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Of all the community distributions, probably the least known is openSUSE. After two and a half years, the distro is not only still working out details about how its community operates -- including how its governing board is elected -- but also struggling to come out of the shadow of its corporate parent Novell, much as Fedora has emerged from its initial dominance by Red Hat. With the pending release of openSUSE 11.0, community manager Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier suggests that the distribution is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves. In the middle of preparations for the new release, Brockmeier took the time to talk with Linux.com about the priorities within the community and its relation with the larger world of free software.
Brockmeier became community manager for openSUSE in February, after nine years as a free software journalist, including time as an editorial director at Linux.com and editor-in-chief at Linux Magazine. "There's still a lot of getting acclimated," he admits, but, like the distribution, he seems to be finding his feet. Much of his time -- as much as 50% -- is spent on the road, helping to publicize openSUSE, "getting strategy together" by talking to other members of openSUSE, and making connections with others in the larger free software community, especially those who are leading other non-commercial distributions.
"The distribution has been pretty high quality over the past few years," Brockmeier says, "but I don't think anyone would argue that promotion is a strong suit of most of the developers involved with openSUSE."
In fact, one of the measures of the still-evolving state of openSUSE is that the exact relation between Brockmeier's own position and the project's governing board is still being worked out, so that, unlike in the Fedora project, the community leader does not automatically chair the board. "The board was formed before I was hired, so I don't think that was a consideration," he says. Whether that will change in the future is undecided.
Meanwhile, Brockmeier is getting on with the job. "The priorities I have right now," he says, "are to help the community teams get up and running, and basically community bootstrapping -- all the activities we need to do to get the community more involved in the production of openSUSE. The main thing right now is getting people involved and giving them the tools to be involved."
To achieve these goals, the project is organizing some basic community structures, such as an openSUSE conference, a community blog site, and a team of volunteers to oversee the first elections to the board (the current board members were appointed by Novell).
It is also changing the nature of the release process. Just as the Fedora project had to evolve new procedures as it grew more independent of Red Hat, so openSUSE is developing more open processes for its workflow. "SUSE Linux was developed entirely in-house," Brockmeier says, while openSUSE is trying to develop procedures more in keeping with a free software project.
In particular, Brockmeier points to the openSUSE Build Service, which is scheduled to become the main platform for future development. "In the future, we should be able to build openSUSE entirely in the build service," he says, "rather than internally and then releasing it. The difference there is that it is will be much easier for people to contribute to openSUSE."
As community building continues, Brockmeier expects to draw strongly on his previous work experience. "I've spent the last nine years or so covering the Linux market, so I've had a lot of time to observe what works and what doesn't," he says. "Probably the closet model for us to look at would be Fedora, because they're the closest in terms of the relationship to the corporate parent. And one of the people I look at as being a really effective community leader would be Max Spevack [the former Fedora Leader].
"That's the great thing about open source: you look at what other projects do, and you try to apply that to your own project, whether that's code of whether that's community governance."
So far, many of Brockmeier's efforts seem focused on improving openSUSE's relations with other free software. But these efforts are hampered to some extent by the fact that some free software advocates, still angered by the Microsoft-Novell pact, extend their anger with Novell to openSUSE. However, this issue has been less important than Brockmeier anticipated when he took the job.
"I think there's a certain percentage of people who will always be unhappy with that deal," he says, "but honestly, I think the large bulk of users and contributors have realized that the deal is not anywhere near as bad as a lot of people originally thought. [Anyway,] the people who are running sites complaining about things aren't the active contributors. It would be nice if the people who disagree strongly with the deal spent their cycles doing things for other projects if they don't want to be part of openSUSE. It would be much more productive."
Another background issue that is less important than might be expected is openSUSE's general relation to Novell. Talking about how Fedora has outgrown its image as simply a beta for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Brockmeier says, "Perhaps we are benefiting a little bit from the fact that people have been slamming Fedora for that. With Fedora coming out from under that, I think that maybe people understand that a corporate parent can have a community distro and an enterprise distro without the community distro being a beta."
With less need to focus on such concerns than he anticipated, Brockmeier finds himself free to focus on making openSUSE more visible in the free software community. The development of community evangelists like the Fedora Ambassadors is a possibility, but a more immediate concern is supporting local download mirrors around the world -- particularly in China, where an external mirror might be blocked by the government.
"The other big goal I have," he says, "is to find ways in which we can collaborate both with upstream projects and other community distros." To this end, at the recent Linux Tag in Germany, he spent some time talking with Max Spevack and Paul Frields (respectively the former and current Fedora leader) about ways to work on software package compatibility. He has also talked with various leaders in Ubuntu about such problems as dealing with packages that don't have a clear upstream maintainer.
Asked if he supported the call by Mark Shuttleworth of Ubuntu parent Canonical for coordinated release cycles between major distributions, Brockmeier says, "That's something I'm not sure about yet. I think it may have merit, but there's also some people who have written about the problems with that idea in terms of having everyone testing and releasing at once. I'm not sure this is the best idea, but it's something we're discussing."
However, despite such reservations on particulars, in general Brockmeier says, "I don't really view the competition as Fedora or Debian or Ubuntu. I view the competition as Windows and Mac OS X -- and, to a limited extent, OpenSolaris. And so a win for me is gaining more users for Linux. Of course, I would like to gain users for openSUSE, but I'm not going to complain a whole lot if we can reach a larger market share and some of those new users go to Ubuntu or Fedora. So finding ways we can collaborate just makes a lot of sense. I've had enough conversations with folks from the other distros that I think there's a consensus there. So now we just need to find ways to actually do it."
Clearly, openSUSE still has some evolving to do, but Brockmeier sounds optimistic that it is on the right track at last. "What gets me up in the morning is finding ways to spread Linux, and specifically openSUSE," he says. "That means making a community that has the tools it needs to be as effective as it can, so that contributors can do good work, and making sure there's no obstacles in their way. From the build service and other things that we're doing, I think we're achieving that."
What's more, the community seems to be getting its message out -- as Brockmeier points out, openSUSE 11.0 was in top position on Distrowatch's list of most downloaded distributions for seven days. As of the time of writing, it remains in second spot.
With such tentative signs of success, Brockmeier describes his job satisfaction as "really high. If you ask me mid-flight back from Europe, I might be a little touchy, but, generally speaking, I'm really enjoying the job and working with this community. There's a lot of excellent contributors, and you couldn't ask for a finer group of people to work with."