Canonical Founder Calls for Synchronized Linux Releases
Published: May 20, 2008
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
It might not be as bad as trying to herd cats, but getting all of the commercial Linux distributors and various community development projects behind them in something resembling lock step might be like herding goats--they're not as stubborn as a mule, but they are smarter than a lot of people you know. Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Canonical, the commercial entity behind the Ubuntu variant of Debian Linux, is playing the part of shepherd and is trying to coax all the various Linuxes to synchronize their releases.
A month ago, when Shuttleworth was launching Ubuntu 8.04 with Long Term Support, he said that Canonical was now confident that it could get LTS releases, which provide five years of support for servers and three years for desktops, out the door every two years, with point releases coming out every six months. He also said that the only thing that would interrupt this schedule was if other Linuxes tried to get in phase with each other, putting out the Linux kernels, drivers, extensions, development tools, and application packages that comprise a Linux distribution at the same time using the same code.
That suggestion was a bit of a trial balloon for the idea of synchronized releases, but now Shuttleworth is proposing that Linux vendors and projects actually do it. In his personal blog, Shuttleworth did an essay called The Art of Release, which discussed the idea of major releases every two years and point releases every six months, on a regular schedule. And, putting a stake in the ground, Shuttleworth committed to putting Ubuntu LTS 10.04 in the field in April 2010, which will be the next major release of Ubuntu with the extended support that enterprise customers like and which will have four dot releases through 2012 and will be patched until April 2015. The regular Ubuntu 9.04 release is scheduled for April 2009, and will have a year of support, and will be followed by Ubuntu 9.10 in October 2009, Ubuntu 10.10 in October 2010, and Ubuntu 11.04 in April 2011; all of these have a year of support as well.
Shuttleworth is throwing down the gauntlet to the other Linux development teams and their commercial backers, and says that he will shift the schedule for Ubuntu releases if two out of the three major alternative releases--that is Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, and Debian--agree to synchronize. "I think the benefits of this sort of alignment to users, upstreams and the distributions themselves would be enormous," Shuttleworth wrote in his blog. "I'll write more about this idea in due course, for now let's just call it my dream of true free software synchronicity."
It is an interesting idea, and one that SUSE Linux, TurboLinux, Conectiva (now part of Mandriva) and Caldera Systems (the foundation of The SCO Group) all tried to do with the UnitedLinux Consortium back in the summer of 2002. Sort of. UnitedLinux was literally a jointly developed (and non-Red Hat) Linux that these vendors then customized, and in that sense it parallels the Debian variant's Linux Core Consortium, which was launched in late 2004 to get all of the Debian projects working together. Shuttleworth is talking about a much looser coupling of Linux vendors than either of these two efforts, and for that reason, there is a better chance that it might succeed.
But, there are issues. For one thing, each commercial Linux distro is trying to get an edge on the other in terms of rolling out support for the latest hardware and software features. Novell has been particularly aggressive about trying to stay ahead of Red Hat with features--such as SMP scalability or hypervisor integration--to give it a marketing edge. One could argue how successful the aggressive feature support approach has been in driving sales, since Novell's initial implementation of the Xen hypervisor was lacking lots of features and left the company backtracking; Red Hat just pushed out the delivery date for RHEL 5 and made no apologies for it.
The other issue is that the larger an organization--particularly a loosely coupled one--the more difficult it is to get some kind of consensus over what features can make it into a release (major or minor) and what ones will have to be dropped. Getting such consensus is hard enough within an open source development community dedicated to one specific Linux stack, but getting agreement across even three or four Linuxes (much less all of them) would be something of a challenge. What one contributor calls ready for prime time another will call a pilot episode. There will have to be some sort of mechanism for arbitrating disagreements, and that means some sort of governing body for Linux distros. Which comes right back around again to the Linux distros ceding some of their authority.
Shuttleworth is right that synchronization would allow for the Linux distros to focus on what their name suggests--distribution--and let the open source Linux communities worry about the features. While this is very interesting, and appealing, the distros still pay the bills. And paying the bills requires any kind of differentiation that a distro can bring to bear. This may set up an interesting situation where the open development communities for the major Linuxes, which are supposed to be independent of their distro patrons, approve of synchronization, thereby setting them in contention with those distros, who might give the idea lip service but who will be against it.
It will be interesting to see if this Linux release synchronization gets off the ground. If it does, it won't be long before people start talking about the need for only one Linux distribution. And that will start a whole lot of disagreement, for sure.
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