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Harbingers for Novell

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A couple of years ago, some pilot friends and I flew up to South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore. Among the sites we visited while we were in Rapid City was the tour of Ellsworth Air Force Base, where we were allowed to climb down into an intercontinental ballistic missile training silo located on the base.

While the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union has long since faded, it felt more than a little strange being in that training facility, knowing that at one time real-life versions of the huge missile mock-up was trained to rain nuclear death on some Eastern Bloc city.

What struck me most odd, though, was the map of the old ICBM and NORAD facilities that was painted on the wall of the stairwell of the silo. This, I thought at the time, would have been something the old KGB would have been very interested. History had rendered the value of such information worthless here in the 21 Century.

But there are still lessons NORAD, the distant early-warning/command and control system used by the US to keep a watchful eye on its nuclear foes back in the day, can teach us.

Students of history and current events know that certain events can be early-warning signs of things to come. I am a big believer in the cause-and-effect model of history: World War I was not started by the decision to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife... a plethora of decisions and actions before and after predicated the coming of the "War to End All Wars." The Cold War wasn't started by an "evil" Soviet Union alone... the consequences of the actions of all the nation-states involved in World War II shaped the inevitable 40-year stare-down between East and West.

If we are patient, and observant, we can sometimes see the small, yet critical, signs of larger things to come. I think I have observed just such events this week... events which will not bode well for Novell, Inc.

Smart-alecks (and I can count myself among them) would razz Novell at this point and mention that the point where things obviously went wrong was the moment they decided to enter a partnership deal with Microsoft. Yeah, yeah, ha ha. But while the ultimate punch line seems obvious, it really isn't. Everyone knew that Novell was going to have to brace a storm following this announcement. What I don't think they knew is how big a storm it would be.

On December 18, the portent of the storm's size was revealed when Debian release manager Andreas Barth stated on his blog that several Debian developers were deliberately slowing down their contributions to the Debian Project because of their objections to Dunc-Tank.org. Dunc-Tank is a group Debian volunteers who have raised money that can be used to pay developers and release managers like Barth to work more on Debian and not lose compensation from their "real" jobs.

When Dunc-Tank was first announced back in September, there was a huge uproar in the Debian community, as opponents predicted the formation of a two-class development society in the Debian Project. Debian Project Leader Anthony Towns supported the Dunc-Tank concept--indeed, he's a member--and almost had his leadership revoked when Dunc-Tank critics issued a recall vote request. Towns survived the recall vote by a fair margin, but it's clear some of the opponents are still ticked off.

If you were to ask me, I'd say that this kind of thing is only damaging to the Debian Project. While I personally love my job, there are a number of volunteer activities I would love to undertake, if I could only afford to do it. In other words, the money would have to come from somewhere, because my family and I need to eat.

So I don't see how getting compensation to work on Debian full-time for a while from a central funding pool is going to corrupt the moral authority of Debian. Slowing down Etch is only going to justify commercial entities like Canonical are the only ones who can get a Debian release out on time.

But ultimately my opinion here doesn't matter. Even though I disagree with the premise of the Debian developers' protest, I do respect their right to protest. When people feel strongly about something, they should have the right to make their opinions known, even if that protest means taking drastic (legal) actions.

And, getting back to my original point, it is imperative that Novell recognizes the Dunc-Tank protest as a sign of things to come for them. Because while I and and a number of other people in the community can make impassioned arguments as to why the Dunc-Tank protests should not happen, it does not change the fact that they are going to protest.

Today's announcement by lead Samba developer Jeremy Allison that he was resigning his position at Novell doesn't make sense to some on the outside. They aren't Jeremy, and they don't understand why he would give up a paying job on a principle that technically hasn't been violated. Yet. But Jeremy did resign, because he felt it was the right thing to do.

Many of my colleagues in the press have said in print or in private that they don't think the community should protest the Microsoft-Novell agreement, because the community just doesn't realize the long-term benefits such an arrangement will have for Linux. To them, protesting this partnership doesn't make sense. Novell really believes they are doing the right thing, so they fundamentally don't understand why protesting would happen.

Here's the thing... even if you marshal all of the logic in the world on why you shouldn't protest the Microsoft-Novell agreement--it's going to be protested anyway.

Dunc-Tank and the resignation of Allison are two events that should serve as early warnings of much larger actions by the community. Whether you agree with the motivations of these actions does not diminish the fact that they are harbingers of the storm to come.

This is not just a community of technically inclined geeks. This is a community of believers. They don't all believe in the same thing, but they have all chosen to be a part of free and open source software movement. Whether as users, programmers, administrators... free software means something important to them. If they didn't care, they'd all be Windows users.

So you can pooh-pooh the opinions of the community as idealistic, out-of-date, or whatever derisive label you care to apply.

But ignore the community? Not likely.

They care. And right or wrong, they will take action on things they deem unjust.

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