Barn-raising and the clothesline paradox (Debian)

Part Three of this book has been looking at how Open Source companies survive financially. Among them we've looked at three of the four best-known brands of Linux: Red Hat, SuSE and Mandrake, but the job isn't done without looking at the fourth one: Debian.

Debian is not a company. Then how can it be considered as if it were a business model? Perhaps it can't. But Debian exists, and that can't be ignored. Not only does it exist, it's one of the oldest and most popular Linux versions and in many statistics it beats the competing Linux distributions hands down.

Have you ever installed a Windows machine or watched anyone else installing Windows? When the installation is complete, you have a computer that works, but no more than that.1 Next, you have to install a word-processing program (OpenOffice, maybe) and an e-mail program (Mozilla, perhaps). But that is just the beginning. What if you need image processing software? And how about your printer - does it work? And are you planning to play games? They all have to be separately installed and you even have to get them from various vendors, since you're using closed software.

However, if you're using Linux and Free Software, all the software can all be conveniently bundled up in the same package. When you've installed Linux, you've also installed hundreds of other useful programs, including OpenOffice and Mozilla. Because the software can be freely distributed, your Linux distributor - whether it be Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, Debian or anyone else - has been able to gather everything you need into one package. And your Linux computer will be ready to use in less than an hour.

For anyone who measures their Linux by the number of programs that come with it, Debian includes 8,710 different software programs, which is by far the biggest.2 And all this can be installed for free by downloading it from the Internet or alternatively from CDs that cost around €8 from DataClub. Imagine, 8,710 different programs, all nicely bundled up in an easily installable and working package.

The other Linux versions are usually only available for computers that have Intel's so-called x86 architecture and in some instances some other architectures, such as the PowerPC (Apple computers) or IA-64 (Intel's new 64 bit architecture) or AMD's Opteron. At least Red Hat and SuSE support IBM's mainframe architectures in addition to these. But Debian is in a league of its own. It works on eleven different architectures!3

The Debian project currently involves almost 1,000 active programmers or hackers. The biggest Linux company, Red Hat, has some 600 employees and only some 300 of them are engineers.4

Debian is a non-commercial organization which involves the Debian-making programmers but also the people who run Debian's Web and data servers. In addition to which, there is of course someone who donated the servers themselves as well as their Internet connections, or at least the money needed for them. Then there's legal counsel - they, too, are volunteers - and the people who write manuals and make translations. And of course a large project like this always requires some bureaucracy - even in the world of Open Source - so Debian also has elected leaders.

Debian was founded in 1993 by Ian Murdock.5 At the time, Linus Torvalds and company had got the kernel into such good shape that Linux could be used with other free programs on top of it. However, these separate free programming projects were spread any which way across the Internet and nobody had pulled them all together to make a unified operating source product. But in 1993 the first Linux distributions were born, and Debian was one of them.

Because the Linux kernel, the bash command interpreter, the GCC compiler, the Emacs editor and all the other tools required to make a perfect operating system, most of which had been created under the GNU project, had been developed through the open model, it was only natural for Ian Murdock to make his Linux distribution open too. The commercial Linux companies came into the picture a little later. And just as well - diversity and freedom are our guiding principles, remember?

And so, little by little, the Debian project started to develop, with an ever increasing number of volunteer hackers maintaining a growing collection of Free Software and a free OS. One of the early leaders of the project was Bruce Perens, who today is one of the best-known advocates of Open Source. One of Bruce's legacies is that Debian always offers a comprehensive range of software for radio amateurs.

The first "ready' version of Debian was (exceptionally) given the version number 1.1, and that historic event took place in June 1996. At the time, many commercial companies, among them Red Hat and SuSE as well as the infamous Caldera, had a good head start in their released Linux versions.
Debian has by its mere existence balanced the Linux world, by offering a free alternative to the commercial Linux brands. Where most Linux companies release new versions of their Linuxes as often as twice a year, Debian can let up to two years pass without releasing a new version. Perhaps more than any of the other Linuxes, Debian has kept to the principle of releasing a product only "when it's ready'. By the time Debian finally releases a new version, many of the programs included in it are already relatively old, because Debian observes a very conservative testing and quality control policy. In part, the delay also reflects the Debian principle of releasing for all eleven different architectures at the same time. Most other Linux distributions release the version for each of the architectures as they get them done.

Although many of us computer freaks love to try everything new on our computers, Debian's steady pace actually suits many people very well. In the corporate world - where people actually want to get some work done in between - it's a positive thing not to have to run around updating all the company computers so often. Besides which, Debian computer freaks aren't bothered by the slow pace, because many of them use the so-called "testing' version of Debian. The "testing' version is a continually evolving collection of software which finally becomes the next version of Debian. Although it's not an official version, it is of course publicly available - after all, this is an Open Source project!6

Since it has at times been difficult to guess at what Red Hat and SuSE are planning, and with Mandrake's future being at stake due to financial problems, and many smaller Linux brands have genuinely disappeared, Debian's non-commercial status has actually seemed to give it a competitive edge. Debian hasn't suffered from financial problems, its plans haven't changed every six months and nobody has suddenly offered to buy Debian - not that it would be possible, anyway.

In addition to users who value stability, Debian is naturally of particular interest to programmers and computer freaks. This, among other things, is reflected in the installation of Debian. Whereas other Linux companies make their installation programs as automatic as possible and give them nice colours, Debian's installation program tends to ask fascinating questions, such as: "What kernel driver file is needed by your network adapter?' or "What is the refresh rate of your monitor?' Real nerds know no better fun than answering such questions, but ordinary mortals need a Linux that is as highly automated and colourful as possible.

As a giant project maintained by volunteers, Debian also realizes the Open Source principle of doing it together. For programmers and other real nerds - from Linus Torvalds down - it's always been more fun to make your own operating system rather than buy it encased in a colourful cardboard box.

In this sense, Debian resembles the Finnish talkoo or barn-raising tradition. A Finnish talkoot [sic] is arranged when a Finn wishes to build, say, a summer cottage by a nice lake. What he does not do is to buy a ready-made cabin to be delivered to the site on a trailer. Where's the fun in that? No, the cottage is built using talkoo power. A talkoot is when someone gets all their mates and a few barely-known acquaintances together to build the cottage as a joint effort. The future hostess of the cottage serves the talkoo workers soup, and it's all a bit like barn-raising in the Amish culture. Except that the Finns obviously head to the sauna when the building work is done, and are also likely to down a beer or two at the end of the day.

The Debian project is like an enormous virtual barn-raising. Volunteers often gather on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels and work together to write the code for the new programs in Debian. While they're coding away they also chat about this and that, some of it related to Debian, some not. They're doing it together and having fun. Somebody may even have a beer and give the glass a virtual clink to drink to the success of it all. And alongside the fun, they create the best operating system in the world.7

But let's go back for a moment to Debian as a business model. Can we call barn-raising a business model? The unspoken assumption in this part of the book has been that one must be able to build a profitable business on Linux for the idea of Open Source to be viable. Debian (and Eclipse, Blender, Mozilla, and many other examples in this part of the book) prove that assumption wrong. Debian exists and is widely used, but it is not a business that is out to, well, do business.
Those of us who've spent years in an over-commercialized capitalist (mean-spirited) world seem to have forgotten that not everything can be measured in monetary terms. (And I'm not talking here about friendship, love, and the like, but actual material things.) There's a tendency to think that because Microsoft has such a huge turnover, then it must logically follow that Windows is a good operating system. But what is Debian's turnover? It doesn't even have one.

To equate profit with quality is to forget that the actual job of computer programs is not to increase turnover, but rather to produce books, letters, minutes of meetings, images, films, web pages, music, phone books, statements of accounts, payslips, information storage, to enable communication, space travel, and much else besides. And Debian, for instance, makes all that possible, including having been used on a space shuttle! So, Debian is a useful and meaningful thing - but not a business model.

Because many of us get locked into a certain way of thinking we can miss obvious connections and solutions. Twenty years ago, solar architect Steve Baer came up with a good metaphor for our inability to perceive locally available solutions. He called it the clothesline paradox. It goes like this: if I were to buy an electric clothes-drier, that purchase would show up on a statistic somewhere, from which someone would eventually infer that electricity consumption had increased in Finland. And so I will have made it that bit harder for Finland to keep within the limits set by the Kyoto Protocol to tackle climate change.8

If, however, I get rid of my clothes-drier and let my clothes dry on a clothesline, there's no statistic that says Finland is now using more solar energy. But that doesn't mean a clothesline isn't a good way to dry clothes. And there we have the clothesline paradox.

The old Debian activist Bruce Perens understood the lesson of the clothesline paradox. From the point of view of Linux users, it's not relevant how many operating systems they have bought. What matters is that the work which needs doing, can get done. Some business leaders who met Bruce have apparently realized the same thing, because at the request of some, as yet unnamed, clients, Bruce has recently begun working on a new Linux distribution called UserLinux. Its aim is not to sell as many copies of Linux as possible, nor is it the aim of UserLinux users to buy as many Linuxes as possible. What they do want, however, is to get their job done. The aim of UserLinux is to be a Linux distribution which, like Debian, is open to everybody, but also to be a more streamlined Linux version than Debian, to be more automated - for corporate clients.

At the time of writing, UserLinux was still just a "twinkle in Bruce's eye' and it remains to be seen how the project is realized. Red Hat's latest changes in its range and pricing are sure to have been instrumental in getting the debate about UserLinux going, and getting the organizations behind the project to see the benefits of a model such as Debian. "I know of one business that invested millions into developing the IA-64 Linux system, with a marked absence of help from Red Hat. Now, that business is forced to buy their own software back from Red Hat at a high per-unit price, to package with their own products.' 9 The project gets some credibility from the fact that the organizations backing it, according to Bruce, have pledged to finance UserLinux to the tune of one million dollars a year, and that these organizations have a total of some 50,000 computers. So, this is no longer just hackers getting together for some barn-raising and fun, this is big corporations wanting to get the job done.

Verdict: Debian is doubly Open Source. All the programs it contains are created using the Open Source development model. In addition to which Debian itself was born as Open Source. A thousand volunteers worked to develop Debian, which in many ways is the biggest Linux distribution. In the IT market of the early 2000s, Debian has even been the most financially stable alternative for Linux users. From the criteria applied throughout this book, there is simply nothing bad to say about Debian.

  • 1Well, of course some people think a computer with Windows installed on it instead of Linux is a computer with serious problems. But let's pretend you have a working computer.
  • 2This statistic is from December 2003. The number has been growing rapidly in the past few years, so by the time you're reading this, there's bound to be a lot more.
  • 3By the time of going to press, this number too had grown.
  • 4You could argue, of course, that today IBM and HP are also Linux companies and they do have rather more employees.
  • 5If I tell you Ian's wife is called Debra, you can guess where the project got its name.
  • 6The use of Debian's "testing' and "unstable' versions works in the same way as Mandrake's Cooker project. Actually, Debian was the model for Mandrake in this respect.
  • 7You can get to know the people working on Debian through the IRC channels on at:
  • 8American readers of this English edition can rest assured they have nothing to worry about in this regard. Their Texas-born president never signed the Kyoto Protocol, so you can all keep on using electricity regardless of climate change.
  • 9Although Bruce Perens does not reveal the identity of the company which invested millions, it was Hewlett-Packard. And, remember that selling one licence per computer is rare in the world of Open Source.


Debian is still counted among the "big four" Linux distributions. The popularity statistics at Distrowatch place it at 8, but that is more a measurement of its use as a desktop system, while Debian is more popular as a server.

Even so, part of Debian's strength is not simply the number of users. In the last two years the Linux community has increasingly come to appreciate it's importance as a non-commercial distribution, a kind of neutral ground or safe haven among all the commercial enterprise oriented distributions. (Thus the existence of Debian is much appreciated also by people like me, who still may not actually use it themselves.) Debian is also a very popular base distribution for other distributions: Xandros, Linspire (former Lindows) and the most popular desktop distribution at the moment: Ubuntu.

Which brings us to the next point. UserLinux never released a single product and is now considered extinct. There was an interesting analysis on LWN on it's failure.

Bruce Perens on the other hand is still an important spokesperson in the Open Source movement. While nobody can claim to actually formally represent the Open Source community, he is in my personal opinion probably the one who most faithfully manages to represent the general (or average) opinion of the community members in important issues like software patents. As such, he could actually be nominated as the most level-headed of all our spokespersons, not a small feat!

Ubuntu had only recently released it's very first version when this chapter was written about 3 years ago. Now it is the favorite Linux distribution and especially the favorite distribution among those who like to use the Gnome desktop. In many ways, Ubuntu became what UserLinux did not. It is based on Debian and keeps close cooperation with its parent distribution. It is maintained by a non-commercial foundation, while a company called Canonical separately does business with it. Actually, it has become a favorite distribution also for many other small and medium size companies, much along the "cotton industry" model envisioned by Bruce Perens for UserLinux.

As a business model Ubuntu would deserve it's own interesting section in the book. Currently it seems to be an expensive way of wasting the money of it's founder, Mark Shuttleworth. Mark became a millionaire by selling his company Thawte, you may recognize that name if you've ever looked at the cryptographical certificates in your web browsers Tools > Options. He then spent $20 million by becoming a space tourist and after that hired some top Gnome and other Open Source developers to work on Ubuntu, which is distributed free of charge, you can even order free CDs. So it is not a wonder Ubuntu became so popular so fast, but it remains to be seen whether Mark is actually going to make any money on it. (He does seem to have a plan though, so it is not all charity, even if he is a very nice guy. And if I remember correctly he liked the sauna in Helsinki.)

You can read more about Ubuntu here.

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