DPL: Debian project has plenty of money but not enough developers

Project leader Jonathan Carter explains problems facing this key Linux distro


Debian Project Leader (DPL) Jonathan Carter has described the key problems in the Debian community as not a lack of funds, but rather a shortage of volunteer developers.

The project is tiny in comparison to the many thousands of organisations that depend on it. Ubuntu is based on Debian, as are other well-known distributions including Devuan, Kali, Knoppix, LMDE, Raspberry Pi OS (formerly called Raspbian), SteamOS and Tails.

There are other distros based on Ubuntu, not only the official variants like Kubuntu and MATE, but also those from third parties like Linux Mint, Linspire and Zorin. Debian itself is also widely used for running server applications, whether on-premises or in public cloud. It is also completely free. No surprise then to find Google and AWS among the platinum sponsors of the recent DebConf20 gathering. Debian is supported by a non-profit US organisation called SPI (Software in the Public Interest).

'Debianites don’t like spending money. They feel guilty'

In his "state of Debian" address at the virtual DebConf20, Carter outlined the finances of the Debian project, which are healthy. Across several Debian organisations including SPI, the project has over $900,000 in the bank, he said, and “if we ever do need money for something, [sponsors] will be there to help us.”

Debian: “A bottomless pit of problems” according to Project Leader Jonathan Carter

Debian: “A bottomless pit of problems” according to Project Leader Jonathan Carter

The culture of the community is not to spend money unnecessarily. “Debianites don’t like spending money,” he said. “They feel guilty.” We assume this has led to its reliance on a small army of volunteer developers who end up shouldering all the work.

Statistics on who is toiling away on Debian can be found here. Currently there are 975 uploading developers and 223 maintainers. That is not enough, according to Carter. Debian is getting bigger, he said.

In 2009, there were 22,000 binary packages for the i386 architecture in Lenny, the current release at the time. Today there are over 61,000 amd64 binary packages in Bullseye, the forthcoming release. After Bullseye, “100,000 packages is a serious reality on the horizon,” he said. The project needs to focus more on scaling accordingly.

Currently too many people take on too much responsibility...

The biggest issue, though, is the people, not the processes. The work is demanding, he said. “Debian is a bottomless pit of problems. It’s inherent in the work we do. We’re affected by nearly every problem that exists in the realm of computer science.” This tends to attract volunteer developers who enjoy tough problems, and “it happens often that our lives are completely consumed by Debian,” he said.

“I’ve tried to calculate how much more volunteers we need to reach our goals to the levels we’d want and without increasing the stress on our current developers … at three times we could probably achieve all our goals. Currently too many people take on too much responsibility because they feel there is no one else who can do so.”

One possibility would be increased diversity. Carter is from South Africa and would particularly welcome more African developers, as well as more women, to work on the code. He also proposed increasing the number of local Debian events, such as mini conferences or user groups, which “lower the barrier of entry to the project.”

The way into Debian development should be made easier, he said, with better guides for onboarding, which may bring in more volunteer coders and maintainers.

The problem is not unique to Debian. Last month, Linux Foundation board member Sarah Novotny spoke to The Register about the challenge of lowering barriers to entry for new kernel developers.

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Another facet of the issue is that new packages can get stuck in the NEW queue awaiting approval. “It’s a sore point for many of us … many packages have got stuck there for a long time,” Carter said. This queue was at a record size earlier this year, though an effort from the team saw a big reduction in size in July.

The project is working to get itself better known, said Carter, but more can be done. They are talking to Lenovo about what it would take to get Debian on OEM laptops – though he remarked most Debian developers would immediately wipe and reinstall if they purchased such a thing. The biggest challenge, they learned, is having drivers for the latest hardware.

Typical Debian developers, said Carter, often use models that “aren’t available any more,” for example, old Thinkpads.

Despite Carter’s warnings about shortage of developers, it is also true that the capabilities and culture of the Debian project perform well and do a fantastic job both for the free software community, and for the many commercial organisations that depend on them.

“Debian developers are Debian users, too. The conflict between users and developers that often exists in the commercial world doesn’t exist on Debian,” explained Carter. Making it bigger and better known would only be a good thing if the culture that makes it work can be preserved.

The talk is available in the DebConf20 archive. ®


Intel CPU interconnects can be exploited by malware to leak encryption keys and other info, academic study finds

Side-channel ring race 'hard to mitigate with existing defenses'

Chip-busting boffins in America have devised yet another way to filch sensitive data by exploiting Intel's processor design choices.

Doctoral student Riccardo Paccagnella, master's student Licheng Luo, and assistant professor Christopher Fletcher, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, delved into the way CPU ring interconnects work, and found they can be abused for side-channel attacks. The upshot is that one application can infer another application's private memory and snoop on the user's key presses.

"It is the first attack to exploit contention on the cross-core interconnect of Intel CPUs," Paccagnella told The Register. "The attack does not rely on sharing memory, cache sets, core-private resources or any specific uncore structures. As a consequence, it is hard to mitigate with existing side channel defenses."

Side-channel attacks, like the 2018 Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, exploit characteristics of modern chip microarchitecture to expose or infer secrets through interaction with a shared computing component or resource.

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SolarWinds just keeps getting worse: New strain of backdoor malware found in probe

Plus: McAfee's in serious trouble over claimed cryptocurrency scam

In brief Another form of malware has been spotted on servers backdoored in the SolarWinds' Orion fiasco.

The strain, identified as SUNSHUTTLE by FireEye, is a second-stage backdoor written in Go which uses HTTPS to communicate with a command-and-control server for data exfiltration, adding new code as needed. Someone based in the US, perhaps at an infected organization, uploaded the malware to a public malware repository in August last year for analysis, well before the cyber-spying campaign became public.

Brandon Wales, acting director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, warned it could take 18 months to clean up this mess, and that's looking increasingly likely.

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Linus Torvalds issues early Linux Kernel update to fix swapfile SNAFU

‘Subtle and very nasty bug’ meant 5.12 rc1 could trash entire filesystems

Linux overlord Linus Torvalds has rushed out a new release candidate of Linux 5.12 after the first in the new series was found to include a ‘subtle and very nasty bug’ that was so serious he marked rc1 as unsuitable for use.

“We had a very innocuous code cleanup and simplification that raised no red flags at all, but had a subtle and very nasty bug in it: swap files stopped working right. And they stopped working in a particularly bad way: the offset of the start of the swap file was lost,” Torvalds wrote in a March 3rd post to the Linux Kernel Mailing List.

“Swapping still happened, but it happened to the wrong part of the filesystem, with the obvious catastrophic end results.”

So catastrophic that, as Torvalds explained, “you can end up with a filesystem that is essentially overwritten by random swap data.”

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Remember that day in March 2020 when you were asked to get the business working from home – tomorrow, if possible? Here's how that worked out

IT pros from orgs large and small tell The Reg the tech delivered, mostly, but couriers and home Wi-Fi suddenly became your problem

Covid Logfile Brianna Haley was given one day to be ready to roll out Zoom for 13,000 users at over 1,000 sites.

Haley* is a project analyst for a large healthcare provider that, as COVID-19 marched across the world in March 2020, realised imminent lockdowns meant it would soon be unable to consult with patients.

And no consultations meant no revenue.

"I got called into a meeting at 7:30 or 8:30 on Monday morning and was told we had to get Zoom done by tomorrow," Haley recalls.

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The torture garden of Microsoft Exchange: Grant us the serenity to accept what they cannot EOL

Time to fix those legacy evils, though.... right?

Column It is the monster which corrupts all it touches. It is an energy-sucking vampire that thrives on the pain it promotes. It cannot be killed, but grows afresh as each manifestation outdoes the last in awfulness and horror. It is Microsoft Exchange and its drooling minion, Outlook.

Let us start with the most numerous of its victims, the end users. Chances are, you are one. You may be numbed by lifelong exposure, your pain receptors and critical faculties burned out though years of corrosion. You might be like me, an habitual avoider whose work requirements periodically force its tentacles back in through the orifices.

I have recently started to use it through its web interface, where it doesn’t update the unread flags, hides attachments, multiplies browser instances, leaves temp files all over my download directory, tangles threads, botches searchers and so on.

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Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy a beer: Beware the downloaded patch applied in haste

Let us tell you a tale of the Mailman's Apprentice

Who, Me? The weekend is over and Monday is here. Celebrate your IT prowess with another there-but-for-the-grace confession from the Who, Me? archives.

Our tale, from a reader the Regomiser has elected to dub "Simon", takes us back to the early part of this century and to an anonymous antipodean institution of learning.

Simon was working at the local Student Union (or "guild" as the locals called it), which was having problems with uppity education staff censoring the emissions of students. Simon was therefore commissioned to set up a fully independent newsletter.

"We had scored access to the Oracle user database," he said, "but only via the awful Filemaker Mac database. So I built a bridge to export it out to MySQL.

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US National Security Council urges review of Exchange Servers in wake of Hafnium attack

Don't just patch, check for p0wnage, says top natsec team

The Biden administration has urged users of Microsoft's Exchange mail and messaging server to ensure they have not fallen victim to the recently-detected "Hafnium" attack on Exchange Server that Microsoft says originated in China.

Microsoft revealed the attack last week and released Exchange security updates.

The Biden administration’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) followed up with a March 5 general advisory encouraging upgrades to on-premises Exchange environments. Another advisory on 6 March upped the ante as follows:

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Delayed, overbudget and broken. Of course Microsoft's finest would be found in NASA's Orion

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream (as Windows crashes again)

BORK!BORK!BORK! Getting astronauts to the Moon or Mars is the least of NASA's problems. Persuading Microsoft Windows not to fall over along the way is apparently a far greater challenge.

Spotted by Register reader Scott during a visit to the otherwise excellent Space Center Houston, there is something all too real lurking within the mock-up of the Orion capsule in which NASA hopes to send its astronauts for jaunts beyond low Earth orbit.

Clutched in the hand of a mannequin posed in the capsule's hatch is a reminder of both how old space tech tends to be and a warning for space-farers intending to take Microsoft's finest out for a spin.

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NASA shows Mars that humans can drive a remote control space tank at .01 km/h

Perseverance takes first drive around landing spot named in honor of seminal sci-fi author Octavia E. Butler

NASA’s Perseverance rover trekked across Mars for the first time last Thursday, March 4, 2021.

The vehicle went four whole meters forward, turned 150 degrees to the left, then moved another two-and-a-half meters. The entire drive covered a whopping 6.5 m (21.3 feet) across Martian terrain. The journey took about 33 minutes.

The Register ran that through a calculator and deduces the nuclear powered laser-equipped space tank, aka Perseverance, sped along at the astounding velocity of .01km/h, quite a comedown from the 19,310 km/h at which it entered the red planet’s atmosphere.

In a press release, NASA said:

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University of the Highlands and Islands shuts down campuses as it deals with 'ongoing cyber incident'

Ten letters, starts with R, ends with E, three syllables

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland is fending off "an ongoing cyber incident" that has shut down its campuses.

In a message to students and staff yesterday afternoon, the institution, which spans 13 locations across the northernmost part of the UK, warned that "most services" – including its Brightspace virtual learning environment – were affected.

"We are currently working to isolate and minimise impact from this incident with assistance from external partners. We do not believe personal data has been affected," said the university, adding: "The source of the incident is not yet known."

An email sent to students and published on UHI's website said that its Office 365, Cisco Webex, OneDrive, Teams, and email services, among others, were not affected by the apparent intrusion. Administrators reiterated they didn't believe personal data had been affected.

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