution of choice for many users, the project may be evolving into an upstream supplier for other, more user-focused distributions. The reliability of its packages, as well as the fact that its package format has not fragmented to anything like the extent that the .RPM format, could make Debian well-suited to this role.

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