Happy Birthday Debian! And memories of an old-timer…

For Debian’s birthday, Francesca Ciceri of the Debian Publicity team suggested that developers “blog about their first experiences with Debian”. I found this a good idea so I’m going to share my own early experience. It’s quite different from what happens nowadays…

Before speaking of my early Debian experience, I have to set some context. In my youth, I have always been a Windows user and a fan of Bill Gates. That is until I got Internet at home… at that point, I got involved in Usenet and made some friends there. One of those made me discover Perl and it has been somewhat of a revelation for me who had only been programming in Visual Basic, Delphi or ObjectPal. Later the same friend explained me that Perl was working much better on Linux and that Debian Linux installs it by default so I should try this one.

I had no idea of what Linux was, but given how I loved Perl, I was eager to try his advice. So I got myself a Tri-Linux CD with Debian/RedHat/Slackware on it and started the installation process (which involved preparing boot floppies). But I did not manage to get the graphical interface working despite lots of fiddling with Xfree86’s configuration file. So I ended up installing RedHat and used it for a few months. But since many of the smart guys in my Usenet community were Debian users, I persisted and finally managed to get it to work!

After a few months of usage, I was amazed at everything that was available for free and I wanted to give back. I filed my first bug report in July 1998, I created my first Debian packages in August 1998 and I got accepted as an official Debian developer in September 1998 (after a quick chat over the phone with Martin Schulze or James Troup — I never understood the name of my interlocutor on the phone and I was so embarassed to have to use my rusty English over the phone that I never asked). That’s right, it took me less than 3 months to become a Debian developer (I was 19 years old back then).

I learned a lot during those months by reading and interacting with other Debian developers. Many of those went away from Debian in the mean time but some of them are still involved (Joey Hess, Manoj Srivastava, Ian Jackson, Martin Schulze, Steve McIntyre, Bdale Garbee, Adam Heath, John Goerzen, Marco D’Itri, Phil Hands, Lars Wirzenius, Santiago Vila, Matthias Klose, Dan Jacobowitz, Michael Meskes, …).

My initial Debian work was centered around Perl: I adopted dpkg-ftp (the FTP method for dselect) because it was written in Perl and had lots of outstanding bug reports. But I also got involved in more generic Quality Assurance work and tried to organize the nascent QA team. It was all really a lot of fun, I could take initiatives and it was clear to me that my work was appreciated.

I don’t know if you find this story interesting but I had some fun time digging through archives to find out the precise dates… if you want to learn more about what I did over the following years, I maintain a webpage for this purpose.

Debian related goals for 2012

Like last year, here’s a list of Debian related goals that I’d like to achieve this year. I might not have the time to implement all the projects, but I like to write them down to keep me motivated. And maybe it can inspire other people to implement some of them (or to help me).

  1. Finish the translation of the Debian Administrator’s Handbook

    The target is to have the book available in April. It would be nice to complete the liberation fund until then so that the book is immediately made available under a DFSG-free license.

  2. Update the Debian Administrator’s Handbook for Wheezy
  3. Translating the book in English is only the start of the journey. The real challenge is to keep the book up-to-date with each subsequent release of Debian. And Wheezy should hopefully be released in 2012 since the freeze is in June.

  4. Design and implement the Debian Package Maintenance Hub

    It’s an ambitious project that aims to merge and replace the PTS, the DDPO and their respective mail variants. It should also standardize the flow of information directed towards package maintainers. I’m going to use the DEP process to drive this project.

    This could easily take most of the year, but hopefully I’ll motivate other people to chime in and help.

  5. Implement dpkg --check-db and dpkg --repair-db

    While dpkg is fairly reliable, it’s not exempt of bugs and more annoyingly, harddrives/filesystems are not 100% reliable either, thus it happens that some internal database files get corrupted. Given that most files are text based, advanced users can manually fix them but many less skilled users are just left with a broken system that they tend to reinstall.

    To avoid this, we could provide a command that would try to automatically bring back the internal database to a sane state by looking for a working backup to restore (while at the same time marking some packages as requiring re-installation since we have some indications that they were present).

  6. Implement storage of dpkg’s internal files in Git

    This would be an extension of the former idea. Installing a package dpkg-db-history (any idea for a better name?) would setup dpkg hooks that would record every database change in a git repository. This repository could then be used to restore the last working version of the database.

Besides those concrete projects, I want to do better than last year on the topic of funding my Debian work. I will thus reiterate some objectives:

  1. Write useful articles for Debian users and Debian contributors.

    They should complete the pages Mastering Debian, Contributing to Debian 101, Debian Packaging Tutorials, and help me increase the audience of this blog.

  2. Write at least one Debian-related ebook (different from the Debian Admin Handbook) and sell it.

    It could be an ebook targetting testing users since I believe that many more users could benefit from it if they had some better knowledge of the limitations and of the way to mitigate the problems that arise from time to time.

    Or maybe it could be an ebook for people who want to start contributing to Debian, it could even be bundled with a few hours of mentoring.

  3. By the end of the year, have at least 1/3 of my time funded by donations and/or earnings of my information products.

    This means doing 3,5 times better than in 2011. It should be doable given that the sales of the Debian Administrator’s Handbook will contribute to this goal (once the translation is over).

That makes up lots of challenges for this year. Feel free subscribe to my newsletter to stay up-to-date with my progress and to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news. It’s also a good way to help me reach those goals since you will be informed of all my new projects.

Review of my Debian related goals for 2011

Last year I shared my “Debian related goals for 2011”. I tend to put more goals than what I can reasonably complete alone and this year was no exception. Let’s have a look.

  1. Translate my Debian book into English: PARTLY DONE
    It took more time than expected to prepare and to run the fundraising campaign but it has been successful and the translation is happening right now.
  2. Finish multiarch support in dpkg: DONE BUT NOT ENTIRELY MERGED YET
    Yes, multiarch support was already in the pipe last year in January. I completed the development between January and April (it was sponsored by Linaro) and since then it has mostly been waiting on Guillem to review it, tweak it, and integrate it.
  3. Make deb files use XZ compression by default: TRIED BUT ABANDONED
    After discussing the issue with Colin Watson and Joey Hess during debconf, I came to the conclusion that it was not really desirable at this point. The objections were that debian-installer was not ready for it and that it adds a new dependency on xz for debootstrap to work on non-Debian systems. I believe that the debian-installer side is no longer a problem since “unxz” is built in busybox-udeb (since version 1:1.19.3-2). For the other side, there’s not much to do except ensuring that xz is portable to all the other OS we care about. DAK has been updated too (see #556407).
  4. Be more reactive to review/merge dpkg patches: PARTLY DONE
    I don’t think we had any patch that received zero input. We still have a backlog of patches, and the situation is far from ideal but the situation improved.
  5. Implement the rolling distribution proposed as part of the CUT project and try to improve the release process: NOT DONE

    We had a BoF during debconf, we discussed it at length on debian-devel, but in the end we did nothing out of it. Except Josselin Mouette who wrote a proof of concept for his idea.

    For me testing is already what people are expecting from a rolling distribution. It’s just a matter of documenting how to effectively use testing, and of some marketing by defining rolling as alias to testing.

  6. Work more regularly on the developers-reference: PARTLY DONE
    I did contribute some new material to the document but not as much as I could have hoped. On the other hand, I have been rather reactive to ensure that sane patches got merged. We need more people writing new parts and updating the existing content.
  7. Write a 10-lesson course called “Smart Package Management”: NOT DONE
  8. Create an information product (most likely an ebook or an online training) and sell it on my blog: NOT DONE
    This was supposed to happen after the translation of the Debian Administrator’s Handbook. Since the translation is not yet over, I did not start to work on this yet.
  9. By the end of the year, have at least 1/3 of my time funded by donations and/or earnings of my information products: NOT REACHED
    My target was rather aggressive with 700 € each month, and given that I did not manage to complete any information product, I’m already very pleased to have achieved a mean amount of 204 € of donations each month (min: 91 €, max: 364 €). It’s more than two times better than in 2010. Thank you! Note that those figures do not take into account the revenues of the fundraising of the Debian Administrator’s Handbook since they will be used for its translation.

That makes quite a lot of red (for things that I did not achieve)… on the other hand I completed projects that I did not foresee and did not plan. For instance improving dpkg-buildflags and then merging Kees Cook work on hardened build flags was an important step for Debian. This was waiting for so long already…

Google plus and server to give away

Just a quick note to let you know that (like many free software hackers apparently) I have an account on Google+.

I’m not using it much yet but I like it in general. It’s interesting to see how Google transformed Joindiaspora‘s aspects into “circles”.

When Google will make an API available, I’ll probably setup it like my public Facebook page so that new blog posts are automatically announced. In the mean time, it’s going to be very quiet on my Google+ profile.

That said, I used it twice this week: the first time because I’m looking for a French developer with sysadmin skills, and the second time because I have a server to give away (Pentium IV 3Ghz, 4 Gb RAM, 200 Gb of diskspace in RAID1 Hard). If you take the server for a free software project, it can be hosted for free where it currently is (courtesy of Julien Danjou).

So if you’re also a Google+ user, feel free to add me to one of your circles.