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The money is back - sort of. Linux investment activity slowed down markedly after the stock market decline in April, and it has been slow to recover. This week's events, however, show that things are beginning to happen again:
It would appear that the business community believes that the Linux stock slide has bottomed out. The investors are coming back - but hopefully with more realistic expectations this time.
Debian and free software project organization. Most Linux users are aware of the Debian distribution and its status as the most popular noncommercial distribution around. The distribution itself offers a massive set of packages, a self-updating capability (for some years now), and a high degree of stability. It is growing in popularity, despite its high-profile, venture and IPO-funded competition. Just as interesting as the distribution, however, is the complex organization that makes it possible.
Because Debian is arguably the most organized of all free software projects. Kernel development looks like a benevolent dictator floating serenely above a screaming bazaar of hackers loudly trying to get their patches noticed and accepted. Apache is an anarchic, but calmer group of people quietly implementing the features they need. Debian, instead, resembles an established constitutional democracy, complete with elections and a civil bureaucracy.
The founding document, perhaps, of the Debian Project is the social contract. It provides the philosophical underpinnings of the project, including the commitment to free software and to not hide problems. A much more legalistic foundation, however, is the Debian Constitution. This document describes how the project functions and makes decisions.
For example, it defines the office of the Project Leader, which is currently held by Wichert Akkerman. It's not a particularly powerful office, however; Debian folks prefer to make their decisions in a more distributed way. The constitution also defines and empowers the Technical Committee (currently Ian Jackson, Manoj Srivastava, Dale Scheetz, Guy Maor, Klee Dienes, and Raul Miller). The Committee can "decide any matter of technical policy," resolve disputes among developers, and, with a suitably strong vote, require a developer to make a change that he or she would otherwise be unwilling to do.
That last power is seldom exercised; Debian developers normally have absolute power over the packages they maintain. As long as they stay within the policy guidelines and fix bugs, what they say goes.
Debian does, however, have quite a few policy guidelines. The Developer's Reference spells out in great detail how Debian developers interact with the project and each other. Therein one can find out the process for becoming a recognized developer, the procedure for going on vacation, how to upload new packages, the conditions under which one developer can update another developer's packages, how to deal with bug reports, and, of course, how to retire from the project.
All Debian developers also use a public key encryption system to sign any packages they upload. That way the project knows that each package it has came from a recognized developer.
A completely different set of guidelines can be found in the Debian Policy Manual. This document contains the set of technical policies that make Debian a functioning, consistent system. It tells how to allocate user and group IDs, spells out the MIME support policy, defines interpretations of keys on the keyboard, lays out the proper uses of symbolic links, gives the accepted way of accessing mailboxes, tells how to use environment variables, and more. All Debian packages are expected to adhere to these policies.
On top of all that is a complicated structure of committees and positions within the Debian organization, including the Release Manager, the CD Production Team, the Spam Fighting Team, and more. See this organization listing for the full set.
To the Lone Hacker who is holed up in his basement writing the Great American Compiler, all of the above may be a bit scary. Where is the fun of working on free software if you have a whole book full of rules that you have to follow? But the nature and scale of Debian make this organization necessary. Debian has several hundred active developers worldwide, and thousands of packages. Such a project could easily collapse under its own weight given the chance.
Debian is far from collapse; it is, instead, supremely healthy. Its distribution is consistent, functional, and highly stable, despite being made up of thousands of pieces assembled by people who have often never met each other. Nobody worries about what will happen if Wichert Akkerman decides his future lies in timeshare condominium sales - the project's structure and policies would continue to function as before. Debian's organization makes the project robust.
The project has not been without its glitches - distributions have come out late, new maintainers were excluded for a long period, and so on. But, in the end, Debian's organizational effort has worked.
As free software continues to grow, we will certainly see many development projects on a new, larger scale. The desktop projects are an example of where things are going. Others will be formed to attempt tasks that are hard to even image now. Debian has shown one way of making projects on this scale work. It is a most interesting social institution, with much to teach us all.
Has Cisco patented NAT?. It turns out that Cisco has a patent on a "security system for network address translation systems". Depending on your reading of the patent and what it really covers, this could be one of the more threatening software patents to come along yet.
NAT has been a feature of Linux networking for years - though the Linux world has generally referred to it as "masquerading." Essentially the feature allows the hiding of a network of systems behind a single gateway. All outgoing connections appear to come from the gateway itself - the systems behind it are invisible. They are also, normally, unreachable from the outside; this feature means that a box running NAT/masquerading can often serve as a simple and highly effective firewall.
It is the firewalling ("security") feature of NAT that Cisco claims a patent for. The claims in the patent text describe the basic NAT algorithm, then add features like dropping inbound TCP packets that do not correspond to an existing TCP connection. Passing through FTP data connections and certain types of ICMP packets are also claimed as patented features. These are all things that the Linux implementation does.
If Cisco decides to get obnoxious - and there is no evidence of that at this time - this could be the first serious patent issue to reach deeply into the Linux kernel. The basic NAT implementation in Linux predates the patent application, and thus qualifies easily as prior art. But some of the fancier filtering features may not. The possibility of a patent challenge reaching deeply into the Linux kernel exists. This one is worth keeping an eye on.
:CueCat, one more time. We'll stop talking about the :CueCat affair soon, we promise. But this episode just keeps on bringing up interesting issues. Consider this article in SecurityFocus, which quotes Digital Convergence VP David Mathews:
Digital Convergence was aghast. "If people take over our cat and start using their own databases, the world becomes cloudy," says Mathews. "Our revenue model is being the gate keeper between codes and their destinations online."
The company's revenue model may depend on being the gate keeper, but free software's model depends, instead, on freedom. We're not much interested in gate keepers who seek to maintain their position on the basis of (still unspecified) intellectual property claims. Freedom makes things hard for those who prefer a carefully controlled population. Expect to see a lot more fights like this one.
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September 21, 2000