The relationship between Debian and Ubuntu has been the subject of many vigorous debates over the years, ever since Ubuntu’s launch in 2004. Six years later, the situation has improved and both projects are communicating better. The Natty Narwhal Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) featured—like all UDS for more than 2 years—a Debian Health Check session where current cooperation issues and projects are discussed. A few days after that session, Lucas Nussbaum gave a talk during the mini-Debconf Paris detailing the relationship between both projects, both at the technical and social level. He also shared some concerns for Debian’s future and gave his point of view on how Debian should address them. Both events give valuable insights on the current state of the relationship.
Lucas Nussbaum’s Debian-Ubuntu talk
Lucas started by introducing himself. He’s an Ubuntu developer since 2006 and a Debian developer since 2007. He has worked to improve the collaboration between both projects, notably by extending the Debian infrastructure to show Ubuntu-related information. He attended conferences for both projects (Debconf, UDS) and has friends in both communities. For all of these reasons, he believes himself to be qualified to speak on this topic.
Collaboration at the technical level
He then quickly explained the task of a distribution: taking upstream software, integrating it in standardized ways, doing quality assurance on the whole, delivering the result to users, and assuring some support afterward. He pointed out that in the case of Ubuntu, the distribution has one special upstream: Debian.
Indeed Ubuntu gets most of its software from Debian (89%), and only 7% are new packages coming from other upstream projects (the remaining 4% are unknown, they are newer upstream releases of software available in Debian but he was not able to find out whether the Debian packaging had been reused or not). From all the packages imported from Debian, 17% have Ubuntu-specific changes. The reasons for those changes are varied: bugfixes, integration with Launchpad/Ubuntu One/etc., or toolchain changes. The above figures are based on Ubuntu Lucid (10.04) while excluding many Ubuntu-specific packages (language-pack-*, language-support-*, kde-l10n-*, *ubuntu*, *launchpad*).
The different agendas and the differences in philosophy (Debian often seeking perfect solutions to problems; Ubuntu accepting temporary suboptimal workarounds) also explain why so many packages are modified on the Ubuntu side. It’s simply not possible to always do the work in Debian first. But keeping changes in Ubuntu requires a lot of work since they merge with Debian unstable every 6 months. That’s why they have a strong incentive to push changes to upstream and/or to Debian.
There are 3 channels that Ubuntu uses to push changes to Debian: they file bug reports (between 250 to 400 during each Ubuntu release cycle), they interact directly with Debian maintainers (often the case when there’s a maintenance team), or they do nothing and hope that the Debian maintainer will pick up the patch directly from the Debian Package Tracking System (it relays information provided by patches.ubuntu.com).
Lucas pointed out that those changes are not the only thing that Debian should take back. Ubuntu has a huge user base resulting in lots of bug reports sitting in Launchpad, often without anyone taking care of them. Debian maintainers who already have enough bugs on their packages are obviously not interested in even more bugs, but those who are maintaining niche packages, with few reports, might be interested by the user feedback available in Launchpad. Even if some of the reports are Ubuntu-specific, many of them are advance warnings of problems that will affect Debian later on, when the toolchain catches up with Ubuntu’s aggressive updates. To make this easier for Debian maintainers, Lucas improved the Debian Package Tracking System so that they can easily get Ubuntu bug reports for their packages even without interacting with Launchpad.
Human feelings on both sides
Lucas witnessed a big evolution in the perception of Ubuntu on the Debian side. The initial climate was rather negative: there were feelings of its work being stolen, claims of giving back that did not match the observations of the Debian maintainers, and problems with specific Canonical employees that reflected badly on Ubuntu as a whole. These days most Debian developers find something positive in Ubuntu: it brings a lot of new users to Linux, it provides something that works for their friends and family, it brings new developers to Debian, and it serves as a technological playground for Debian.
On the Ubuntu side, the culture has changed as well. Debian is no longer so scary for Ubuntu contributors and contributing to Debian is The Right Thing to do. More and more Ubuntu developers are getting involved in Debian as well. But at the package level there’s not always much to contribute, as many bugfixes are only temporary workarounds. And while Ubuntu’s community follows this philosophy, Canonical is a for-profit company that contributes back mainly when it has compelling reasons to do so.
Consequences for Debian
In Lucas’s eyes, the success of Ubuntu creates new problems. For many new users Linux is a synonym for Ubuntu, and since much innovation happens in Ubuntu first, Debian is overshadowed by its most popular derivative. He goes as far as saying that because of that “Debian becomes less relevant”.
He went on to say that Debian needs to be relevant because the project defends important values that Ubuntu does not. And it needs to stay as an independent partner that filters what comes out of Ubuntu, ensuring that quality prevails in the long term.
Fixing this problem is difficult, and the answer should not be to undermine Ubuntu. On the contrary, more cooperation is needed. If Debian developers are involved sooner in Ubuntu’s projects, Debian will automatically get more credit. And if Ubuntu does more work in Debian, their work can be showcased sooner in the Debian context as well.
The other solution that Lucas proposed is that Debian needs to communicate on why it’s better than Ubuntu. Debian might not be better for everybody but there are many reasons why one could prefer Debian over Ubuntu. He listed some of them: “Debian has better values” since it’s a volunteer-based project where decisions are made publicly and it has advocated the free software philosophy since 1993. On the other hand, Ubuntu is under control of Canonical where some decisions are imposed, it advocates some proprietary web services (Ubuntu One), the installer recommends adding proprietary software, and copyright assignments are required to contribute to Canonical projects.
Debian is also better in terms of quality because every package has a maintainer who is often an expert in the field of the package. As a derivative, Ubuntu does not have the resources to do the same and instead most packages are maintained on a best effort basis by a limited set of developers who can’t know everything about all packages.
In conclusion, Lucas explained that Debian can neither ignore Ubuntu nor fight it. Instead it should consider Ubuntu as “a chance” and should “leverage it to get back in the center of the FLOSS ecosystem”.
The Debian health check UDS session
While this session has existed for some time, it’s only the second time that a Debian Project Leader was present at UDS to discuss collaboration issues. During UDS-M (the previous summit), this increased involvement from Debian was a nice surprise to many. Stefano Zacchiroli—the Debian leader—collected and shared the feedback of Debian developers and the session ended up being very productive. Six months later is a good time to look back and verify if decisions made during UDS-M (see blueprint) have been followed through.
Progress has been made
On the Debian side, Stefano set up a Derivatives Front Desk so that derivative distributions (not just Ubuntu) have a clear point of contact when they are trying to cooperate but don’t know where to start. It’s also a good place to share experiences among the various derivatives. In parallel, a #debian-ubuntu channel has been started on OFTC (the IRC network used by Debian). With more than 50 regulars coming from both distributions, it’s a good place for quick queries when you need advice on how to interact with the distribution that you’re not familiar with.
Ubuntu has updated its documentation to prominently feature how to cooperate with Debian. For example, the sponsorship process documentation explains how to forward patches both to the upstream developers and to Debian. It also recommends ensuring that the patch is not Ubuntu-specific and gives some explanation on how to do it (which includes checking against a list of common packaging changes made by Ubuntu). The Debian Derivative Front Desk is mentioned as a fallback when the Debian maintainer is unresponsive.
While organizing Ubuntu Developer Week, Ubuntu now reaches out to Debian developers and tries to have sessions on “working with Debian”. Launchpad has also been extended to provide a list of bugs with attached patches and that information has been integrated in the Debian Package Tracking system by Lucas Nussbaum.
Still some work to do
Some of the work items have not been completed yet: many Debian maintainers would like a simpler way to issue a sync request (a process used to inject a package from Debian into Ubuntu). There’s a requestsync command line tool provided by the ubuntu-dev-tools package (which is available in Debian) but it’s not yet usable because Launchpad doesn’t know the GPG keys of Debian maintainers.
Another issue concerns packages which are first introduced in Ubuntu. Most of them have no reason to be Ubuntu-specific and should also end up in Debian. It has thus been suggested that people packaging new software for Ubuntu also upload them to Debian. They could however immediately file a request for adoption (RFA) to find another Debian maintainer if they don’t plan to maintain it in the long term. If Ubuntu doesn’t make this effort, it can take a long time until someone decides to reintegrate the Ubuntu package into Debian just because nobody knows about it. This represents an important shift in the Ubuntu process and it’s not certain that it’s going to work out. As with any important policy change, it can take several years until people are used to it.
Both issues have been rescheduled for this release cycle, so they’re still on the agenda.
This time the UDS session was probably less interesting than the previous one. Stefano explained once more what Debian considers good collaboration practices: teams with members from both distributions, and forwarding of bugs if they have been well triaged and are known to apply to Debian. He also invited Ubuntu to discuss big changes with Debian before implementing them.
An interesting suggestion that came up was that some Ubuntu developers could participate in Debcamp (one week hack-together before Debconf) to work with some Debian developers, go through Ubuntu patches, and merge the interesting bits. This would nicely complement Ubuntu’s increased presence at Debconf: for the first time, community management team member Jorge Castro was at DebConf 10 giving a talk on collaboration between Debian and Ubuntu.
There was also some brainstorming on how to identify packages where the collaboration is failing. A growing number of Ubuntu revisions (identified for example by a version like 1.0-1ubuntu62) could indicate that no synchronization was made with Debian, but it would also identify packages which are badly maintained on the Debian side. If Ubuntu consistently has a newer upstream version compared to Debian, it can also indicate a problem: maybe the person maintaining the package for Ubuntu would be better off doing the same work in Debian directly since the maintainer is lagging or not doing their work. Unfortunately this doesn’t hold true for all packages since many Gnome packages are newer in Ubuntu but are actively maintained on both sides.
Few of those discussions led to concrete decisions. It seems most proponents are reasonably satisfied with the current situation. Of course, one can always do better and Jono Bacon is going to ensure that all Canonical teams working on Ubuntu are aware of how to properly cooperate with Debian. The goal is to avoid heavy package modifications without coordination.
The Debian-Ubuntu relationships used to be a hot topic, but that’s no longer the case thanks to regular efforts made on both sides. Conflicts between individuals still happen, but there are multiple places where they can be reported and discussed (#debian-ubuntu channel, Derivatives Front Desk at firstname.lastname@example.org on the Debian side or email@example.com on the Ubuntu side). Documentation and infrastructure are in place to make it easier for volunteers to do the right thing.
Despite all those process improvements, the best results still come out when people build personal relationships by discussing what they are doing. It often leads to tight cooperation, up to commit rights to the source repositories. Regular contacts help build a real sense of cooperation that no automated process can ever hope to achieve.
This article was first published in Linux Weekly News. You can get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news, all you have to do is to click here to subscribe to my free newsletter.