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Are There Too Many Forks at the FOSS Table?

By Katherine Noyes
Nov 3, 2014 5:06 PM PT

Well Halloween has come and gone here in the Northern reaches of the Linux blogosphere, but for those of us paying attention, few things could be more frightful than the bloodshed now taking place in Debian's civil war.

Are There Too Many Forks at the FOSS Table?

The streets of the blogosphere are filled with smoke; conversations are getting drowned out by the din of gunfire; and glasses are perpetually rattling down at the Punchy Penguin Saloon.

It was something of a relief, in fact, when the ever-thoughtful mavens over at Linux Voice raised a question that's related, but far less emotional than what has dominated the discussions so far.

"Is there too much forking in FOSS?" is the title of Linux Voice's latest "Voice of the Masses" poll, and the title says it all. FOSS fans put the Systemd Inferno out of their minds for a bit and took some time to ponder.

'Forking Keeps People Honest'

Linux Girl

"Absolutely no," began Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone, for example.

"Forking is how Linux evolves, and to limit forking only stifles Linux and its potential," Stone told Linux Girl. "Forking allows for Linux -- and other FOSS applications -- to try two or more different approaches to a problem, and let the community decide."

Forks that are successful then continue on; those that aren't fade into obscurity, he noted.

"Even failed forks can be beneficial to the community, as separate approaches can be melded together, taking the good ideas from multiple projects and adding them to one," Stone added.

In addition, "forking keeps people honest," he said. "No one person holds sway over the entirety of a FOSS project. We have elected leaders, but that's all. No dictators here."

In short, "forking is what keeps the 'free' in FOSS," Stone said.

Forks Good and Bad

"Forks are good and can allow developers to try new ideas outside of the main project," agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

"The problem I have is when people threaten a fork in an attempt to force other people to submit to their demands," he said.

"Forking is always bad when it is a move away from a thing you like, and good when it is a move away from a thing you don't like," mused Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien.

"So, creating GNOME when there was the excellent KDE was totally a mistake, let alone creating Linux Mint when Ubuntu already met all of our needs -- evil forks the lot of them, right?" O'Brien suggested.

'Forking May Not Be Possible'

"I love forks... they are an essential part of FLOSS," blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl over a steaming Pumpkin Spice Penguin cocktail. "It's what the licenses mean when they give permission to copy the code. Copying not only moves code from one place to another but allows two distinct versions to result."

In the case of Debian, "forking may not be possible," Pogson noted. "It's just too large for any startup to absorb. If the fork took too many current developers with it, both 'Debians' would be impoverished."

With some 40,000 packages -- each an average of nearly 1 MB -- "that's tens of gigabytes of code," he pointed out. "How can the few irate about Systemd deal with that? Perhaps a minor edit of Debian rather than a true fork?"

'Diversity Leads to Resilience'

Two many forks is "no good, just because the efforts are diluted," opined Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C.

The question, of course, is "how much is too much?" he said.

The upside, however, is that "like in biology and ecology, diversity leads to resilience," he added. "Certainly having more than one option for every part of the system can help, sooner or later.

"I have always advocated for similar projects joining forces, for gathering in organizations like the FSF or the Linux Foundation and looking for desirable standards in a democratic way," Gonzalo Velasco C. concluded. "I think this kind of approach will let GNU/Linux enter the OEM industry for good."

'One Fork to Rule Them All'

Forking is "absolutely necessary in the FOSS world," concurred Google+ blogger Rodolfo Saenz. "Without it, Linux and every FOSS project would not advance as they should."

Of course, "too much of anything is not good," Saenz agreed. "If it is abused, it can lead to chaotic results for some projects, diluting the brain power in too many forks instead of concentrating in one sole project, for example."

Speaking of which, "I truly think it's time for all the FOSSies to rally round 'one fork to rule them all' and end the corporate meddling and anti-user corporate interests once and for all," SoylentNews blogger hairyfeet told Linux Girl.

"After all, the entire reason why RMS created the GPL in the first place was to put the END USER above all -- this is the very basis of the four freedoms that gave birth to the FOSS movement in the first place," he said.

'An OS That Rivals or Tops the Best'

"It's time to end ALL the other forks -- for every noncorporate dev to drop their 'taco bell' rehashes of Debian and RH and make one last stand for the users around Debian Fork or, as I call it, 'Debian Free' -- as in, 'free of corporate control,'" hairyfeet said -- "which I would argue post-Snowden is the most important freedom of them all."

A necessary condition, though, is for such an effort's charter to "have in B&W that there is no 'meritocracy' allowed" -- that "would allow Red Hat to stack the deck as they did by getting so many ex-RH and Ubuntu members into Debian," hairyfeet said. "Instead, it should be by the people and for the people.

"If everyone would jump on board, stop the other 'me too' Systemd copycat forks and focus ALL of the community's collective efforts behind this one OS? You could very easily end up with an OS that rivals or even tops the best that Redmond and Cupertino have to offer," hairyfeet said. "I truly believe that."

If everyone remains divided, on the other hand, "then Red Hat will win, and by the time they are done packing more and more into Systemd, the difference between Red Hat, Debian and Ubuntu will be the difference between Windows Home, Pro and Ultimate," hairyfeet concluded -- "strictly a matter of semantics and support tiers."


Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


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