People behind Debian: Stefano Zacchiroli, Debian Project Leader

picture by Tiago Bortoletto Vaz, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s been one year since the first People behind Debian interview. For this special occasion, I wanted a special guest… and I’m happy that our Debian Project Leader (DPL)—Stefano Zacchiroli—accepted my invitation.

He has a difficult role in the community, but he’s doing a really great job of it. He’s a great mediator in difficult situations, but he’s also opinionated and can push a discussion towards a conclusion.

Read on to learn how he became a Debian developer and later DPL, what he’s excited about in the next Debian release, and much more.

Raphael: Who are you?

Stefano: I’m Stefano Zacchiroli, but I prefer to be called Zack, both on the Internet and in real life. I’m 32, Italian, emigrated to France about 4 years ago. I live in Paris, and I find it to be one of the most gorgeous and exciting cities in the world.

As my day job I’m a Computer Science researcher and teacher at University Paris Diderot and IRILL. In my copious free time™ I contribute to Debian, and I’m firmly convinced that doing so is an effective way to help the cause of Free Software. Besides, I find it to be a lot of fun!

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Stefano: Flash back to 1999, when I was a 2nd year student in Computer Science at the University of Bologna. Back then in Italy it was uncommon for young geeks to get exposed to Free Software: Internet was way less pervasive than today and most computer magazines didn’t pay much attention to GNU/Linux. Luckily for me, the professor in charge of the student lab was a Free Software enthusiast and all students machines there were running Debian. Not only that, but there was also a student program that allowed volunteers to become sysadmins after having shown their skills and convinced the director they were trustworthy. Becoming one of those volunteer Debian admins quickly became one of my top objectives for the year, and that is were I’ve learned using Debian.

The year after that, I got in touch with a research group that was to become the happy bunch of hackers with whom I would have done both my master and PhD theses. They were designing a new proof assistant. Most of the development was in OCaml and happened on Debian. OCaml was available in Debian, but many of the libraries we needed were not. So I approached the Debian OCaml Team offering to help. Before I realize what was going on I was (co-)maintainer of tens of OCaml-related packages. At some point I got told “I think you should apply as a Debian Developer”. So I did and in a couple of months I went through the New Member (NM) process, that was back then in its infancy. I still remember my happiness while reading the “account created” mail, the day after my 22nd birthday.

I know the NM process went through some bad publicity in the past, but I’m happy to see that nowadays the process can be as swift as it has been for me 10 years ago.

Raphael: It’s your second year as Debian Project Leader (DPL). Are you feeling more productive in the role? Do you fear to burn out?

Stefano: I’m feeling way more productive, no doubts.

The task of the Debian Project Leader is not necessarily difficult, but it is a complex and scarcely documented one. It is also profoundly different from any other task that Debian people usually work on, so that experience doesn’t help much in getting started. Before becoming effective as DPL one needs to get to know many people and mechanisms he is not familiar with. More importantly, one needs to set up a personal work-flow that allows to keep up with day-to-day DPL tasks (which are aplenty) as well as with urgencies (that tend to pop-up in the INBOX at the least convenient time). Finally, one also needs to do proper “traffic shaping” and always retain enough “motivation bandwidth” to keep the Project informed about what is going on in DPL-land.

Finding the right balance among all these ingredients can take some time. Once one is past it, everything goes way more smoothly.

The above is why I’m constantly encouraging people interested in running for DPL in the future to reach out to me and work on some tasks of the current DPL’s TODO list. I swear it is not just a cheap attempt at slavery!. It is rather an attempt at DPL mentoring that could be beneficial: both to give future candidates more awareness of the task, and to reduce the potential downtime when handing over from one DPL to the next.

Regarding burn out, I don’t feel prone to its risk these days. If I look back, I can say that my contributions as DPL have been pretty constant in volume over time; my enthusiasm for the task, if anything, is on the rise. The effectiveness of my contributions as DPL are, on the other hand, not mine to judge.

Raphael: If you had to single out two achievements where you were involved as DPL, what would they be?

Stefano: I’d go for the following two, in no particular order:

  • Dialogue with derivatives. When I became DPL ~1.5 years ago the situation on that front was pretty dire. In the specific case of Ubuntu, by far the most successful and customized of all Debian derivatives, I remember being scared of raising the topic of collaboration with them on mailing lists. More generally, we had no specific initiatives to foster technical collaboration with and among derivatives. A huge potential of (forwarded) contributions to Debian was being wasted.

    Today things look much better, as I’ve documented in recent talks at DebConf11 and UDS-P. The amount of forwarded patches we receive from downstream is at its maximum and many people who apply to become Debian Developers come from derivatives. Conflict situations still exist, for good reasons that we still have to either fix or figure out entirely. But I’m positive we’re on the right track.

    “The amount of forwarded patches we receive from downstream is at its maximum”

    This is by far not an achievement of mine alone. In particular, many of the activity of the Derivatives Front Desk have been organized by other enthusiastic volunteers. But I’ve done my part, especially in breaking the ice and in proposing a vision of Free Software distribution where all distros play a role and are welcome to join the game, as long as they give back and give credit to their respective upstreams.

  • Process membership. I’m proud of having promoted the general resolution (GR) that has clarified (and advertised to the world) that Debian welcomes all kind of contributions, and that they all equally matter to become proper members of the Project. I notice only now while writing this that the GR title, traditionally chosen by the secretary, was “Debian Project Members”. That choice harmonically closes the circle with the recent renaming of the NM process to “New Member” process.

    Today, we have several project members (AKA “Debian Developers”) that are active citizen of Debian with voting rights, even though they take care of tasks other than packaging. Anyone can become a Debian citizen, as long as they are ready to abide by Debian’s values, have a track record of verifiable contributions to Debian, and are committed to keep them coming in the future.

    “We have several project members that […] take care of tasks other than packaging.”

    Once gain, this is by far not an achievement of mine alone, very little project-wide achievements are. DAM has helped a lot and support from the project as a whole has been immense.

OK, let me cheat and add a third one… I’m also proud of having been able to report to the Project my whereabouts as DPL, thoroughly and periodically, since the very beginning is first term. People annoyed by my reporting logorrhea now have all my sympathies.

Raphael: Among the possible new features of Debian Wheezy, which one gets you excited most?

Stefano: It’s multi-arch, no doubt. Even though it is not a directly user visible change, it’s a very far reaching one. It is also one of those changes that make me feel that moment of truth of coders, when you realize you are finally doing the right thing and ditching piles of ugly hacks.

“It’s multi-arch […] you realize you are finally doing the right thing and ditching piles of ugly hacks.”

Raphael: If you were not DPL and could spend all your time on Debian, what project would you do?

Stefano: I would sit down and do software development for Debian.

It’s impressive how many important and beneficial changes for Debian could be delivered by specific software improvements in various parts of our infrastructure. We tend to attract many packagers, but not so many people willing to maintain Debian infrastructure softwares like dak, britney, debbugs, the PTS, etc. Their maintenance burden then falls on the shoulders of the respective teams which are generally very busy with other important tasks.

As a project, we seem to be more appealing to packagers than to software developers. That is a pity given the amount of exciting coding tasks that are everywhere in Debian. Part of the reason we are not appealing to developers is that we are not particularly good at collecting coding tasks in a place where interested developers could easily pick them up. It also takes quite a bit of inside knowledge to spot infrastructure bugs and understand how to fix them.

I long for some spare hacking time to check if I’m still good enough of a coder to hunt down longstanding bugs in our infrastructure, which have ended up being my pet peeves.

I’d also love to dive again into RCBW. It’s less committing than package maintenance, more diverse and challenging, and also an immensely useful activity to get Debian releases done.

Raphael: Martin Michlmayr is worried that there is so few paid opportunities around Debian. Do you agree with his sentiment, and if yes do you have ideas on how to improve this situation?

Stefano: The idealistic me wishes Debian to be a community made only of volunteers that devote their free time to the Project. Oh, and that me also wishes Debian to be competitive with similar projects, no matter how many full-time employees others have! That is coherent with a view of society where everyone has a day job, but also engages in volunteering activities ensuring that public interest is pursued by people motivated by interests other than profit.

But I do realize that for Free Software to succeed companies, employees, and salaries should all have a role. I admire projects that strike a good balance between volunteer and paid work. The Linux kernel is emblematic in that respect: many developers are paid by companies that have a commercial or strategic interest in Linux. Nevertheless volunteers contributions are aplenty and the Linux community gives a convincing impression that choices are driven by the community itself (or by its benevolent dictator) without money-driven impositions.

“I do realize that for Free Software to succeed companies, employees, and salaries should all have a role.”

Such an ecosystem does not exist around Debian. We do have a partner program that allows for it to happen, but we have very few partners with an interest in doing distribution development work. Like Martin, I’m worried by this state of affairs, because it de facto means we lag behind in terms of available people power. In a community of volunteers, that might frustrate people and that is not good.

To improve over the status quo the first step is to federate together small and medium companies that have a strategic interest in Debian and listen to their needs. I’m already in touch with representatives of such companies that, in many cases, already employ Debian Developers to do some distribution work in Debian. We will be soon sending out a call to reach out to more such companies, but since we are discussing this, why waiting? If some of our readers here are representative of such companies, I encourage them to get in touch with me about this.

Raphael: You know that the fundraising campaign for the Debian Administrator’s Handbook is on good track but the liberation of the book is not yet assured. What do you think of this project?

Stefano: I’m happy about the project, to the point that I’ve accepted writing a testimonial for it 🙂 . I’m sad about the scarce availability of up to date and high quality (DFSG-)Free books about Debian and I welcome any initiative that might help closing that gap.

“I’m sad about the scarce availability of up to date and high quality (DFSG-)Free books about Debian.”

Free Culture is a great offspring of Free Software and I’m convinced we need to stand up against double standards in the two camps. Letting aside software-specific licensing details, the basic freedoms to be defended are the same. They are those freedoms that ensure that a reader is in full control of his book, pretty much as they ensure that a computer user is in full control of the software that runs on it. I’m therefore proud that Debian has long resolved that the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) apply not only to software but also to books and other pieces of documentation.

But the status quo implies that not only we have very few up to date, high quality books about Debian. It also implies that, at present, we have no such book that we can distribute in the Debian archive, showing off the Free Software (and Free Culture!) values we stand for.
Crowdfunding is considered to be a good mate for Free Culture, where the services model that applies to Free Software is more difficult to exploit. I so wish any luck to yours and Roland’s initiative.

A different matter is whether Debian, as a project, should endorse the initiative and actively campaign for it. As you know, I think it should not. While we do advertise general project donations, we don’t do mission-specific fundraising campaign for Debian itself. Coherently with that, I don’t think we should relay crowdfunding campaigns for 3rd parties, even when the result would be beneficial to Debian.

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

Stefano: There are two classes of people that I particularly admire in Debian:

  • Those with an uncanny ability to guide discussions towards constructive conclusions. We are lucky to have many in Debian and I admire all of them. Having to single out one I’d name Russ Allbery, in honor of whom I hereby propose the periodic “Russ Allbery’s Distinguished Flametamer Award”.
  • People stepping up for responsibility roles, especially when the responsibility put them in tough spots. Release teams, ftp-masters, DSA, DAM, as well as past and present members of teams with similarly “hot” seats have all my admiration.

Thank you to Zack for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did.

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People Behind Debian: Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu’s founder

I probably don’t have to present Mark Shuttleworth… he was already a Debian developer when he became millionaire after having sold Thawte to Verisign in 1999. Then in 2002 he became the first African (and first Debian developer) in space. 2 years later, he found another grandiose project to pursue: bring the Microsoft monopoly to an end with a new alternative operating system named Ubuntu (see bug #1).

I have met Mark during Debconf 6 in Oaxtepec (Mexico), we were both trying to find ways to enhance the collaboration between Debian and Ubuntu. The least I can say is that Mark is opinionated but any leader usually is, and in particular the self-appointed ones! 🙂

Read on to discover his view on the Ubuntu-Debian relationship and much more.

Raphael: Who are you?

Mark: At heart I’m an explorer, inventor and strategist. Change in technology, society and business is what fascinates me, and I devote almost all of my time and wealth to the catalysis of change in a direction that I hope improves society and the environment.

I’m 38, studied information systems and finance at the University of Cape Town. My ‘hearts home’ is Cape Town, and I’ve lived there and in Star City and in London, now I live in the Isle of Man with my girlfriend Claire and 14 precocious ducks. I joined Debian in around 1995 because I was helping to setup web servers for as many groups as possible, and I thought Debian’s approach to packaging was very sensible but there was no package for Apache. In those days, the NM process was a little easier 😉

Raphael: What was your initial motivation when you decided to create Ubuntu 7 years ago?

Mark: Ubuntu is designed to fulfill a dream of change; a belief that the potential of free software was to have a profound impact on the economics of software as well as its technology. It’s obvious that the technology world is enormously influenced by Linux, GNU and the free software ecosystem, but the economics of software are still essentially unchanged.

Before Ubuntu, we have a two-tier world of Linux: there’s the community world (Debian, Fedora, Arch, Gentoo) where you support yourself, and the restricted, commercial world of RHEL and SLES/SLED. While the community distributions are wonderful in many regards, they don’t and can’t meet the needs of the whole of society; one can’t find them pre-installed, one can’t get certified and build a career around them, one can’t expect a school to deploy at scale a platform which is not blessed by a wide range of institutions. And the community distributions cannot create the institutions that would fix that.

Ubuntu brings those two worlds together, into one whole, with a commercial-grade release (inheriting the goodness of Debian) that is freely available but also backed by an institution.

The key to that dream is economics, and as always, a change in economics; it was clear to me that the flow of money around personal software would change from licensing (“buying Windows”) to services (“paying for your Ubuntu ONE storage”). If that change was coming, then there might be room for a truly free, free software distribution, with an institution that could make all the commitments needed to match the commercial Linux world. And that would be the achievement of a lifetime. So I decided to dedicate a chunk of my lifetime to the attempt, and found a number of wonderful people who shared that vision to help with the attempt.

It made sense to me to include Debian in that vision; I knew it well as both a user and insider, and believed that it would always be the most rigorous of the community distributions. I share Debian’s values and those values are compatible with those we set for Ubuntu.

“Debian would always be the most rigorous of the community distributions.”

Debian on its own, as an institution, could not be a partner for industry or enterprise. The bits are brilliant, but the design of an institution for independence implies making it difficult to be decisive counterparty, or contractual provider. It would be essentially impossible to achieve the goals of pre-installation, certification and support for third-party hardware and software inside an institution that is designed for neutrality, impartiality and independence.

However, two complementary institutions could cover both sides of this coin.

So Ubuntu is the second half of a complete Debian-Ubuntu ecosystem. Debian’s strengths complement Ubuntu’s, Ubuntu can achieve things that Debian cannot (not because its members are not capable, but because the institution has chosen other priorities) and conversely, Debian delivers things which Ubuntu cannot, not because its members are not capable, but because it chooses other priorities as an institution.

Many people are starting to understand this: Ubuntu is Debian’s arrow, Debian is Ubuntu’s bow. Neither instrument is particularly useful on its own, except in a museum of anthropology 😉

“Ubuntu is Debian’s arrow, Debian is Ubuntu’s bow.”

So the worst and most frustrating attitude comes from those who think Debian and Ubuntu compete. If you care about Debian, and want it to compete on every level with Ubuntu, you are going to be rather miserable; you will want Debian to lose some of its best qualities and change some of its most important practices. However, if you see the Ubuntu-Debian ecosystem as a coherent whole, you will celebrate the strengths and accomplishments of both, and more importantly, work to make Debian a better Debian and Ubuntu a better Ubuntu, as opposed to wishing Ubuntu was more like Debian and vice versa.

Raphael: The Ubuntu-Debian relationship was rather hectic at the start, it took several years to “mature”. If you had to start over, would you do some things differently?

Mark: Yes, there are lessons learned, but none of them are fundamental. Some of the tension was based on human factors that cannot really be altered: some of the harshest DD critics of Canonical and Ubuntu are folk who applied for but were not selected for positions at Canonical. I can’t change that, and wouldn’t change that, and would understand the consequences are, emotionally, what they are.

Nevertheless, it would have been good to be wiser about the way people would react to some approaches. We famously went to DebConf 5 in Porto Allegre and hacked in a room at the conference. It had an open door, and many people popped a head in, but I think the not-a-cabal collection of people in there was intimidating and the story became one of exclusion. If we’d wanted to be exclusive, we would have gone somewhere else! So I would have worked harder to make that clear at the time if I’d known how many times that story would be used to paint Canonical in a bad light.

As for engagement with Debian, I think the situation is one of highs and lows. As a high, it is generally possible to collaborate with any given maintainer in Debian on a problem in which there is mutual interest. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are as problematic within Debian as between Debian and outsiders. As a low, it is impossible to collaborate with Debian as an institution, because of the design of the institution.

“It is generally possible to collaborate with any given maintainer […] [but] it is impossible to collaborate with Debian as an institution.”

In order to collaborate, two parties must make and keep commitments. So while one Debian developer and one Ubuntu developer can make personal commitments to each other, Debian cannot make commitments to Ubuntu, because there is no person or body that can make such commitments on behalf of the institution, on any sort of agile basis. A GR is not agile ;-). I don’t say this as a critique of Debian; remember, I think Debian has made some very important choices, one of those is the complete independence of its developers, which means they are under no obligation to follow a decision made by anyone else.

It’s also important to understand the difference between collaboration and teamwork. When two people have exactly the same goal and produce the same output, that’s just teamwork. When two people have different goals and produce different product, but still find ways to improve one anothers product, that’s collaboration.

So in order to have great collaboration between Ubuntu and Debian, we need to start with mutual recognition of the value and importance of the differences in our approach. When someone criticises Ubuntu because it exists, or because it does not do things the same way as Debian, or because it does not structure every process with the primary goal of improving Debian, it’s sad. The differences between us are valuable: Ubuntu can take Debian places Debian cannot go, and Debian’s debianness brings a whole raft of goodness for Ubuntu.

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Mark: Internal tension about the vision and goals of Debian make it difficult to create a harmonious environment, which is compounded by an unwillingness to censure destructive behaviour.

Does Debian measure its success by the number of installs? The number of maintainers? The number of flamewars? The number of packages? The number of messages to mailing lists? The quality of Debian Policy? The quality of packages? The “freshness” of packages? The length and quality of maintenance of releases? The frequency or infrequency of releases? The breadth of derivatives?

Many of these metrics are in direct tension with one another; as a consequence, the fact that different DD’s prioritise all of these (and other goals) differently makes for… interesting debate. The sort of debate that goes on and on because there is no way to choose between the goals when everyone has different ones. You know the sort of debate I mean 🙂

Raphael: Do you think that the Debian community improved in the last 7 years? If yes, do you think that the coopetition with Ubuntu partly explains it?

Mark: Yes, I think some of the areas that concern me have improved. Much of this is to do with time giving people the opportunity to consider a thought from different perspectives, perhaps with the benefit of maturity. Time also allows ideas to flow and and of course introduces new people into the mix. There are plenty of DD’s now who became DD’s after Ubuntu existed, so it’s not as if this new supernova has suddenly gone off in their galactic neighbourhood. And many of them became DD’s because of Ubuntu. So at least from the perspective of the Ubuntu-Debian relationship, things are much healthier.

We could do much better. Now that we are on track for four consecutive Ubuntu LTS releases, on a two-year cadence, it’s clear we could collaborate beautifully if we shared a freeze date. Canonical offered to help with Squeeze on that basis, but institutional commitment phobia reared its head and scotched it. And with the proposal to put Debian’s first planned freeze exactly in the middle of Ubuntu’s LTS cycle, our alignment in interests will be at a minimum, not a maximum. Pure <facepalm />.

Raphael: What would you suggest to people (like me) who do not feel like joining Canonical and would like to be paid to work on improving Debian?

Mark: We share the problem; I would like to be paid to work on improving Ubuntu, but that’s also a long term dream 😉

Raphael: What about using the earnings of the dormant Ubuntu Foundation to fund some Debian projects?

Mark: The Foundation is there in the event of Canonical’s failure to ensure that commitments, like LTS maintenance, are met. It will hopefully be dormant for good 😉

Raphael: The crowdfunding campaign for the Debian Administrator’s Handbook is still going on and I briefly envisioned the possibility to create the Ubuntu Administrator’s Handbook. What do you think of this project?

Mark: Crowdfunding is a great match for free software and open content, so I hope this works out very well for you. I also think you’d find a bigger market for an Ubuntu book, not because Ubuntu is any more important than Debian but because it is likely to appeal to people who are more inclined to buy or download a book than to dive into the source.

Again, this is about understanding the difference in audiences, not judging the projects or the products.

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

Mark: Zack is the best DPL since 1995; it’s an impossible job which he handles with grace and distinction. I hope praise from me doesn’t tarnish his reputation in the project!

Thank you to Mark for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did.

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People behind Debian: Peter Palfrader, Debian System Administrator

You might not know who Peter is because he’s not very visible on Debian mailing lists. He’s very active however and in particular on IRC. He was an admin of the OFTC IRC network at the time Debian switched from Freenode to OFTC. Nowadays he’s a member of the Debian System Administration team who runs all the servers.

If you went to a Debconf you probably met him since he’s always looking for new signatures of his GPG key. He owns the best connected key in the PGP web of trust. He also wrote caff a popular GPG key signing tool.

Raphael: Who are you?

Peter: I’m Peter Palfrader, also known as weasel. I’m in my early 30s, born and raised in Innsbruck, Austria and am now living and working in Salzburg, Austria. In my copious free time, other than help running Debian’s servers I also help maintaining the Tor project‘s infrastructure.

Away from the computer I enjoy reading fiction (mostly English language Science Fiction and Fantasy), playing board games and going to the movies. Weather permitting, I also occasionally do some cycling.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Peter: I installed my first Debian the week slink came out. That was Debian 2.1 for the youngsters, in early 1999. The one thing I immediately liked about slink was that Debian’s pppd supported RAS authentication which my university’s dial-up system required. No way I’d go back to SuSE 5.3 when I had working Internet with my Debian box. 🙂

During that year I started getting involved in the German language Debian channel on IRCnet which got me in contact with some DDs. Christian Kurz (<shorty>) was working on Debian QA at the time and he asked my help in writing a couple of scripts. Some of that work, debcheck, still produces parts of the qa.d.o website, tho the relevance of that nowadays is probably negligible.

While trying to learn more Perl earlier, I had written a program to produce syntax highlighted HTML for code snippets in various languages. I didn’t really know what I was doing but it kinda worked, and probably still does since I still get mail from users every now and then. I figured that it would be really nice if people could just get my software together with Debian. According to code2html‘s Debian changelog the initial release of the package was done on a weekday at 2:30 in the morning early in 2000, and if my memory serves me correctly, shorty uploaded it shortly afterwards.

I started packaging a couple of other piece of software and in the same year I sent my mail to the debian account managers to register my intent to become a DD. No new developers where being accepted at that time since the DAMs wanted to overhaul the entire process so I wasn’t surprised to not get any immediate reply. Of course what the silence also meant was that the mail had been lost, but I only learned of that later when I took all my courage to ask DAM about the status of application a couple months later. Once that was sorted out I was assigned an AM, did the usual dance, and got my account late in November 2000.

Raphael: Four years ago, the Debian System Administration team was a real bottleneck for the project and personal conflicts made it almost impossible to find solutions. You were eager to help and at some point you got dropped as a new member in that team. Can you share your story and how you managed the transition in the difficult climate at that time?

Peter: Ah, that was quite the surprise for an awful lot of people, me included.

Branden Robinson, who was our DPL for the 2005-2006 term, tried to get some new blood added to DSA who were at the time quite divided. He briefly talked to me on IRC some time in summer 2005, telling me I had come “recommended for a role on the sysadmin team”. In the course of these 15 minutes he outlined some of the issues he thought a new member of DSA would face and asked me if I thought I could help. My reply was cautiously positive, saying that I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes but maybe I could be of some assistance.

And that was the first and last of it, until some fine November day two years later I got an email from Phil Hands saying “I’ve just added you to the “adm” group, and added you to the debian-admin@d.o alias.” and “welcome on board“. *blink* What!?

My teammates at the time were James Troup (elmo), Phil Hands (fil), Martin ‘Joey’ Schulze and Ryan Murray (neuro).

The old team, while apparently not on good terms with one another, was however still around to do heavy lifting when required. I still remember when on my first or second day on the team two disks failed in the raid5 of aka ries. Neuro did the reinstall once new disks had arrived at Brown University. I’m sure I’d have been way out of my league had this job fallen to me.

Fortunately my teammates were all willing and able to help me find whatever pieces of information existed that might help me learn how does its stuff. Unfortunately a lot of it only existed in various heads, or when lucky, in one of the huge mbox archives of the debian-admin alias or list. Anyway, soon I was able to get my hands dirty with upgrading from sarge to etch, which had been released about half a year earlier.

Raphael: I know the DSA team has accomplished a lot over the last few years. Can you share some interesting figures?

Peter: Indeed we have accomplished a lot. In my opinion the most important of these accomplishment is that we’re actually once again a team nowadays. A team where people talk to one another and where nobody should be a SPoF.

Since this year’s debconf we are six people in the admin team: Tollef Fog Heen (Mithrandir) and Faidon Liambotis (paravoid) joined the existing members: Luca Filipozzi, Stephen Gran, Martin Zobel-Helas, and myself. Growing a core team, especially one where membership comes with uid0 on all machines, is not easy and that’s why I’m very glad we managed to actually do this step.

I also think the infrastructure and our workflows have matured well over the last four years.

We now have essential monitoring as a matter of course: Nagios not only checks whether all daemons that should be running are in fact running, but it also monitors hardware health of disks, fans, etc. where possible. We are alerted of outstanding security updates that need to be installed and of changes made to our systems that weren’t then explicitly acked by one of us.

We have set up a centralized configuration system, puppet, for some of our configuration that is the same, or at least similar, on all our machines.

Most, if not all, pieces of software, scripts and helpers that we use on infrastructure is in publicly accessible git repositories.

We have good communication with other teams in Debian that need our support, like the ftp folks or the buildd people.

As for figures, I don’t think there’s anything spectacular. As of the time of our BoF at this year’s DebConf, we take care of approximately 135 systems, about 100 of them being real iron, the other virtual machines (KVM). They are hosted at over 30 different locations, tho we are trying to cut down on that number, but that’s a long and difficult process.

We don’t really collect a lot of other figures like web hits on or downloads from the ftp archive. The web team might do the former and the latter is pretty much impossible due to the distributed nature of our mirrors, as you well know.

Raphael: The DSA team has a policy of eating its own dog food, i.e. you’re trying to rely only on what’s available in Debian. How does that work out and what are the remaining gaps?

Peter: Mostly Debian, the OS, just meets our needs. Sure, the update frequency is a bit high, we probably wouldn’t mind a longer release cycle. But on the other hand most software is recent enough. And when it’s not, that’s easy to fix with backports. If they aren’t on already, we’ll just put them there (or ask somebody else to prepare a backport for us) and so everybody else benefits from that work too.

Some things we need just don’t, and probably won’t, exist in Debian. These are mainly proprietary hardware health checks like HP’s tools for their servers, or various vendors’ programs to query their raid controller. HP actually makes packages for their stuff which is very nice, but other things we just put into /usr/local, or if we really need it on a number of machines, package ourselves.

The push to cripple our installers and kernels by removing firmware was quite annoying, since it made installing from the official media next to impossible in some cases. Support for working around these limitations has improved with squeeze so that’s probably ok now.

One of the other problems is that especially on embedded platforms most of the buildd work happens on some variation of development boards, usually due to increased memory and hard disk requirements than the intended market audience. This often implies that the kernel shipped with Debian won’t be usable on our own machines. This makes keeping up with security and other kernel fixes way more error prone and time intensive. We keep annoying the right people in Debian to add kernel flavors that actually boot on our machines, and things are getting better, so maybe in the future this will no longer be a problem.

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

Peter: One of the things that I think is a bit annoying for admins that maintain machines all over the globe is mirror selection. I shouldn’t have to care where my packages come from, apt-get should just fetch them from a mirror, any mirror, that is close by, fast and recent. I don’t need to know which one it was.

We have deployed geodns for a while ago, and it seems to work quite well for the coarse granularity we desired for that setup, but geodns is an ugly hack (I think it is a layer violation), it might not scale to hundreds or thousands of mirrors, and it doesn’t play well with DNSSEC.

What I’d really like to see is Debian support apt’s mirror method that — I think (and I apologize if I’m wronging somebody) — Michael Vogt implemented recently. The basic idea is that you simply add deb mirror:// or something like that to your sources.list, and apt goes and asks that server for a list of mirrors it should use right now.

The client code exists, but I don’t know how well tested it is. What is missing is the server part. One that gives clients a mirror, or list of mirrors, that are close to them, current, and carry their architecture.

It’s probably not a huge amount of work, but at the same time it’s also not entirely trivial. If I had more time on my hands this is something that I’d try to do. Hopefully somebody will pick it up.

Raphael: What motivates you to continue to contribute year after year?

Peter: It’s fun, mostly. Sure, there are things that need to be done regularly that are boring or become so after a while, but as a sysadmin you tend to do things once or twice and then seek to automate it.

DSA’s users, i.e. DDs, constantly want to play with new services or approaches to make Debian better and often they need our support or help in their endeavors. So that’s a constant flow of interesting challenges.

Another reason is that Debian is simply where some of my friends are. Working on Debian with them is interacting with friends.

I not only use Debian at I use it at work, I use it on my own machines, on the servers of the Tor project. When I was with OFTC Debian is what we put on our machines. Being a part of Debian is one way to ensure what Debian releases is actually usable to me, professionally and with other projects.

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

Peter: That’s a hard one. There are certainly people who I respect greatly for their technical or other contributions to Debian, but I don’t want to single anybody out in particular. I think we all, everyone who ever contributed to Debian with code, support or a bug report, can be very proud of what we are producing — one of the best operating systems out there.

Thank you to Peter 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, Twitter and Facebook.

People behind Debian: Margarita Manterola, Debian Women member

Photograph taken by Julia Palandri

When I think about Margarita, I always remember her as a friendly and welcoming person. Like most of the Debian Women members by the way. But she likes to spread some love and organized a Debian Appreciation Day for example.

I think I met her in real life for the first time at Debconf 6 in Oaxtepec (Mexico). She deeply cares about Debian in general. She has proven it multiple times with her DPL candidacy and by giving talks like Making Debian rule again.

One last thing, Debconf11 is just over and you will see that Debconf4 has had a big influence on Marga. My advice is simple: next time there’s a Debconf on your continent, make sure to take a few days off and come to meet us! It really gives another picture of the Debian community. Now let’s proceed with the interview.

Raphael: Who are you?

Margarita: I’m Margarita Manterola, a Software Developer from Argentina. I work developing software in Python in a Debian-friendly company during the day, and teach programming at a local university during the evenings.

I’m married to Maximiliano Curia who is also a Debian Developer, most of our Free Software work has been done together.

I only maintain a handful of packages in Debian, I’m more interested in fixing bugs than in packaging new software.

I’ve also been a part of the organizing team of many of the previous Debian Conferences. One of the biggest commitments and the biggest success of my participation in Debian was being part of the organizing team of DebConf8, in Argentina.

Raphael: How did you start contributing to Debian?

Margarita: I started using Debian around 2000. Soon after we had learned the grips of general GNU/Linux usage, Maxy and I started giving an introductory course at our local university, and became quite involved with the local LUG.

At some point in 2002/2003 I became a “Debian Bug Reporter”: most of my friends would report bugs to me, and I would then write them in the proper form to the BTS. I would also be very attentive about reporting any bugs that I might encounter myself trying to create good bug reports.

The turning point in my participation in Debian was DebConf4 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Being so close to Argentina meant that we felt specially invited to be there, and Maxy and I decided to go to DebConf for our honeymoon. We didn’t really know much about DebConf dynamics, but we were really eager to learn more about Debian and become more involved.

What happened was that meeting with DDs from all over the world transformed our lives, we became part of the “Debian family” and wanted to be more and more involved. Soon after that we both started maintaining packages and not long after that, applied to become Developers.

The Debian Women project also meant a lot to me. I felt encouraged all along the way, encouraged to learn, to ask questions and to lose the fear of making mistakes.

I became a Debian Developer on November 2005. Since then, Debian has always been one of the most important things I do in my life.

Raphael There was a Debian Women BoF during debconf. What are the plans for Debian Women in the upcoming months?

Margarita: I was not there in person, but thanks to the awesome work of the video team, and of Christian Perrier’s typing efforts when something failed, I was able to experience much of what was discussed. 🙂

One of the many points that came up during the BOF is that many people “Want to help” but don’t know where to start or how to go about it. It’s a challenge for the Debian Women project to find a way to allow these people to become involved in Debian through “Mini projects” or something like that.

Another of the subjects that was brought up was the Debian Women mentoring project, which has been going on for quite a while now, but lacks enough publicity. So, we need to reach more people about it, and maybe also improve it with some templates, similar to the New Maintainer templates, so that mentees that don’t know where to start have some sort of general path to follow.

Raphael: You created very useful diagrams documenting how package maintainer scripts are invoked by dpkg. How did you do it and was that a useful experience?

Margarita: I did those diagrams to be able to answer one of the questions in the NM templates, regarding the order of the maintainer script execution.

Answering the question in text was basically copying and pasting the part of the Debian Policy that explained it, which wasn’t really too clear for me, so I decided to go and make a diagram of it, so that I could really understand it.

I did it by the best of all debugging techniques: adding prints to each of the maintainer scripts, and testing them in all the different orders that I could think of.

It was a useful experience at the time, because I learned a lot of how maintainers scripts work. I didn’t expect the diagrams to become so famous, though, I only did them to answer one NM question, that I assumed most other people had already answered before 🙂

Raphael: You participated in a DPL election. This is a big commitment to make. What were your motivations?

Margarita: As I said, I was part of the organizing team of DebConf8, in Argentina. Which was quite a success, a lot of people enjoyed it and praised the good work that had been done by the local team.

During said DebConf8, I had a dream (it was almost a nightmare, actually): I woke up and just like that, I was the DPL. I spoke to some people about this dream and to my complete surprise many said that I should actually do it.

After giving that possibility a year and a half of thoughts, during the 2010 campaign I was talked into participating myself as a candidate, and it was a very interesting experience. However, I’m very glad that Zack got elected and not me, I think he makes a much better DPL that I would have made.

Raphael: What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

Margarita: I think the main problem that we have is our communication, both inside the project and outside the project. Most of us are very technical people, our skills lay in the technical part of Debian (preparing packages, fixing bugs, writing software, administering systems) not in the social part. And thus, we lack a general empathy that is quite needed when interacting with people from all over the world.

Raphael: Do you have wishes for Debian Wheezy?

Margarita: Not particularly. I do want it to be a great release with good quality, stable software. I would also like to keep making Debian more and more “universal” with each release, making it more user friendly, more accessible, and more robust than any other previous release.

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

Margarita: I admire a lot of people in Debian. There’s a lot of people that contribute a lot of time to Debian, amounts of time that I can’t begin to understand how they can afford.

I admire Stefano Zacchiroli, our current project leader. And Steve McIntyre, the project leader before him. Also Bdale Garbee, who’s also been a DPL in the past. Making this list I realize that Debian has been blessed by quite a number of great leaders in the past.

I admire Holger Levsen, for his contributions to the DebConf video team, that have made it possible year after year for the whole project to participate in DebConf remotely.

I admire Steve Langasek and Andreas Barth (etch is still my favourite release). I admire Christian Perrier for his work on internationalization. I admire Joerg Jaspert for the incredible amounts of time that he puts into Debian.

And actually, I could go on admiring people all night long. I admire so many people that this interview could become a very boring list of names. I guess it’s better to leave it at saying that Debian is lucky to have quite a lot of excellent hackers around.

Thank you to Marga for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading her 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, Twitter and Facebook.