02 August, 2013

oSC13, Strategy and Stable

At the openSUSE conference there were discussions about the future of openSUSE. Last Wednesday I summarized some of the ideas around Factory. Today I blog about the openSUSE releases.

Note: This is a combination of stuff I heard (not just at oSC but also earlier - even from the first strategy discussion, 3 years ago) and ideas I have. I just attempt to put it into text so it is easier to shoot at, comment upon, think about.

Stable - big picture

On the Stable release future, things are much more in the air. In his keynote, Ralf hinted that SUSE has some ideas about how the future of openSUSE should look:
  • Open Governance - SUSE wants openSUSE to be successful and independently strong. Ralf noted that SUSE does not expect or aim to make money on openSUSE directly; other parties however are very much welcome to build a business around openSUSE.
  • Filling the gap - SUSE and openSUSE have a great win-win relationship. But SUSE notices a gap between openSUSE and SLE in the market: SLE is oriented to large enterprises and the current openSUSE has a too wide market to feed, from newbies to hard core developers to professionals.
This is, from the SUSE side, the big picture; SUSE wants to provide room in the openSUSE ecosystem for initiatives, both from volunteers and from the commercial side. And SUSE would like openSUSE to move up a little, offer solutions for people serious about computing in a professional capacity. But what does this mean exactly?

Concrete changes

Let's start again with what came out with the keynote. Ralf essentially summarized some of SUSE and openSUSE's history and talked about our current situation. openSUSE Stable, our final release coming out every 8 months, is a compromise between stability and being-up-to-date. But this compromise was made in a time when far less people used the many repositories on OBS offering more up-to-date software; and before Tumbleweed and Evergreen saw the light of day. It is 2013 now and Ralf hinted at a possible re-evaluation of the choices that were made back then: perhaps, we should limit our scope, improve quality and increase the life cycle of openSUSE?

Improve quality

Let's talk about quality first. This is difficult, harder than it seems. Factory has some automated testing and openQA got better thanks to some recent work, but nothing can replace human testing and there is not enough of it. There is room for improving our processes here, but there is also the fact that some people in our community care more about Stable and others more about moving forward with Factory. We need to find a way to service the needs of both. Having Factory more stable, hence more usable on a day-to-day base, would be a great first step here.

Limit the scope

If you want to do something well, you should focus on it. It's the Unix philosophy many of us share: do one thing, and do it well. openSUSE is well known for doing everything a bit - making everybody a little happy, but nobody REALLY happy. Part of why this model is still working reasonably well is thanks to OBS - which has grown in this role. Many, many users these days use the openSUSE release as simply a base for their favorite OBS repositories. If we want to improve quality and lengthen the life cycle, we can use this model.

For example, parts of openSUSE which can be and are maintained longer get in the stable releases; other parts with a shorter life cycle (Firefox for example) stay on OBS. This means that being part of Stable depends on commitment from both upstream and the openSUSE maintainers of the packages; as well as testing capacity and our quality standards.

Lengthen life cycle

A portion of the openSUSE users would like to have a longer release cycle - the interest in Evergreen and questions on our mailing lists and forums make that clear. SUSE has dedicated a set amount of resources for maintaining openSUSE releases; checking security and entering bug fixes. The maintenance process is now opened up and some teams in openSUSE are contributing to the maintenance, lowering the load on the SUSE maintenance team. A smaller scope (resulting in a smaller release) would do the same, as Ralf mentioned in his keynote. This will have to be a part of the solution we're looking for to increase our maintenance window.

In practice

To put it in perspective, three examples of how we could do this. Keep in mind that sticking to the openSUSE-has-all-and-comes-every-8-months model is of course also an option...

Rings, rings, and rolling!

Presume we will have rings in Factory (see blog from Wednesday)? Let's put them in the distro. There's the core with ring 0 and ring 1 ("everything up to X"). It is released every 2 years and maintained for 3. Then, there is ring 2, with the basic desktops and their devel frameworks. They are maintained 2 years after release (every year). Then, ring 3, the applications and development tools. They are updated from OBS, essentially rolling.
It would of course be possible to keep ring 3 also stable - for, say, 1 year. Update it when a new release comes out - you can keep the core and desktop from the previous version but have the new apps.

Split it up in components

As Robert proposed on the factory ML this week it would be possible to split openSUSE Factory not per-se in rings, but in smaller components, dictated by their dependencies. Some would be one package, others would be multiple. Each component is developed by a team in a factory-like model. Rob states: "Each component advances based on it's own release cycle and the component team decides which release of it's dependent components to build against. Some tooling will be needed to help sort out the combinatorial problem."

And "when a release approaches,the release team picks a version of the core component that will be the base for the next openSUSE release. This version is used to populate factory and may be the only component that is in factory for a little while." This scheme should make the job of the release team easier but would still allow us to release the same openSUSE. Perhaps faster, perhaps slower - or perhaps in pieces, giving users an unprecedented level of flexibility!

Core, selection + OBS

How about we take the core of openSUSE (ring 0 and 1 from Coolo?), add a few components which have a long-term commitment from their teams; and let OBS take care of the rest! So, we'd have, say, the Core, our default desktop with a base set of applications for it, LibreOffice and Firefox. That is the release. The rest you grab off of OBS. The core is maintained for a longer time (this very much depends on community input!) and much more tested than what we ship today.

To limit the impact of the change and for the convenience of our users, the installer would still be able to offer the same choices as it always has; but besides adding the packages, it also enables the repository they are found in!

Initially, the release would be a lot smaller than it is today - but in time, as people step up for long(er) term maintenance, it will grow again. The idea is similar to what was proposed on the factory ML this week, but might lead to less clashes between components as there are less of them (much is in the core, presumably).

The real discussion

The issue with all the above scenarios is that while we can technically do them (some are harder than others, of course) the choice doesn't just depend on what we can do but also on what we should do. That makes the discussion a lot more interesting. We have to fix some things in our process, adjust to reality, that is clear. But do we want to shift direction, too? What is our real goal?

Our previous strategy discussion hinted at the fact that most of our users are professionals, people used to computers. We decided not to focus on newbies and making things simple to the expense of flexibility of our distribution. Should we go further on that path, make harder choices to focus on people using computers for a living?


What I tried to illustrate with the 3 examples is that we can go in various directions. It will be up to some of our core developers as well as the dev teams to comment on what makes most sense, what is the least amount of work for the biggest benefit (to users). But there's also the question of who those users are!

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