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18 November 2010, 11:49

Health Check: openSUSE

Community before code

Richard Hillesley

"Build a great community, and great code follows"

The openSUSE community is on a voyage of introspection and self discovery. SuSE Linux has been around in one form or another since 1992, and, with the possible exception of Slackware, has an older provenance than any other Linux distribution, yet openSUSE is still in search of a unifying vision that sets it apart from its rivals and its past.

"One important thing about community is to have shared ideas. Communities aren't glued together by boundaries," explains Thomas Thym, an academic and KDE developer. "They are open. They are glued together by ideas, by visions, by values they have in common."

Thomas Thym
So in between the technical sessions, the sharing of code hacks and the general hubbub at the recent openSUSE Conference in Nuremberg, the talk was of strategy and a common vision, which is important, Thym says, "because it gives the community one direction it can orient around, and this was missing in the past."

"The next step after the strategy is to define common values, how we would like to talk to each other, to cooperate with each other, and what things are important to us. Some of it is already there on paper, but is it really lived by each member of the community? I'm not so sure."

It may be unusual for a software community to spend so much time looking inwards, but the openSUSE community's introspection can be explained, for the most part, by the ambiguities and complexities of the history that openSUSE has inherited from SuSE and Novell.

openSUSE came into being as the community expression of Novell's ambition to redefine itself as an open source company. The earlier goals for openSUSE were about "marketing, economics and business strategies, and we didn't want those things."

Unsurprisingly, the community was more interested in pursuing the traditional goals of free software than the pursuit of business strategies. As Jos Poortvliet, the openSUSE community manager, puts it:

"We tried that and people said 'it's too corporate for me. I can't see myself in those potential visions...'"

Fear of flying

The original SuSE company, founded in Nuremberg, Germany in 1992 by Hubert Mantel, Burchard Steinbild, Roland Dyroff and Thomas Fehr, was bought out by Novell (with assistance from IBM) in 2003, and openSUSE was created two years later with the idea of fostering a community that would be a fulcrum and a test bed for its SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) and Server (SLES) offerings, and a continuation of SuSE Linux by other means.

A successful open source company will foster the autonomy and freedom of its community of users and developers, and ensure separation between the developer process and the final product by taking snapshots of the community project, and by testing and redefining the snapshot for release as a commercial product, adding and feeding back refinements as required, rather than trying to exercise control over the developer process.

The company does not "own" the code, but this does not impair its final product.

Fostering a community may seem counter intuitive for a company that grew up in an era when software development and production was predicated on a closed-source model, with high internal development costs and fixed revenue streams, but loss of control of the process is part of the price to be paid for the much greater gains that come from being "open source".

So for instance, as part of its S-1 filing with the SEC prior to its IPO in 1999, Red Hat, now indisputably the most successful open source company in the world, was obliged to list among the "Risk Factors" for its future business, the "fear that the open-source community might stop supporting Red Hat if the company becomes too overtly commercial."

From an understanding of both sides of this paradox has come the advantage upon which Red Hat has built its commercial success. Fedora is the proving ground for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and openSUSE can be seen as Novell's expression of the same idea.

Next: Slings and arrows

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