Fedora Struggles to Come into Its Own

Often dismissed as a beta release for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora is making major changes that will change this perception.
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"How is Fedora positioning itself to be useful for Red Hat Enterprise Linux and for the community at large?"

For Max Spevack, chair of the Fedora board, the upcoming release of Fedora 7 represents the answer to that question. Often dismissed as a beta release for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), the Fedora community is now trying to reposition the GNU/Linux distribution as a leading community distribution through the merger of its repositories, and through opening up its build process to increase community involvement.

According to Spevack, these changes are already bringing concrete benefits to Fedora for the average user. And, in the process, Spevack hopes that no one will ever confuse Fedora and RHEL ever again.

"It's been very obvious to those of us who work on Fedora that the best way to think about [the relation between Fedora and RHEL] is that Fedora represents the upstream that Red Hat builds a lot of its products off of," says Spevack. "For those who build products based on Fedora or RHEL, it represents an upstream for them as well." Red Hat, Spevack suggests, has shifted from being "Fedora's sponsor" to being "Fedora's biggest customer," and Fedora from being a farm-team to a community in its own right.

"What we have been trying to do," Spevack continues, "is to step back and answer the question, 'How can we change the way that Fedora is built, so that developers who want to use Fedora can find it as useful and open as possible?' The idea is that if you've got developers who have an easy time using Fedora, they will produce really cool stuff that end users will want."

The Merging of Repositories

Historically, Fedora packages have been stored in two repositories. The original repository was Fedora Core, consisting largely of the software bundled in RHEL. Fedora community members could submit bugs and patches, but they would have to wait for a Red Hat employee to check their work into the source code repository, then wait for the Red Hat build system to produce a new package.

"It was a bottleneck," Spevack says, "And that is why Fedora Extras was created two years ago: to alleviate that problem." Unlike Fedora Core, Extras was accessible to programmers in the community. It rapidly became over twice the size of Core. Moreover, its guidelines for how a program should be packaged and where files should be installed on the system made for such consistency that the process of adding new software to the repository was no longer affected by the idiosyncrasies of individual programmers, so that other package maintainers could take over if a maintainer quit or was unavailable.

"Fedora Extras became, without a doubt, the most successful piece of the project," in Spevack's judgement. In fact, Extra's packaging guidelines were so thorough that they replaced those used for Core. Now, with the merger of the two repositories a few weeks ago, Spevack hopes that the bottleneck represented by Core will be replaced by the flexibility and openness that has made Extras such a success. As a sign of this change, the distribution has also recently changed its name from Fedora Core to simply Fedora.

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