openSUSE settles down to open governance

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 26, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Spun off from Novell in August 2005, the openSUSE distribution has struggled to build a thriving community ever since. One of the major steps in this process occurred in October 2008, when the project voted for its first elected board. Seven months later, project leaders are judging the elected board a success, partly because of the free software credibility it brings, but mainly because of its involvement with other community-building activities.

In the year before the election, openSUSE had been governed by a board appointed by Novell. This original board had the responsibility of overseeing the transition of the board from Novell's direct control to a more community-based model. From the first, one of the tasks of the board was to organize the process for electing the next board, setting up the process and deciding who in the community was eligible to vote.

In August 2008, an election committee of community members and Novell representatives was established. In the October elections, Pascal Bleser and Bryan Yunashko were elected as community members, and Federico Mena-Quintero and Henne Vogelsang as Novell representatives. Shortly after the election, Michael Loeffler was appointed by Novell as chairman.

As defined in openSUSE's Guiding Principles, the board does not decide on technical decisions, such as the project road map or the release cycle. Instead, its role is defined as resolving conflicts, improving communication, and assisting other parts of the project to make decisions. Essentially, the board is meant to coordinate rather than control.

Reasons for change
Because an elected board was always the intention, openSUSE leaders contacted for this story were unanimous that the elected board was not so much a shift in governance as the execution of a plan.

"The bootstrap board was a necessity the first time around because the project needed to figure out how it was going to govern itself -- specifically, who was going to be responsible for voting for the board," said Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, openSUSE community manager. "The bootstrap board, chosen by Novell, helped clear that path and approve the first round of members who ultimately wound up voting on the current board."

All the same, the impetus to have openSUSE become more independent of Novell was strong. Just as the Fedora distribution was initially criticized for being too dependent on Red Hat, so openSUSE has criticized for being a subsidiary of Novell and its SUSE Linux Enterprise distribution. Moreover, criticism of Novell's dealings with Microsoft frequently spills over to openSUSE, so the need of independence to prove credibility was even greater for openSUSE than for Fedora (even if openSUSE leaders refuse to discuss the issue).

At the same time, the move was also motivated by strong internal reasons. "I think Novell wanted to align the openSUSE project more with the open source community ideals," said Yunashko.

Similarly, Brockmeier said that, "While the Novell-appointed board was a great group of contributors for the project, it's not quite the same thing as a group selected by the community itself. The community is also going to select some people to sit on the board that the company or its representatives wouldn't have thought of, which is really important."

Moving to open governance
Looking back at the seven months since the board election, Brockmeier described the change as "pretty much seamless." So far as basic governance goes, he appears to be right. For instance, when Federico Mena-Quintero resigned his seat on the board last week, pleading overwork, the remaining members of the board immediately appointed Stephen Shaw, the runner up in the election, to serve out the rest of Mena-Quintero's term. The potentially precedence-setting decision was made with little debate and few complaints within the project.

However, Brockmeier added that the elected board "has been a little more active, meets (if I recall correctly) a bit more regularly, and is a little more visible than the first board."

Vogelsang seconded this impression. According to him, the board participates in most of the activities that define openSUSE and make involvement in the project easier. To start with, the board oversees openSUSE membership approval. It has also re-defined and streamlined the process for contributing to the project by organizing the project into development teams, which spreads day to day decision making more broadly. In addition, it is also setting trademark and licensing guidelines, and increasing access to the project through such features as <a openFATE, the feature-tracking service, and openSUSE Build Service. Many of these initiatives are planned and carried out in cooperation with Brockmeier in his role as community manager.

"We try to keep structure out of the way and just do things," Vogelsang said. "I think this is in the general spirit of FOSS."
Less tangibly, Yunashko summarized the elected board as " just one aspect of a larger push to make openSUSE more open."

"I think for the community, as stakeholders in the project, [the elected board] gave them a real sense of empowerment and a more meritocratic environment in how issues are discussed and determined," Yunashko added. "For individuals who may wish to approach project leadership, the Board added a place of accessibility by anyone in the community who wished to discuss ideas, seek guidance, or air their grievances, without feeling like they have to approach some corporate behemoth.
"All of this really, in my opinion, follows along with a lifelong adage that I apply to my work, which is, 'If you want more power, learn to give it away,' said Yunashko. "Novell and its employees realize that for openSUSE to succeed, it must release its hold on the project. In my opinion, they're doing a great job going down that path."

The foundation and the future
So far, the board has been operating mostly within the project. However, in the last few months, it has started to look outwards as well. In particular, it is investigating the creation of a non-profit openSUSE Foundation, which would make fund raising and distribution easier.

"We want to continue making the project more open and independent," Brockmeier said. "Part of that includes having resources that the board and project can direct to the areas that it feels are most vital to grown and support of the project. The project needs to be able to accept donations directly, rather than Novell holding the funds, and it needs to be abe to decide where to deploy those funds to best effect."
So far, the board has investigated Software in the Public Interest (SPI), the umbrella organization whose members include Debian, Drupal,, and PostgreSQL, as well as KDE e.V., the German non-profit that administers KDE. However, no decision has been made yet on the matter.

Otherwise, no major changes in openSUSE's governance are currently planned -- "just continual improvements and adjustments as necessary to suit the healthy and growth of the project," as Brockmeier put it.

Like Fedora's, openSUSE's movement towards community governance can be criticized as limited. On both boards, positions are reserved for the sponsoring company, to say nothing of the appointment of the chair. In fact, with two members and the chair, Novell retains a clear majority on the openSUSE board. However, relinquishing control is likely too much to expect of a public company, even with the influence of the software ethos.

Just as importantly, within this limitation, electing a board does seem to have played a major part in openSUSE's efforts at community-building. The extent to which the board leads these efforts or merely reflects them is difficult to say. Yet what is clear is that the current board is at the center of them, and often providing hands-on leadership as well.

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