Interviewee: Ricky Zhou
In this interview we talk with Ricky. In specific, we talk about:
- Identity of the Fedora community and its relationship with Red Hat
- Relationship between Fedora and other distributions
- Upstream projects as they relate to Fedora
- Public opinion about the Fedora project
- Open source involvement in the software industry and university sphere
Scott Swigart: To get us started, give us a little bit of an introduction on yourself.
Ricky Zhou: OK. I’m currently a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. I’ve been contributing to Fedora since about March of my junior year. I’m mostly involved with the infrastructure team, which runs the servers that run Fedora and I’m kind of the leader of the website team, which is where I started out. I also do some packaging, among other things.
Scott: How did you get started with Fedora? Why Fedora versus some other distro, and which areas of contribution did you get started in with the project?
Ricky: I had been a Fedora user for a while before I got involved. My first involvement was with the Fedora website. I noticed that the Fedora wiki CSS had some browser issues, so I subscribed to fedora-websites-list and sent a patch to fix it.
It just so happened that this was right around Fedora 7. At this point, the Fedora website was running entirely on a MoinMoin wiki, which could not easily handle the load on release day. The team was working on some static HTML pages to lessen load,, which I started helping out with. After I helped out there for a while, Mike McGrath the Infrastructure team leader sponsored me into the sysadmin-web group, which runs Fedora’s application and proxy servers, and that’s how I became involved in the Infrastructure team.
Scott: Talk a little bit about the areas where you’re focusing and contributing today. You’ve mentioned the website. What are some of your current areas of interest around the Fedora project?
Ricky: As I said, I’m probably most active in the infrastructure team. I worked on the latest rewrite of the Fedora Account System a few months ago, for example. We’ve worked hard to make the signup process easy for new people looking to get involved with Fedora. I also help maintain and patch some of the other web applications that we’re running.
For example, one thing I’ve been very interested in is Transifex (transifex.org), a web application we are using to accept translations. I’ve been helping to keep these applications up and running.
Scott: What’s your impression of the Fedora community? Obviously, there are people that work for the Red Hat company that help out with Fedora. There are also lots of people who aren’t Red Hat employees who work on it, of course.
Give us a little bit of the flavor of the community and the kind of people who are helping out with the Fedora project.
Ricky: The divide between Red Hat and Fedora is actually pretty transparent. In fact, a lot of Red Hat employees that work on Fedora don’t even use their Red Hat email accounts. Before Fedora 7, back when Fedora was divided into Core and Extras repositories, there was a significant divide, as only Red Hat employees were able to commit to Core packages. Since then, a ton of work has been done to merge Core and Extras to put all community members on an equal footing.
The Fedora community is also very open. For example, in infrastructure, we exclusively use open source software, and furthermore only software that has been packaged for Fedora. This ensures that all of the software packages we’re using will be useful to the entire Fedora community as well.
In general, we put a lot of emphasis on building the systems so anybody can get involved, and the amount of work that people are willing to put into this has really impressed me.
Scott: The difference is interesting between Fedora and something like Ubuntu, which is very focused on users, who may be fairly non-technical. Fedora, on the other hand, seems to be very focused on the community that actually develops and packages the open source.
That’s not to say that there’s not due attention paid to usability as well, but it seems like the focus is a lot more on growing a vibrant community of contributors. Another distro like Ubuntu may be a lot less focused on the actual contributions and more focused on the end user experience.
Do I have that right? And as a related question, what do you feel gives Fedora its essential identity, versus some of the other popular distros out there?
Ricky: I think your description is pretty accurate. There have been a lot of discussions within the Fedora community about exactly who our target audience is, although I don’t think anyone has made a definitive statement there.
Our ambassador team has been doing a lot of great work in trying to get people involved in Fedora, and recently, some Fedora contributors have started holding IRC classroom sessions, which includes some classes designed to help people gain the knowledge needed to contribute to Fedora. I do believe that the best user is someone who has recently been involved in helping build the project, and it is definitely a goal of the project to try and convert the casual user into a valuable contributor.
Scott: If you take a look at where Fedora is popular, my sense would be that it’s particularly popular with developers. That’s probably especially so for developers who are writing software for Linux that’s going to run on Red Hat or Cent OS or something like that.
It may also be popular with IP administrators who are really well versed in the Red Hat products in the data center, computer science students like you, and so forth.
Do you have a sense for where Fedora is a popular distribution and for a more or less typical profile of the people who tend to gravitate toward it?
Ricky: In one sense, Fedora tends to be a showcase for the newest developments in software. Hobbyists are interested in the vibrancy of the development process around Fedora. On the other hand, Fedora isn’t just a distribution; it’s also an umbrella for a lot of development that benefits other projects.
For example, we have the EPEL project, which takes Fedora packages and makes them available in a repository for CentOS and Red Hat Enterprise Linux users. A lot of people outside of the developer/hobbyists audience have really benefited from that (for example, we use a lot of EPEL packages within Fedora’s Infrastructure).
Scott: Another thing that’s always interesting to us is the relationship between a community distribution and a commercial distribution. You’ve got Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. You’ve got openSUSE and SUSE Linux Enterprise. You’ve got OpenSolaris and Solaris. That’s a UNIX distro and not a Linux distro, but they’re making it feel very Linux like.
What’s your impression, having spent a lot of time on the community distro side of things, about how community distributions and commercial distributions tend to relate to one another?
Ricky: Right now, as you know, Red Hat Enterprise Linux comes from a version of Fedora (so Fedora is upstream for RHEL). The goals for RHEL and Fedora are slightly different though. Fedora has a support life (as in, we keep releasing package updates) of 13 months, and we tend to focus our development efforts on displaying the newest developments in open source software, RHEL is focused more on stability, and each release is supported for seven years. As a result of this, we run a mix of Fedora and RHEL in Fedora’s Infrastructure.
Scott: Talk a little bit about Fedora as a distro and its relationship with the upstream projects. It’s always interesting to hear about the relationships between distributions and the upstream projects they are associated with, which have their own cultures and communities.
Obviously, when people are doing work on the distro, a lot of the work they’re doing is actually submitting patches to GNOME or the Linux kernel or other myriad projects. Describe that relationship in the case of Fedora a little bit.
Ricky: A central philosophy of Fedora is that we are committed to contributing as much to those upstream projects as possible, as opposed to keeping patches on our side—this is made in our packaging policies, but also manifests itself in other areas. I mentioned Transifex before; one of its benefits is that it is designed to commit submitted translations directly to upstream source repositories, which ensures that translations are sent where they can benefit the largest group possible.
Even in the Infrastructure team, I see a lot of members who are actively involved upstream for a lot of the Python software that we use. One nice benefit of this is that there’s always some expert to turn to whenever I have a problem with something.
Scott: I don’t know if it’s entirely accurate, but we’ve heard people go far as to say that the goal is that if it isn’t upstream, it isn’t in Fedora. In other words, Fedora tries to stay very true to what’s upstream and views that as the best way to build a distro. They try very hard to work with the upstream project and not carry a lot of distro-specific patches.
With a lot of the other distros, that’s not always the philosophy. Other distros may feel that if it’s in the interest of their users or community, it’s fine to carry distro-specific patches. They may try to get them upstream, but at the end of the day, if it fixes a problem for their users, they’ll carry their own patch. Talk a little bit about that philosophy.
Ricky: This philosophy makes a lot of sense to me. In most cases, if there is a change that would benefit our users, these changes would benefit a far larger audience if pushed upstream. Apart from this, there are many practical reasons to avoid having heavily patched software. In many cases, bugs can be more useful and easier to debug if we are running identical code to what’s in upstream. By resorting to carrying Fedora-specific patches, we can lose out on a lot of opportunities to help out upstream projects.
Scott: This is a pretty different topic, but I’d like to ask whether you feel that Fedora gets the respect it deserves.
When I ask that, I’m thinking of times when I see a new Linux distribution come out that touts its great wireless support or great support for EBDO, and so forth. The distro’s community may be very proud of the work that it has done on something like the network manager, but I wonder if they keep in mind that the project manager matured in a distro like Fedora that started including it very early on. SE Linux showed up in Fedora very early, for example, too.
A lot of these projects later become mature and popular and show up in a lot of distros, but many showed up in Fedora first. Do you feel like Fedora gets the acknowledgment it deserves for helping to make those projects mature?
Ricky: I think that Fedora definitely gets credit for that. If you look on a lot of news sites, you’ll see that a lot of people are fairly aware of how and where things have come from. Of course, there are plenty of places where people are off the mark, but that’s to be expected, too. Overall, Fedora does have a good reputation for being an early adopter of many useful features. I’ve seen people mention in a few places that a lot of software has improved and stabilized a lot after being included in Fedora.
Scott: From your vantage point as a computer science major at Carnegie Mellon, what do you see in terms of the thinking around software? Software’s been dominated by proprietary software vendors, whether it’s IBM, Microsoft, or Oracle; it’s been licensed, and people have had to pay for it.
As the open source community has become more visible, there has been an increasing amount of software available that’s completely free, whether it’s Fedora, openSUSE, Mandriva, or many others.
Obviously, a lot of businesses are also wrapping themselves around open source, providing value in the form of the peace of mind that it’s fully supported or various types of add-ons that maybe aren’t completely free and open source.
Red Hat fits in there as a pretty pure play open source vendor, whereas some companies have much more of an approach where they have a free community edition, but also an “enterprise edition” with lots of additional features that aren’t entirely open source.
In your environment at Carnegie Mellon, what do you find to be the prevailing philosophies around software and how it should be made available?
Ricky: In some of my introductory classes, we are definitely taught how to use open source tools for development, but I’ve noticed that there is much less of an emphasis on the ideology of open source. On one hand, this is something that I’d like to see more of—I know that there are some higher level classes where students are required to make significant contributions to open source projects. I know that some people in Fedora have shown a lot of interest in pushing open source in college education, one of the results of this is http://teachingopensource.org/, which I know at least one of my professors is keeping up with.
On the other hand, it’s possible that some of the ideals of open source are already somewhat ingrained into my generation. At CMU, I took a humanities course about intellectual property, and during the many of our discussions, I found that almost all of my fellow students support and understand the general ideas behind open source software.
Scott: Do you find different levels of corporate involvement at the university level among either the companies that have wrapped themselves around an open source business model, like Red Hat, Novell, or Sun Microsystems, as opposed to companies that are more proprietary like IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft?
Do you find that some of these are more present at the university than others, in terms of actually interfacing with the university to have business-academic partnerships and that kind of thing?
Ricky: I’m not sure whether there’s a difference in terms of campus presence depending on whether companies have more or less of an open source involvement. The main corporate presence that I know of on campus is during the several job fairs that we have, and I haven’t really heard of that many open source companies being at those.
I guess in many cases, open source companies can find a lot of prospective employees by looking at who’s active in the open source community (for instance, I’m currently an intern at Red Hat continuing the same work that I’ve been doing in Fedora). I would certainly love to see more open source companies getting involved with universities though. One recent example I’ve seen of this from Red Hat is POSSE (https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Professors_Open_Source_Summer_Experience).
Scott: OK. Well, we’ve come to the end of our time. This has been a great interview from my end. I appreciate you taking some time to chat today.