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What's Wrong at Debian?

What in the heck is going on over there in Linux-land? First, a prominent kernel developer reveals a movement to hire a "hit man" to deal with him, prompting him to pen an expose revealing that the open source community is "quite a sick place to be in."

Then a bunch of Unix "graybeards" threaten to fork the popular Debian distribution because of a dispute about a controversial kernel component, systemd, championed by that very same disgruntled developer, Lennart Poettering. A site was even launched to "boycott systemd."

Now longtime Debian programmer and influential contributor Joey Hess has announced he's quitting the project.

"It's become abundantly clear that this is no longer the project I originally joined in 1996," Hess wrote in a mailing list message last week. "We've made some good things, and I wish everyone well, but I'm out."

Hess didn't specifically mention the systemd brouhaha as a contributing factor in his decision to quit the Debian project, but rather blamed project leadership in general.

"If I have one regret from my 18 years in Debian, it's that when the Debian constitution was originally proposed, despite seeing it as dubious, I neglected to speak out against it. It's clear to me now that it's a toxic document, that has slowly but surely led Debian in very unhealthy directions."

Joey Hess
Joey Hess (source: Joey Hess site)

Others, however, read between the lines and related Hess' decision to the systemd controversy. Several media articles, blogs and social media posts linked the Hess decision to systemd, as did at least one reader of the Hess resignation post. "I am highly concerned by the state of discussions in Debian triggered by the systemd integration -- I have never ever seen such a harsh, long and bitter discussion in Debian," replied the reader, one of many expressing sadness and regret at Hess' decision.

Systemd, as described by Wikipedia, "is a system management daemon designed for Linux and programmed exclusively for the Linux API. For systems using it, it is the first process that is executed in user space during the Linux startup process."

Poettering, the lead programmer of systemd, works for Red Hat Inc., a major Linux player whose Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 beta distribution switched to using the systemd init approach in lieu of alternative technologies, such as sysvinit.

The switch to systemd has caused a rift in the Linux community, characterized by some as the old-guard "graybeard" Unix administrators rebelling against modern changes led by developers and more new-age admins. Hess, however, hasn't been a vocal opponent of the technology (he even used it to turn his laptop into an alarm clock). But he has had problems with how the issue was handled by Debian leadership.

Less than one hour before his resignation note, Hess expressed frustration with a technical committee decision about handling a bug report related to the issue of requiring systemd in future Debian upgrades. Hess foreshadowed his decision to quit the project in his mailing list post titled, "please stop."

"This is not a decision-making process that will yield a high-quality distribution," Hess wrote. "Or one that I can be proud to be involved with. Or one that, frankly, gives me any confidence in the technical committee's current membership or indeed reason to continue to exist."

The details of this mess are murky, to say the least. On the mailing list, at least one developer apparently involved with the technical committee decision discounted Hess' interpretation of events, saying that his interpretation didn't reflect his actual intent. There's a lot of back-and-forth on the mailing list and in many other venues, and it's hard to figure out what's really going on.

Anyway, while Hess was beefing about leadership and procedure, others have had strident arguments about the systemd technology itself, along with the internal politics of how such project changes and developer/user options are governed. The use of the systemd component in Debian -- or at least the lack of a choice in using the technology -- caused the veteran Unix admins to threaten a fork of Debian, branching the project off into their own version.

"To paraphrase Eric S. Raymond on the issue, we see systemd being very prone to mission creep and bloat and likely to turn into a nasty hairball over the longer term," the protesters said on a new Web site with the heading, "Shall We Fork Debian?"

Since going up last month, the site has attracted hundreds of comments.

"Thank you so much for this," read one. "I've been using Debian since Hamm and this systemd nonsense has me ready to jump ship."

If that person does jump, he won't be the first ... or likely the last.

Posted by David Ramel on November 13, 2014