How to start contributing to Debian?

I often get requests of persons who would like to contribute to Debian but who don’t know where to start. Let’s try to answer this question properly so that I can give out this URL the next time that I am asked.

The Debian website has a page explaining how to help Debian. While it provides no less than 10 suggestions in a daunting text-only list, it’s difficult to know what to do next once you picked up something that you could do.

I will try to fix this by providing concrete information for each cases in upcoming articles but in the mean time I propose you another approach to start with. Before answering your question (“what can I do for Debian”), we need to know some information about you.

What motivates you?

You’re a volunteer, you’re not doing stuff for Debian because someone told you so. You must have some intrinsic motivation and the ultimate motivation is usually that you’re enjoying what you’re doing.

So what are you enjoying and/or what are your motivations ?

  • Is there something that you would like to learn? A new programming language? Packaging? Coding? System administration? A specific software?
  • Do you want to interact with smart people?
  • Do you like to help users?
  • Do you like to fix software just so that it works for you?
  • Do you like to build something remarkable and useful for millions of people?

On the opposite, make sure to know what you hate and what you want to stay far away from. Maybe you dislike a programming language so much that you don’t want to be involved in a project where you would have to use it, etc.

Write down the answers to the questions, you might need them later when you’ll ask other Debian contributors how you can help.

What are your skills?

If you’re not interested in learning new skills, then you must obviously select a task where your current skills are sufficient. Again make a list of your skills and in particular of skills that you’d like to practice! Here’s a non-exhaustive list of skills to consider:

  • What languages are you fluent with? Are you confident to write documentation or translate documentation in those languages?
  • Are you a programmer? If yes, which languages do you know?
  • Can you diagnose problems? Can you debug problems with strace and/or gdb?
  • Can you triage bugs?
  • Do you know some Debian packaging?
  • Are you an artist and/or a web designer?
  • Do you know how to work with VCS (subversion, git, bzr, …)?

How much time can you spend on Debian?

This is the last important information that you need to communicate whenever you’re asking someone else what you could do for Debian. There’s no point giving you a big task if you can only spend 30 minutes every week. On the opposite if you can work on Debian full time during a week (because you’re between 2 contracts or because you’re in vacation), it’s equally important to know.

In general contributing to Debian requires time, you should be ready to spend at least several hours per week and possibly more at the start while you’re learning everything.

Find something to do

At this point you have a generic idea of what you’d like to do but you’re still missing a concrete objective. Let’s try to find one, we’ll explore several ways to do this.

Scratch your itch

The best objectives are those that satisfy your own needs. Here are some examples:

  • Did you notice a missing feature? Try to implement it.
  • Have you been annoyed by a bug? Try to fix it.
  • Did you lose too much time on something because there was no documentation? Write the missing documentation and submit it where appropriate.
  • File bug reports for the things that you can’t fix yourself. Even wishlist bug reports for new features.
  • Do you use software that are not packaged for Debian? Create the package(s) and maintain it/them.
  • Do you need a newer version of a package compared to what’s in Debian unstable? Contact the maintainer and propose your help to update the package.
  • Do you need a newer version of a package compared to what’s in Debian stable? Contact the maintainer and propose your help to create a backport.

If you’re a good Debian citizen, you have already filed bugs for issues that bugged you. Then you can browse http://bugs.debian.org/from:hertzog@debian.org to find out some ideas of stuff to do (obviously replace hertzog@debian.org by your own email address).

Join a team

If you don’t have a specific itch to scratch, you might want to focus your work on a specific team. Head over to wiki.debian.org/Teams and browse the list of teams.

You’ll surely find one that works in an area that you like. If you select a packaging team, pick one that works on packages that you’re actually using.

Some of the teams have instructions for newcomers, follow them when that is the case. Otherwise join the mailing list and the IRC channel, and get a feel of how the team works. See if it suits you, you can follow several teams at the same time and pick the one that you prefer after a few days/weeks.

Once you have lurked a bit, if you still don’t know how you could help, then just ask on the mailing list. Include all the answers you have collected to the 3 questions on your motivations, your skills and your time available.

Focus on a specific package

You can concentrate your work on a specific package even if you’re in a team, it’s often a good idea. But I list it separately because not all packages are team maintained and you might want to help maintain a package where there’s a single maintainer currently. I leave it up to you to find a way to select a package that interests you…

Then head over to the package tracking system: http://packages.qa.debian.org/dpkg (replace dpkg by the name of the package that interests you)

Fill in the form in the bottom-left corner with your email and select “opts” in the drop-down list, then click “go”. You get a new form where you can select the information that you’ll receive, I recommend you to keep everything except “upload-binary” and to validate the form.

From now on, you get the same mails than the maintainer (and a bit more actually), and it’s a good idea to inform the maintainer that you subscribed and that you’re going to help a bit. Maybe he’s willing to grant you commit rights immediately, maybe he will ask you to send patches for a start. The important thing is to create a good relationship. In any case (even if you did not get any answer from the maintainer), you should be free to help triage existing bugs and to help deal with the flow of incoming bugs (including forwarding bugs when appropriate).

Help a Debian developer

Paul Tagliamonte once blogged Hey, DDs, need help?. He offered his help to “overworked Debian developers”. His post was missing all the information required (cf motivations/skills/time) but the approach is a good one.

The best way to start contributing is to work with existing Debian developers. Even if you “just” want to be sponsored for your own pet package, you should consider that mentoring is a burden for many Debian developers and that you’re more likely to get a sponsor if you have an existing relationship with a Debian developer that you helped. Pick a developer that works in an area that is of interest, and offer him your help.

To simplify things even further, I have created a wiki page where you can find out how you can help me and thus build a relationship with me.

That’s it for now, I hope this article will help you to start contributing. Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter to not miss future articles for new contributors. Note that you can refer to this article with the following URL: http://raphaelhertzog.com/go/contributing/ (easier to type and remember).

PS: You might want to also check my Contributing to Debian page.

Deciphering one of dpkg’s weirdest errors: short read on buffer copy

As a Debian/Ubuntu user, you’re likely to be exposed at some point to an error reported by dpkg. In a series of articles, I’ll explain some of the errors that you might encounter.

Some error messages can be confusing at times. Most of the error strings do not appear very often and developers thus tend to use very terse description of the underlying problem. In other cases the architecture of the software makes it difficult to pin-point the real problem because the part that displays the error is several layers above the one that generated the initial error.

This is for example the case with this error of dpkg:

Unpacking replacement xulrunner-1.9.2 ...
dpkg-deb (subprocess): data: internal gzip read error: '<fd:0>: too many length or distance symbols'
dpkg-deb: error: subprocess <decompress> returned error exit status 2
dpkg: error processing /var/cache/apt/archives/xulrunner-1.9.2_1.9.2.17+build3+nobinonly-0ubuntu1_amd64.deb (--unpack):
 short read on buffer copy for backend dpkg-deb during `./usr/lib/xulrunner-1.9.2.17/components/libdbusservice.so'

First, the decompression layer discovers something unexpected in the data read in the .deb file and dpkg-deb outputs the error message coming from zlib (“too many length or distance symbols”). This causes the premature end of dpkg-deb --fsys-tarfile that dpkg had executed to extract the .data.tar archive from the deb file. In turn, dpkg informs us that dpkg-deb did not send all the data that were announced (and hence the “short read” in the error message) and that were meant to be part of the file ‘/usr/lib/xulrunner-1.9.2.17/components/libdbusservice.so’.

That’s all nice but it doesn’t help you much in general. What you must understand from the above is that the .deb file is corrupted (sometimes just truncated). In theory it should not happen since APT verifies the checksums of files when they are downloaded. But computers are not infallible and even if the downloaded data was good, it can have been corrupted when stored on disk (for example cheap SSD disks are known to not last very well).

Try removing the file (usually with apt-get clean since it’s stored in APT’s cache) and let APT download it again. Chances are that it will work on the second try. Otherwise consider doing a memory and HDD check as something is probably broken in your computer.

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People behind Debian: Sam Hartman, Kerberos package maintainer

Sam Hartman is a Debian developer since 2000. He has never taken any sort of official role within Debian (that is besides package maintainer), yet I know him for his very thoughtful contributions to discussions both on mailing lists and IRL during Debconf.

Until I met him at Debconf, I didn’t know that he was blind, and the first reaction was to be impressed because it must be some tremendous effort to read the volume of information that Debian generates on mailing lists. In truth he’s at ease with his computer much like I am although he uses it in a completely different way. Read on to learn more, my questions are in bold, the rest is by Sam.

Raphael: Who are you?

Sam: I’m Sam Hartman. I’m a 35-year-old software engineer. I am a principal consultant and co-owner of a small consulting company, called Painless Security. I started using Debian in the mid 1990′s around the time of the bo release. I ended up deciding to join the project as a developer in 2000.

Raphael: You’re blind and yet you’re using your computer as effectively as I am. Can you explain us how you setup your computer ?

Sam: I gave a talk at Debconf9 on how my computer is set up; you can watch the video for full details.

My main laptop runs Debian. I use the gnome-orca package as my primary screen reader. It speaks the Gnome desktop. It does a relatively good job of speaking Iceweasel/Firefox and Libreoffice.

While it does speak gnome-terminal, it’s not really good enough at speaking terminal programs that I am comfortable using it. So, I run Emacs with the Emacspeak package. Within that, I run the Emacs terminal emulator, and within that, I tend to run Screen. For added fun, I often run additional instances of Emacs within the inner screens.

Raphael: Are there important problems in Debian in terms of accessibility to blind people?

KDE documentation talks a lot about accessibility, but at least for blind users, the code completely fails to deliver. That means there are a lot of good packages a blind user cannot use.

The non-free Adobe Flash player has some accessibility, but it could be a lot better. The free alternatives have none.

The free PDF readers have basically no accessibility. You can use pdftotext, but you cannot actually read a PDF in a graphical application.

It’s way too easy for a misbehaving program to lock up the entire accessibility infrastructure. Gnash is a big culprit here: if my Iceweasel starts Gnash, there’s a good chance that either Iceweasel or the entire desktop will appear to hang from an accessibility standpoint. Other programs, including gksu tend to fail in this way.

Some of the more dynamic website features like pop up menus or selection lists are really difficult to find and click without causing them to disappear. This gets better and worse over time as the accessibility support in Iceweasel changes and as websites change.

Raphael: What’s your biggest achievement within Debian?

Sam: I decided to be a Debian developer because I thought that in 2000, Debian support for using enterprise security and infrastructure software was lacking. Back then, any software that included crypto functionality was segregated into a special non-us archive. Some of the software was missing; I started by packaging MIT Kerberos for Debian. Other software had security or enterprise features disabled in the packages. At the height of working on this, I was maintaining krb5, some SASL modules, PAM, some PAM modules,OpenAFS, a version of and Ssh with Kerberos support.

I was also involved in the effort to resolve the legal issues so that we could move security software into the main archive. I think this work has been a huge success. In fact, it’s been such a success that other people are now doing most of the work. I still maintain the krb5 package. When I started I felt like I was pushing against the flow trying to get people to add patches, sometimes even having to fork a package. However, now, I can maintain just one component and there are enough others who shared my original goal that the work continues.

These days, I’m working on something that’s an evolution of this enterprise security work. I’m packaging Project Moonshot for Debian and Ubuntu. Project Moonshot is a response to the wide variety of identity management systems such as OpenID, Oauth, SAML, and the like. Moonshot works to create an identity management approach that works well both for the web and for client-server and other applications.

The project is a lot of fun, but the role of Debian in the project is also interesting. One of the things we want to show with Moonshot is how our technology can be effective when it is integrated throughout a platform. To really show the potential it needs to work with as many applications in a given platform as possible.

The open and collaborative nature of the Debian community makes it possible to introduce a new technology and have that technology evaluated based on its merits. We don’t need huge business relationships or marketing deals to integrate our technology: we need some combination of doing the work ourselves and showing others the benefits of working with us. For someone trying to do innovative work, the Debian model is powerful.

Raphael: If you could spend all your time on Debian, what would you work on?

Sam: I’d really love to work with the embedded Debian folks. The vision of a single source base that could be the stack from devices from small embedded devices all the way up to high-end servers is very appealing. Doing that with Debian involves a number of challenges. However with the right people working on meeting these challenges full-time, I think we could offer something promising. I’d also love to have the time to contribute to project infrastructure: working on the release team, helping ftpmaster, that sort of thing. However I don’t. I’m just happy that so much of my consulting practice involves working on open-source software.

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Sam: There’s something really not right about how we transition libraries from unstable to testing. Every time I get involved in a library transition I’m shocked at how complicated it is and how disruptive it is both to testing and unstable. We need to look at technology and processes to break up the dependency snarles. For example we don’t have good archive tools for keeping old versions of libraries around to ease transitions.

If you haven’t thought about this issue you’ll probably say that I’m being overly picky and this can’t be the major problem for Debian. However, if you think about how much this impacts our ability to introduce things into unstable around the times of the freeze or about how much it slows the release process, you may begin to appreciate how big of an issue this is.

Raphael: Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Sam: There are a number of people who have been role models for me over the years. Anthony Towns really helped me understand a lot of what drives free-software projects and what needs to be true for positive motivation. Joey Hess showed us all that sometimes, social problems do have technical solutions. If the tools are so good that doing the right thing is far easier than any other course of action, quality improves.


Thank you to Sam for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Twitter and Facebook.

apt-get, aptitude, … pick the right Debian package manager for you

This is a frequently asked question: “What package manager shall I use?”. And my answer is “the one that suits your needs”. In my case, I even use different package managers depending on what I’m trying to do.

APT vs dpkg, which one is the package manager?

In the Debian world, we’re usually thinking of APT-based software when we’re referring to a “package manager”. But in truth, the real package manager is dpkg. It’s the low-level tool that takes a .deb file and extracts its content on the disk, or that takes the name of a package to remove the associated files, etc.

APT is better known because it’s the part of the packaging infrastructure that matters to the user. APT makes collection of software available to the user and does the dirty work of downloading all the required packages and installing them by calling dpkg in the correct order to respect the dependencies.

But APT is not a simple program, it’s a library and several different APT frontends have been developed on top of that library. The most widely known is apt-get since it’s the oldest one, and it’s provided by APT itself.

Graphical APT front-ends

update-manager is a simple frontend useful to install security updates and other trivial daily upgrades (if you’re using testing or sid). It’s the one that you get when you click in the desktop notification that tells you that updates are available. In cases, where the upgrade is too complicated for update-manager, it will suggest to run synaptic which is full featured package manager. You can browse the list on installed/available packages in numerous ways, you can mark packages for installation/upgrade/removal/purge and then run in one go all the recorded actions.

software-center aims to be an easy to use application installer, it will hide most of the packaging details and will only present installed/available applications (as defined by a .desktop file). It’s very user friendly and has been developed by Ubuntu.

Of the graphical front-ends, I use mainly synaptic and only when I’m reviewing what I have installed to trim the system down.

Console-based GUI APT front-ends

In this category, I’ll cite only aptitude. Run without parameter, it will start a powerful console-based GUI. Much like synaptic, you can have multiple views of the installed/available packages and mark packages for installation/upgrade/removal/purge before executing everything at once.

Command-line based package managers and APT front-ends

This is where the well known apt-get fits, but there are several other alternatives: aptitude, cupt, wajig. Wajig and cupt are special cases as they don’t use libapt: the former wraps several tools including apt-get, and the latter is a (partial) APT reimplementation (versions 1.x were in Perl, 2.x are now is C++).

You’re welcome to try them out and find out which one you prefer, but I have never felt the need to use something else than apt-get and aptitude.

apt-get or aptitude?

First I want to make it clear that you can use both and mix them without problems. It used to be annoying when apt-get did not track which packages were automatically installed while aptitude did, but now that both packages share this list, there’s no reason to avoid switching back and forth.

I would recommend apt-get for the big upgrades (i.e. dist-upgrade from one stable to the next) because it will always find quickly a relatively good solution while aptitude can find several convoluted solutions (or none) and it’s difficult to decide which one should be used.

On the opposite for regular upgrades in unstable (or testing), I would recommend “aptitude safe-upgrade“. It does a better job than apt-get at keeping on hold packages which are temporarily broken due to some not yet finished changes while still installing new packages when required. With aptitude it’s also possible to tweak dynamically the suggested operations while apt-get doesn’t allow this. And aptitude’s command line is probably more consistent: with apt-get you have to switch between apt-get and apt-cache depending on the operation that you want to do, aptitude on the other hand does everything by itself.

Take some time to read their respective documentation and to try them.

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Installing GNOME 3 on Debian 6.0 Squeeze? No, sorry

Ever since I blogged about the status of GNOME 3 in Debian experimental, my web logs show that many people are looking for ways to try out GNOME 3 with Debian Squeeze.

No GNOME 3 for Debian 6.0

Don’t hold your breath, it’s highly unlikely that anyone of the Debian GNOME team will prepare backports of GNOME 3 for Debian 6.0 Squeeze. It’s already difficult enough to do everything right in unstable with a solid upgrade path from the current versions in Squeeze…

But if you are brave enough to want to install GNOME 3 with Debian 6.0 on your machine then I would suggest that you’re the kind of person who should run Debian testing instead (or even Debian unstable, it’s not so horrible). That’s what most people who like to run recent versions of software do.

How to run Debian testing

You’re convinced and want to run Debian testing? It’s really easy, just edit your /etc/apt/sources.list and replace “stable” with “testing”. A complete file could look like this:

# Main repository
deb http://ftp.debian.org/debian testing main contrib non-free
deb-src http://ftp.debian.org/debian testing main contrib non-free
# Security updates
deb http://security.debian.org/debian-security testing main contrib non-free

Now you should be able to run apt-get dist-upgrade and end up with a testing system.

How to install GNOME 3 on Debian testing aka wheezy

If you want to try GNOME 3 before it has landed in testing, you’ll have to add unstable and experimental to your sources.list:

deb http://ftp.debian.org/debian unstable main contrib non-free
deb http://ftp.debian.org/debian experimental main contrib non-free

You should not install GNOME 3 from experimental if you’re not ready to deal with some problems and glitches. Beware: once you upgraded to GNOME 3 it will be next to impossible to go back to GNOME 2.32 (you can try it, but it’s not officially supported by Debian).

To avoid upgrading all your packages to unstable, you will tell APT to prefer testing with the APT::Default-Release directive:

# cat >/etc/apt/apt.conf.d/local <<END
APT::Default-Release "testing";
END

To allow APT to upgrade the GNOME packages to unstable/experimental, you will also install the following pinning file as /etc/apt/preferences.d/gnome:

Package: *gnome* libglib2.0* *vte* *pulse* *peas* libgtk* *gjs* *gconf* *gstreamer* alacarte *brasero* cheese ekiga empathy* gdm3 gcalctool baobab *gucharmap* gvfs* hamster-applet *nautilus* seahorse* sound-juicer *totem* remmina vino gksu xdg-user-dirs-gtk dmz-cursor-theme eog epiphany* evince* *evolution* file-roller gedit* metacity *mutter* yelp* rhythmbox* banshee* system-config-printer transmission-* tomboy network-manager* libnm-* update-notifier shotwell liferea *software-properties* libunique-3.0-0 libseed-gtk3-0 libnotify* libpanel-applet-4-0 libgdata11 libcamel* libcanberra* libchamplain* libebackend* libebook* libecal* libedata* libegroupwise* libevent* gir1.2-* libxklavier16 python-gmenu libgdict-1.0-6 libgdu-gtk0
Pin: release experimental
Pin-Priority: 990

Package: *gnome* libglib2.0* *vte* *pulse* *peas* libgtk* *gjs* *gconf* *gstreamer* alacarte *brasero* cheese ekiga empathy* gdm3 gcalctool baobab *gucharmap* gvfs* hamster-applet *nautilus* seahorse* sound-juicer *totem* remmina vino gksu xdg-user-dirs-gtk dmz-cursor-theme eog epiphany* evince* *evolution* file-roller gedit* metacity *mutter* yelp* rhythmbox* banshee* system-config-printer transmission-* tomboy network-manager* libnm-* update-notifier shotwell liferea *software-properties* libunique-3.0-0 libseed-gtk3-0 libnotify* libpanel-applet-4-0 libgdata11 libcamel* libcanberra* libchamplain* libebackend* libebook* libecal* libedata* libegroupwise* libevent* gir1.2-* libxklavier16 python-gmenu libgdict-1.0-6 libgdu-gtk0
Pin: release unstable
Pin-Priority: 990

Package: *
Pin: release experimental
Pin-Priority: 150

Note that I used “Pin-Priority: 990″ this time (while I used 500 in the article explaining how to install GNOME 3 on top of unstable), that’s because you want these packages to have the same priority than those of testing, and they have a priority of 990 instead of 500 due to the APT::Default-Release setting.

You’re done, your next dist-upgrade should install GNOME 3. It will pull a bunch of packages from unstable too but that’s expected since the packages required by GNOME 3 are spread between unstable and experimental.

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Why you should always have a network connection when installing Debian

This is a simple tip but an important one: when you’re installing Debian, take the time required to ensure the machine is connected to the Internet with a wired connection. If you have DHCP available, the debian-installer will use it to configure the network.

Why not use the wireless connection?

Because debian-installer in Squeeze doesn’t support WPA encryption, but only WEP. So if you’re using WPA, picking the wireless connection will lead to no working network during the installation and this is to be avoided.

If you’re still using WEP, you can go ahead of course.

If you only have a wireless connection with WPA, your might want to help the debian-installer team and add the required support. Matthew Palmer did some work on it a few months ago (see this mail and his branch in the netcfg git repository) but he resigned from the d-i team in the mean time. So WPA support is still not available in the wheezy debian-installer.

Why is the network so important?

  1. The “tasks” that you select during the installation process might suggest installation of supplementary packages that are not available on your installation disc. If you install without network, the resulting system might differ from the expected one since it will be missing some packages that are available in the Debian repositories but not on your installation disc.
  2. Your installation media might be old and there are security updates that have been published. If you do your initial installation with network, the security updates will be installed before the reboot and thus before the services are exposed over the network.
  3. If you’re not installing a desktop with network-manager (Debian’s default GNOME Desktop provides it), the initial network configuration is important since this configuration is kept for the future. And you surely want network connectivity on your machine, don’t you?
  4. Without network, APT’s sources.list will not be properly configured to include an HTTP mirror of your country. And really, I prefer when apt-get install can work without the initial installation disc.

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People behind Debian: Philipp Kern, Stable Release Manager

Philipp is a Debian developer since 2005 and a member of the release team since 2008. Since he took the responsibility of Stable Release Manager, the process has evolved for the best. I asked him to explain how the release team decides what’s fit for stable or not.

His work on the buildd infrastructure is also admirable but I’ll let him describe that. My questions are in bold, the rest is by Philipp.

Who are you?

I’m a 24 year old Computer Science student, living in Karlsruhe, Germany. As a student assistant I’m currently in two jobs: one is taking care of getting our university IPv6 network in shape, or rather generally getting fringe technologies into the network. The second is taking care of a s390x machine in the basement which my faculty got sponsored recently. In my spare time I tend my Debian duties and I’m active in the student council (Fachschaft) as a sys-admin, software developer and until recently as treasurer.

I got accepted as a Debian Developer in 2005. I’m only really active since I was invited to join the Release Team in early 2008 after I contributed rewrites of some scripts that got lost in a disk crash of ftp-master. In late 2008 I also took on wanna-build/buildd duties.

What’s your notable achievement within Debian?

For one I worked on the deployment of a single buildd/sbuild combination over all of our buildds and I rebased it on the sbuild in the archive several times already. All buildds basically look the same on all architectures, with only few variations. The chroots are now also created in a mostly predictable manner.

Then we finally got build autosigning after years of constant poking. However the policy decision to allow it was made by the ftp-masters anyway, for which I’m grateful, as it eases the workload of the buildd maintainers, the Security Team and the Release Team quite a bit.

On the release side there’s the integration of volatile into the proper structures of Debian. But there I’m guilty for choosing the bad name squeeze-updates is, in comparision with security’s squeeze/updates. Let’s see if we can improve that for wheezy.

The policy for stable updates have changed over time. Can you summarize what kind of updates are allowed nowadays?

All the changes that were made to the policy were driven by the aim to keep stable (and to some lesser degree oldstable) usable throughout its lifetime.

I have to admit that we got slightly more liberal in what we accept since I took over. The previous stable update policy included the fixes of critical bugs that break the system in interesting ways and security fixes. We also opened up the possibility of including important fixes for annoying bugs on a case-by-case basis.

The whole “don’t update that much” part of the stable release management is rooted in “let’s don’t change the behaviour of a running system” and “let’s have as few regressions as possible”. We currently try to counter that with a review process that only allows self-contained fixes that were tested in unstable first, if applicable.

In the future I’d also like to have a feedback process that includes the users of the packages to report problems more early. In fact that’s also why we now send calls for testing to debian-stable-announce one week in advance (see this mail as an example).

So stable is updated through point releases that happen roughly every two months for stable and roughly every four for oldstable. They are accompanied by announcements and new CD/DVD sets.

To be able to push some updates with less delay to our users and to avoid that they have to pick them from proposed-updates, there is stable-updates. The current policy for this suite is available in this post on debian-devel-announce. It boils down to everything urgent like tzdata, regression fixes and volatile packages. We noticed that some packages in stable just weren’t useful anymore when they got updated through volatile. Hence those are folded into stable, too. We also relaxed the rules a bit so that leaf packages like clive, that rely on external websites not to change their URLs, can be updated too.

If somebody wonders what happened to the “and a half” releases… Those were intended to mark the inclusion of new hardware support (mostly by including a co-installable new kernel version). This kind of flag point release is thankfully no longer needed because our marvellous kernel team now backports certain hardware drivers to the kernel version in stable. They have some trouble soliciting test feedback for them, though. It would be cool if more people using stable could respond to their calls for testing.

What are your plans for Debian Wheezy?

Luckily the wanna-build/buildd side isn’t much dependent on release cycles. The stable release management also just takes care of what gets dumped on them by the testing RMs. ;-)

The near-term goals are certainly:

  • getting d-i to use some development process in the archive that’s compatible with the normal flow of packages into testing and
  • hopefully getting wanna-build to use a sane SQL layout and hence better performance

Apart from that my work is mainly squashing the bugs on buildd.debian.org for the wanna-build part, so if you want something fixed, you need to report it, I’m afraid.

You have several roles within Debian, in particular stable release manager and member of the wanna-build team. Which role do you enjoy more and why?

So the regular duties of the SRM, apart from setting up policies, are reviewing requests for uploads to proposed-updates, accepting them, chasing builds and scheduling point releases. It’s mainly steady work. As for the Release Team it’s working in a fabulous team where everyone’s doing an awesome job.

For me the wanna-build role is holding the things together and fixing up stuff that breaks while the world continues to evolve. And occassionally taking a stab at the ftp-masters. So rather… different.

My heart is probably siding with the buildd side because it’s infrastructure but release work is fun, too.

What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Mainly that we’re not quick in picking up new technologies and that we got slow on innovation. Distro-wide changes are usually a very big effort to coordinate and to finally complete. I guess people should be able to push fixes for release goals more eagerly into the archive.

Also it seems to me that many DDs are actually disengaging from the release process, especially during the freeze but also before, which makes me a bit sad. However I’m still not sure how we could counter that. As we’re all volunteers you can’t suddenly make others love the idea of releasing something together, I guess.

Do you have wishes for Debian Wheezy?

It’s getting old, but there’s certainly multiarch. Also a usable Python 3 is something I’d really appreciate.

Is there someone in Debian that you admire for their contributions?

Peter Palfrader did an awesome job of getting a nicely working team together for DSA and got many tasks as automated as they are now. It’s a pleasure to work with them and setting up a new buildd is, for example, a real breeze. He also developed a sane archive snapshot service, kudos for that.


Thank you to Philipp for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Twitter and Facebook.

Official Debian/Ubuntu packages for Dropbox

Dropbox is a popular service to synchronize files between multiple computers. The service is entirely proprietary but the company is Linux friendly and provides Linux binaries ready to use. They even provide Ubuntu packages that wrap the dropbox client and provide integration with Nautilus.

A bit of story

Unfortunately for Debian users, those packages do not work on Debian due to a dependency that can’t be satisfied (because Ubuntu introduced an epoch on the version of their nautilus package that Debian doesn’t have). This was even reported in a Squeeze review in Linux Weekly News.

At some point, Ivan Borzenkov introduced a dropbox package to Debian but it was not based on the above package, instead it packaged directly the proprietary binaries. This was a bad decision because the binaries bundle a set of LGPL libraries and nobody from Debian wanted to do the required work to provide the corresponding source code. So the package got dropped (see bug #610300).

More recently several persons filed ITP (Intent To Package) bugs stating their willingness to re-introduce dropbox in Debian, but after many months lingering in the bug tracking system (see #544499, #613788), they have been turned back to RFP (Request For Package) because they changed their minds.

What I did

Being a dropbox user myself (despite the recent proof that data stored on dropbox is not 100% private), I offered sponsorship to the volunteers who wanted to package dropbox. But it turns out this was not enough to motivate someone to complete the task.

In the mean time I was still using the old dropbox package that was removed (it used to be downloadable from snapshot.debian.org).

While this was good enough for me, it’s clearly not OK in the long term and way too difficult for the majority of users. So this week-end I spent some hours to create a proper package.

It’s loosely based on the package provided by Dropbox but I upgraded the packaging and changed the way it works. I patched the dropbox wrapper to provide a “dropbox update” command that downloads and updates the proprietary binaries. They are now stored in /var/lib/dropbox instead of having a copy in each user’s home directory (~/.dropbox-dist/). This update command is run by the postinst so that installing the package immediately downloads the proprietary binaries.

Get the Dropbox packages for Debian

The package nautilus-dropbox has been uploaded to Debian unstable, it’s currently in the NEW queue but will shortly reach the mirrors. Then you will be able to You can install the package with a simple apt-get install nautilus-dropbox (provided that you activated the non-free section since that’s where the package is hosted, it can’t be part of Debian since it requires the proprietary binaries to be useful).

In the mean time you can get the packages from the links below:

  • For Debian Squeeze: i386 amd64 (now in backports.debian.org)
  • For Debian unstable/wheezy: i386 amd64 (now in wheezy/sid)
  • For Debian unstable with GNOME3 from experimental: i386 amd64 (now in experimental)

Get the Dropbox packages for Ubuntu

I have setup a PPA for nautilus-dropbox. Feel free to use it in place of the upstream packages.

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:hertzog/nautilus-dropbox
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get install nautilus-dropbox

It also includes packages for oneiric, but in theory once the package is accepted into Debian, it should appear in oneiric shortly after.

Package maintenance

I have done the initial packaging work but I don’t really want to maintain it in the long term. I have more than enough to do with dpkg and my other packages. So if you are interested in maintaining this package, please get in touch with me. You should know a bit of python since there are Debian-specific patches of the upstream code. The package is maintained in a git repository.

Feedback

If you have encountered a problem with one of those packages, feel free to leave a comment.

If you’re an happy user of the above packages, click here to find out how you can thank me.

I hope you enjoy the packages!

My Debian activities in May 2011

This is my monthly summary of my Debian related activities. If you’re among the people who made a donation to support my work, then you can learn how I spent your money. Otherwise it’s just an interesting status update on my various projects.

I have been…

Doing some work towards Debian Rolling

At the start of the month, the discussions about Debian rolling were still very active on debian-devel. Declaring that testing would be rolling did not make it (as I hoped), the argument that some RC bugs last for far too long in that distribution carried the discussion and thus the most consensual proposition ended up being the one of Josselin Mouette were rolling would be testing plus a few selected cherry-picked packages from unstable.

I believe it’s a workable solution if we only care about a subset of architectures. Otherwise the same reasons that keep the fixed packages out of testing would probably also apply for rolling.

Given this, I did setup britney (the software that controls testing) on my laptop to investigate how we can create rolling. It turns out britney is a very specialized software with very few configuration knobs.

At the same time Joachim Breitner made a proposition that immediately grabbed my attention. He suggests to use SAT solvers to find out the set of packages that should migrate from unstable to testing. I thought that rolling would be a good testbed for this new implementation of britney (which he calls SAT-britney) so I jumped right in this project.

I was not at all familiar with this science field, so I looked up quite some documentation: I learned that all SAT solvers expect the problem to be presented in CNF form, and that DIMACS was the file format of choice to represent those boolean constraints. Several SAT solvers are available in Debian and picosat appears to be one of the best.

Then I started some early coding/prototyping to play with the concept. You can find the result in this git repository, you can grab a copy with git clone git://git.debian.org/~hertzog/sat-britney.git.

There’s not much yet, except some Python code to generate a SAT problem that can be fed to a SAT solver. But I really look forward to this project.

Representing Debian during Solutions Linux

During the second week, I spent 3 days in Paris to help manage the Debian booth at Solutions Linux.

We have responded to lots of queries but most visitors already knew Debian, and many of them use it at work and/or at home. We tried to recruit those people as new members for Debian France, the local association. We also sold all our remaining goodies.

The Ubuntu people were interviewed by France 3 (an important TV channel) and we took this opportunity (with the consent of the Ubuntu guys) to show our Debian t-shirts in the background: you can watch the video here (in French), you can see me with Carl Chenet at 1:21.

We have also been interviewed by Intelli’n TV: here and here (both in French). I’m not very good at this exercise. :-)

Improving dpkg triggers

The third week was a vacation week, in theory I should have stayed away from my computer but I really wanted to take this opportunity to improve the state of dpkg triggers in Debian.

I already covered my work in another article: Trying to make dpkg triggers more useful and less painful.

The result is not merged yet, I just asked a question to all package maintainers who are using triggers to be able to decide whether I’ll merge it as is, or if I can make the new behavior the default one.

Supporting users after Alioth’s migration

When I came back from my vacation, many services provided by Alioth.debian.org were non-functional after a migration to a new setup that involves two machines instead of one. Given that I used to be an Alioth admin, I know that in those periods you tend to be get bogged down on many user support requests. So I re-joined #alioth on IRC and tried to help a bit.

I did investigate some of the reported problems and prepared fixes (updated scripts, configuration files, etc.) for some of the issues. I also created a list of remaining issues that should have lasted only a few days but that’s still active because there are still regressions left.

The most important things still missing are:

  • proper support for delegation of rights. We used ACL setup by the admins in the past. With the new FusionForge, each project admin should be able to delegate rights to external “roles”. There’s a Debian Developer role already but trying to grant him right fails…
  • access to the Ultimate Debian Database. Many tools rely on this database to work.
  • anonymous FTP access to download project files.
  • clear guidelines on how we’re supposed to deal with websites that are updated by VCS hooks.
  • clear guidelines on how we’re supposed to deal with personal git repositories

Improving the “3.0 (quilt)” source format

I have made some proposals to change the way the new source format would work. The goals are to be less painful for packagers who are using a VCS, and to avoid unexpected changes slipping through a new patch generated by dpkg-source.

It seems that the proposals are relatively consensual so I’ll implement them at some point.

Missing in action on my blog

I did a lots of stuff for Debian between travel and vacation, and in the remaining time, I did not manage to write many articles for my blog.

In fact, besides the article on my triggers work mentioned above I only published one interview: People behind Debian: Steve Langasek, release wizard.

I’ll try to do better this month!

Thanks

Many thanks to the people who gave me 151.61 € in May.

See you next month for a new summary of my activities.

Discover 5 free software that you can support with Flattr

Flattr FOSS Logo

  1. Psychosynth (Flattr link) is a modular synthesis framework. I’m not into music but this user interface looks really different from what you could expect from this kind of software. Watch out the video on its home page!
  2. JS Beautifier (Flattr link) is a very handy tool to beautify javascript code that has been packed to save size (or to obfuscate it)… it’s available as a online service but there’s also a command-line variant.
  3. Bombono DVD (Flattr link) is a DVD authoring tool which aims to be really easy to use. It has a slick user interface and relies on the well known ffmpeg program for the low level tasks.
  4. Key-mon (Flattr link) is a small utility that monitors and displays the status of the keyboard and the mouse in a little non-intrusive window. It’s useful when you record screencasts: you want to show keyboard combinations that have been used, and the viewer should be able to notice that some clicks were made with modifier keys (like CTRL/ALT).
  5. Libre Graphics Magazine (Flattr link) is a publication devoted to people who are working with Libre Graphics software, both professionals and hobbyists. The magazine is a community work and is thus useful to share experience. It’s also a great tool to promote free software in circles where proprietary software is still the norm. The magazine is licensed under the CC BY-SA license so it’s truly free… well worth a few Flattr IMO.

This article is part of the Flattr FOSS project.