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Getting Involved in Open Source

By Andrew Feinberg

How to join and render help to the Linux community.

Linux has always been maintained by volunteers. In fact, the ``gift culture'' of the Open Source community has always been one of its strong points. However, the majority of users who would like to contribute do not know how to get involved. This article will discuss aspects of becoming active in the Open Source community and contributing to the Linux kernel and other projects, including my experiences with becoming involved in the Debian project.

The Kernel

The contributors file in /usr/src/linux on my home system is huge. My linux-kernel mailing list folder is always full of mail from people, eagerly discussing the ins and outs of improving this operating system. Many people assume that Linus is the sole author of Linux. Not true, I tell them. Linux is the prime example of the ``benevolent dictator'' model of open-source development. A prospective developer submits code to Linus or one of the few ``lieutenants'' such as Alan Cox. They decide what will go into the kernel.

Another scenario is that certain parts of the kernel, such as the kernel NFS system, have a maintainer. Code is submited to them, and they decide what goes into their part of the kernel. Occasionally, Linus or someone will ask for a person to take over a part of the kernel. If you volunteer, make sure you know the code and can handle the responsibility of maintaining it and accepting patches. Be prepared to handle loads of mail if something breaks. Also, make sure you are on the linux-kernel mailing list.


One of the more exciting developments in the past year has been the effort to provide Linux with an easy to use desktop. One of the two front-runners in that effort has been GNOME: the GNU Network Object Model Environment. Unlike the kernel, GNOME uses CVS, a version control system, to keep track of code submitted by developers around the world. This eliminates the need for someone to patch sources by hand to create an upgrade. To get CVS access to GNOME, send mail to Miguel de Icaza (miguel@kernel.org). Include a description of what code you will be writing, along with an encrypted password. More information is available at http://www.gnome.org/.


Debian GNU/Linux is unique in that unlike most other distributions, it is maintained entirely by a team of volunteers from all over the world. Becoming a Debian developer entails your maintaining a package; that is, you will make sure the latest version is on the Debian FTP site and that bugs get fixed as soon as possible fixes are done by you, if you package your own software, or the upstream maintainer, if you package someone else's software. or the software of a project such as GNOME or Mozilla. Because developers can place packages into the distribution tree, Debian is rather strict on security issues, especially when it comes to letting new developers into the project. A PGP key, (or coming soon, GNUPG) key is a must, and this key must be signed by another Debian developer. This may seem Draconian, but it is imperative that they be sure that the developers are who they say they are. After they receive your PGP/GPG key (signed), someone may call you for a telephone interview. This will consist of asking you a few questions, generally about the package(s) you intend to maintain. The whole process takes time, but it ensures the distribution is secure.

Wrapping It Up

The open-source development model allows talented people to collaborate on projects from across the world. If someone feels they have something useful to contribute, they can. This article only touches on three projects. The Open Source movement is truly a ``gift culture''. You are judged by what you have contributed and the quality of your code. Countless projects are out there that can benefit from the assistance of the community. With your help, they can flourish, and you may be ``known by your initials''.



Debian GNU/Linux:
http://www.debian.org/devel (Developer Information)

The Linux Kernel Mailing List: http://www.tux.org/hypermail/linux-kernel/ (archives)
To subscribe, send mail to majordomo@vger.rutgers.edu with subscribe linux-kernel in the body.

Copyright © 1999, Andrew Feinberg
Published in Issue 43 of Linux Gazette, July 1999