What happens when a Debian derivative shuts down?
Over the past months we have seen the end of two Debian derivatives. In January the news came that Junta de Extremadura (Spain) were abandoning the development of LinEx and switching to Debian itself. Early in March the Debian derivatives census scripts noted that the Vanillux apt repository was down. Fabrice Quenneville then confirmed that he had to put a hold on the Vanillux project due to the cost of bandwidth and servers. In addition the future of StormOS is in doubt after Illumian was created. StormOS is a port of Debian to the OpenSolaris kernel and Illumian is similar but uses only apt/dpkg and repackages everything else.
The LinEx page in the Debian derivatives census did not reveal much information about the project that would have been useful to Debian, in particular it does not list any apt repositories. As a result it is quite hard to say what has potentially been lost. Two mails from people close to or involved in the project indicate that much of the LinEx distribution was already merged into Debian. It is probably safe to say that everything of value has been merged into Debian, including at least one of the developers involved in LinEx.
Vanillux was a small distribution with few developers according to the Google caches of their website. If we look at the patches created by the derivatives census scripts, we can see that the 5 source packages that were possibly derived from Debian source packages were simply imported from Christian Marillat's repository of non-free, patented, legally restricted and multimedia-related packages. The patches indicate that 3 source packages were forked from Debian and that 2 source packages were done from scratch. The forked packages seem to be mainly about enabling support for proprietary and patented codecs in several programs. This is a surprisingly small number of altered/differing packages, so what else could Vanillux folks have been working on? It appears that there were 12 new source packages that were not derived from Debian source packages. These appear to be mainly multimedia-related packages, one font imported from an Ubuntu PPA, some syslinux themes and a metapackage. The multimedia packages are all from Christian Marillat's repository. The Debian multimedia team is working hard on bringing multimedia related software to Debian and welcomes help with that. The font (Cantarell) is now in Debian under a different source package name. The metapackage appears to be very similar to from the ubuntu-meta source package from Ubuntu that uses germinate. So at first glance, the contribution of Vanillux to the world of Linux distributions appears to be in the area of artwork and package selection. The artwork produced is basically Vanillux branding and is thus not usable by Debian, although we would like more artists involved in Debian. The meta-package is not easily useful to Debian since we use a different mechanism for our task packages and our task packages have already been updated for the GNOME 3 transition. Still, the amount of difference between to source packages is relatively small. So, what else? Perusing the diff between the list of source packages exposed by the Packages and Sources files, I noted that a number of binary packages in the Packages files reference source packages not listed in the Sources files. When I saw picasa in that list, it occurred to me that Vanillux might have directly imported some binary packages without their corresponding source packages. Perusing their apt metadata confirms that they have imported some binary packages of non-free software directly from vendors. These include Google Desktop, Opera, Picasa and VirtualBox 3.2. The rest of the packages in the diff appear to be caused by some sort of issue with the import process from Debian and other apt repos. Most of the above could be achieved by adding some external commerical repositories to a normal Debian system or by merging some of those repositories (such as the Opera one) into Debian.
The interesting thing about the Debian derivatives census is that it allows us to perform analyses like these and figure out what patches and packages we might like to integrate into Debian. In this way we can salvage some of the value of our derivatives if they abandon ship.
If you have any ideas or code for improving the census or are running a Debian derivative, please join us at the Debian derivatives frontdesk.