How Linux distributions are fighting COVID-19

Project Pandemic

© Lead Image © Iksana Mironova, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © Iksana Mironova, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 236/2020
Author(s):

Several leading Linux distributions are taking steps to address the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Distributions – aka "distros" – shape our experiences of Linux. All Linux distros use the Linux kernel, but the package managers, applications, and other components can vary dramatically. Currently, DistroWatch lists 273 distros, many designed for specialized purposes, such as video editing or retrogaming, and switching from one to another often feels like changing operating systems.

In the coming months, this column will explore the diversity of Linux distributions. At times, I will cover the plans for upcoming general releases. At other times, I may present a roundup of some of the projects that contributors to Linux distributions develop on their own. The distros on this month's DVD will always be featured – and other distros will be mentioned only as space and topics allow.

As I write this article, one topic that seems to be in the media is the spread of COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic has had a major impact on companies like Apple and Google, partly because of their business model and partly because most of their manufacturing is in China, which was hit early and hard. Many major corporations have met with the World Health Organization to discuss how to handle the accompanying infodemic of misleading news about COVID-19 [1]. Some tech companies have also announced plans to help combat the pandemic. Apple, for instance, is developing face shields, and auto companies like GM and Tesla [2] have plans for using automotive parts to produce ventilators for victims of the virus with respiratory problems.

By contrast, free and open source software (FOSS) appears to have been less affected by the pandemic. Hardware is still a minor part of FOSS, and the community is already set up to work remotely. Although in-person conferences are being replaced by chat and video meetings, in general, the daily work of FOSS appears to be continuing the same as always, although many projects are finding ways to fight the pandemic as well.

Here is a sampling of the ways that several major Linux distributions are responding to the pandemic. Other distributions are responding more quietly.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu is developed by Canonical, a company created by Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth. Canonical is rumored to be looking ahead to either a sale or a public stock offering, so naturally, much of the response to the pandemic sounds similar to that of other tech corporations. Canonical is emphasizing continuity of its services. In mid-March, Pete Graner, vice president of Global Support Services, blogged that "All engineers work from home and are distributed globally. This is not a new position for Canonical – our Support Teams have been remote workers since the company was founded. We are currently based in over 40 countries and are not susceptible to impacts to any one country" [3].

A few days later, Shuttleworth announced [4] that Canonical had shifted entirely to remote work: "With remote colleagues by default, and a policy of flexible office work, Canonical was well-placed for the adjustments needed globally to slow the spread of COVID-19. We have given our teams space and time to ensure those vulnerable close to them are as shielded as possible, and to enable them to make any needed childcare arrangements. We have moved the teams who previously did work in offices of finance, design, inside sales, and device enablement to remote work and assigned mentors to those groups for the transition." Shuttleworth added that all Canonical support services remain available 24x7 and that the company was prepared for up to 15 percent absenteeism.

openSUSE

The pandemic hit openSUSE as it planned a joint conference with LibreOffice for October 2020 [5]. Restrictions and lock down make planning so far in advance almost impossible. As the organizing committee writes, "Travel restrictions, flights, hotel and venue availability, event capacity, and our community members' ability to attend the conference are all factors we are considering. We hope to make a decision about the conference at the latest by mid-June." Meanwhile, the deadline for submissions is July 21. A virtual conference remains a possibility, as happened with SUSECON 2020, which was originally scheduled to take place in Dublin.

Planet openSUSE [6] also includes regular reports by Ish Sookun on how the pandemic is being handled in Mauritius, a country not usually mentioned in the media. Sookun's accounts are an example of how FOSS's worldwide presence sometimes has interesting side effects.

Fedora

As an emergency was declared, Fedora was in the middle of the beta for Fedora 32. Matthew Miller, the Fedora project leader, reported in Fedora Magazine that the testing for the release had been so far unaffected [7] in fact, ultimately, Fedora 32 was released on schedule. However, writing in March, Miller was prepared for the rest of the release period to be different. Addressing Fedora members, he wrote: "I want to make one thing very clear: Do not feel bad if you cannot contribute to the level you want to. We always appreciate what you do for the Fedora community, but your health – both physical and mental – is more important than shipping a release. As of right now, we're planning to continue on schedule, but we understand that the situation is changing rapidly. We're working on contingency plans, and the option of delaying Fedora 32 release remains on the table." In addition, Fedora has canceled live events until at least the end of May.

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