Debian consortium takes on Novell, Red Hat

A new standardization effort aims to make Debian a first-class enterprise Linux contender

"A lot of people have been unhappy with the service they've been getting from a certain very large Linux vendor." That was Bruce Perens , speaking at this year's LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, which took place in San Francisco earlier this month. You can fill in Bruce's blank yourself. But if you think he came to the conference to stump for more choice in Linux distributions, you're mistaken. In a sense, he was calling for fewer choices.

Perens, one of the founders of the open source movement, took the stage at LinuxWorld in support of the DCC (Debian Common Core ) Alliance, a consortium of Linux vendors pledged to build a common, standards-based core for distributions based on Debian GNU/Linux.

Here's the situation: There are lots of niche Linux distributions out there, such as Slackware and Gentoo, but within the enterprise, Linux usually comes from one of three sources. Two are prominent open source software vendors -- Novell and Red Hat. The third is Debian .

If Debian isn't the household name that Red Hat is (or that Suse is in Europe), it's certainly well-known among developers. According to Perens, many coders develop on Debian but deploy on Red Hat, because although Debian is often lauded for its stability and sound design, targeting it for applications can be tricky.

The Debian Project's strict open source principles preclude it from bundling anything in an official Debian release that isn't offered under a free-software license. Also, Debian is slow to upgrade its software packages, sometimes waiting until long after the other distributions have included the latest in-demand features. That's the price of stability.

Doctrinally these are sound choices, but users sometimes see them as shortcomings. That's why popular Debian-derived distributions, such as Linspire, Mepis, and Xandros, start with a stock Debian release and build from there, adding commercial applications and upgraded software as they see fit. That's great for the specific niche each distribution serves, but it also means that each one varies from its Debian core in unique ways. It's impossible for developers to target all of the Debian-derived Linux distributions as a single platform.

The DCC Alliance wants to change that by working with the Debian community to align the related distributions around a common core. At the heart of their plans is an effort to bring Debian into compliance with the LSB (Linux Standard Base),  a standard that describes how the internals of a Linux distribution should be organized.

If the Alliance is successful, it could unite the fragmented Debian market and shore up Debian's position as the third pillar of a tripartite universe of enterprise Linux. It could also give disgruntled customers the confidence they need to walk away from those troublesome support contracts with the other two big names.

But Perens was quick to point out that it's not a horserace, and that Debian, Red Hat, and Suse are actually all working toward the same goal. "There's no reason to work against each other," he said, adding, "I'd rather work against Microsoft."

Indeed, if there was any downside to the presentation, it was the fact that Ubuntu -- the Debian-based distribution founded by South African dot-com billionaire Mark Shuttleworth that's proven wildly popular since it launched in October 2004 -- had declined to participate. That led me to wonder: Are we witnessing the beginnings of a new Debian standards skirmish -- the DCC Alliance's formal standard versus Ubuntu's de facto one?

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.