FOSDEM '09 is a free and non-commercial event organized by the community, for the community. Its goal is to provide Free and Open Source developers a place to meet.


Interview: Bdale Garbee

Bdale Garbee will give a talk about Debian at FOSDEM 2009.

Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I made my first personal contribution to what we now call Free Software in 1979. In 1994 I joined the Debian project, and over the years I've contributed to Debian in many ways, technically and socially, including serving as Debian Project Leader and my current post as Chairman of the Technical Committee. I also serve as President of Software in the Public Interest, an "umbrella" organization that provides US legal existence and holds assets for Debian and many other significant Free Software projects.

What does your job as Open Source & Linux Chief Technologist at HP look like?

My job includes educating people in HP about Open Source, mentoring HP teams that want to participate in the Open Source process, and serving as the leading advocate for Open Source within HP. To help keep myself in touch with the issues, I continue to actively make personal contributions to various development projects, I look for interesting opportunities to speak about Free Software, and I represent HP on various boards and advisory panels. All of that enables me to be credible and effective at guiding HP's participation.

What will your talk be about, exactly?

You'll have to be there to listen, because I rarely have that sorted out until very close to when I stand up to speak!

What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk ? What do you expect?

I've never been to FOSDEM, even though I've really wanted to, due to various conflicts with my family and work. So, I really don't know what to expect!

I hope I can convey some useful insights gleaned from my years of participation in Free Software, combined with my perspective working on behalf of Free Software inside one of the world's largest IT companies.

What are the reasons for HP to work with Debian as a GNU/Linux distribution next to Red Hat and SUSE?

Well, one reason is that some customers want to run Debian and ask us to support Debian on the HP hardware they want to buy.

From an engineering and larger business perspective, working with a commercial distribution and participating in a community driven non-commercial distribution are very different experiences. When our interests align with one or more of the commercial distributions, such as delivering solutions for enterprise server customers, we happily and profitably work with them. When our needs differ from theirs, participating in Debian has proven to be an effective way to get things done and deliver solid Open Source solutions to HP customers.

How did you become involved in Debian and what are you doing now in the Debian project? Do you still work on Debian in your spare time or is it all HP related work?

I was working on an amateur satellite project that needed a development platform and stumbled over Debian through the Linux for Hams project that Bruce Perens started. Today, I continue to maintain a number of packages, I'm chairman of the Debian Technical Committee, and because of that I've currently also the Acting Secretary.

Since my job expectations at HP include continuing to be a Free Software developer, the boundary between what I do for HP and what I do as a hobby can get fuzzy sometimes. The best answer is probably that I'm doing a little of both when I contribute to Debian... some things I can rationalize as directly helping HP, but other things I work on because I care a lot about the project personally.

There were some strong discussions before, during and after the voting for the general resolution about firmware and the Lenny release. What's your opinion about it?

I've been in and out of the middle of the discussion about kernel firmware since the 2002 kernel summit. Even though it has taken a lot longer than anyone hoped, I'm really pleased that the kernel guys have now done most of the hard work to allow Debian to separate firmware from sources in future packaging. We're getting close, but there's still enough work to do that I'm ok with releasing Lenny with the kernel firmware blobs still present.

With respect to other bugs regarding DFSG compliance issues, I'm pleased that in the last week I was able to help finally get the two bugs related to GLX closed, and I think we're making real progress towards resolving the Sun RPC issues in glibc and portmap.

The bottom line is that I'd rather we fix these bugs than talk incessantly about them, so that we won't need to run a GR like this one again before future Debian stable releases!

How do you think Debian will evolve in the next years, after Lenny?

That's hard to predict. Greater use of distributed revision control tools and collaborative maintenance of packages seems likely, as does some further evolution of the process by which we attract and accept new participants into the project.

What are the biggest advantages of Debian? And the biggest disadvantages?

This depends on who you are and what you're trying to do. My personal use of Debian is better than other alternatives because of how much software is packaged for Debian and integrated into our mirror network. Software that is well integrated with open processes to report and resolve problems gives better results than any other approach I've been exposed to. My biggest personal frustration is that our release freeze process takes so long. It would be nice if unstable could again earn its name by staying fresh with only short upload hold-off windows during a shorter stable release cycle.

When people think about corporate contributions to Linux and free software, they don't see HP as the big contributor it is. Why is that? A lack of communication by HP? Or the type of projects it's involved in?

I used to get asked this question a lot, particularly in the era when some other companies were spending lots of money on Linux related advertising. But I think some of our activities in the last year, from launching the FOSSology and FOSSbazaar communities to the release of AdvFS sources to our recent introduction of new customer experience software on netbook products that's built on top of Linux are helping people see the broad range of ways that HP is participating.

Your hobbies are model rocketry, amateur radio and amateur satellites. Supporting the idea of Debian as "The Universal Operating System", do you run Debian on or around these devices?

While I often try out other operating systems for various reasons relating to my work, Debian runs on my servers, my notebook, and the computers that my wife and children use. All of my development work on hardware and software in support of my hobbies is done on Debian, and virtually all of it is done with Free Software.

One of my current hobby projects is an avionics package for high powered model rockets that is designed and developed entirely with Free Software tools, and the resulting design is completely open hardware and software. The target system is a tiny 8-bit processor, so of course it doesn't run Linux. See my website Altus Metrum for more details... ;-)

Creative Commons License
This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.