The CentOS developers were ready to burn the place down if their AWOL project founder didn't show up and resolve several outstanding issues that put the popular Open Source project and Linux distribution at risk.
For those of us in the "Inside Baseball' crowd in Open Source, a lot of armchair quarterbacking has been going on vis-a-vis the Open Letter that was published by the CentOS developers on July 30th which was addressed to Lance Davis, the founder and one of the lead developers of the CentOS project, one of the most-used free Linux distributions on the planet.
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As I wrote about in my round up of free Enterprise-class OSes, CentOS is a free source-level clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Along with Scientific Linux, which is a separate distribution developed by Fermilab and CERN, these two distributions are the Linux of choice for environments wanting all the rock-solid stability of RHEL but don't want or need Red Hat's commercial technical support.
CentOS and Scientific Linux are built on the published GPLv2 source of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, are re-compiled without Red Hat's trademark logos, and use the community YUM package manager for updates rather than Red Hat Network, which is a commercial, fee-based support update service. CentOS in particular is used by a number of appliance and virtual appliance vendors, such as Kickfire and Schooner Information Technology in order to produce turnkey systems for security, storage, web applications and databases.In short, the CentOS developers were brought to the brink of rebellion and walking away from the popular project because its founder, Lance Davis, had disappeared in 2008, ceased contribution to the project, and was holding the keys to the centos.org domain and the project's PayPal accounts. None of this was popular knowledge until the following letter was published on the CentOS project web site on July 31:
July 30, 2009 04:39 UTC
This is an Open Letter to Lance Davis from fellow CentOS Developers
It is regrettable that we are forced to send this letter but we are left with no other options. For some time now we have been attempting to resolve these problems:
You seem to have crawled into a hole ... and this is not acceptable.
You have long promised a statement of CentOS project funds; to this date this has not appeared.
You hold sole control of the centos.org domain with no deputy; this is not proper.
You have, it seems, sole 'Founders' rights in the IRC channels with no deputy ; this is not proper.
When I (Russ) try to call the phone numbers for UK Linux, and for you individually, I get a telco intercept 'Lines are temporarily busy' for the last two weeks. Finally yesterday, a voicemail in your voice picked up, and I left a message urgently requesting a reply. Karanbir also reports calling and leaving messages without your reply.
Please do not kill CentOS through your fear of shared management of the project.
Clearly the project dies if all the developers walk away.
Please contact me, or any other signer of this letter at once, to arrange for the required information to keep the project alive at the 'centos.org' domain.
Russ Herrold Ralph Angenendt Karanbir Singh Jim Perrin Donavan Nelson Tim Verhoeven Tru Huynh Johnny Hughes
Over this weekend on August 1, Lance Davis put his tail between his legs, made a rare appearance and surrendered the centos.org domain to the project, and the project made a statement that other administrative issues were in the process of being resolved:
The CentOS Development team had a routine meeting today with Lance Davis in attendance. During the meeting a majority of issues were resolved immediately and a working agreement was reached with deadlines for remaining unresolved issues. There should be no impact to any CentOS users going forward.
# CentOS is not dead or going away. The signers of the Open Letter are fully committed to continue the CentOS Project. Updates and new releases will continue.
# Most of the Issues have been resolved, there is an action plan with agreed upon dates for any outstanding issues.
# The CentOS Project now owns the CentOS.org and CentOS.info domains and there will be no disruption in services.
# We thank the people who have stepped forward and want to donate to the CentOS project. We ask that you hold off for now until issues surrounding our new donation policy are put into place.
# The CentOS Project is run completely by volunteers and we are aware that this requires a different management style. We have been and continue to work to prevent issues like these from occurring in the future. We will continue this effort in the future, look for some new policy information soon.
So everything is being resolved, CentOS is getting its act together, and we can all go about our business. Nothing to see here, move along. Move along. Right?
Frankly, I am absolutely amazed that such a high-profile Open Source project could continue in operation without addressing who was in control of its financials as well as its Internet presence. This particular incident raises a whole bunch of questions as to how large Open Source projects should be managed and who should be made accountable.
For starters, there needs to be clear policies of who is going to administer what, and that there should never, ever be a situation where one person holding the keys to the domain or any key administrative and financial accounts can just walk away and leave the developers holding their you-know-whats in their hands. This behavior is absolutely abysmal and Davis should be lucky not to walk out of this with civil charges pressed against him.
CentOS, if it isn't already, should also immediately seek Not-For-Profit status in either the UK or the United States, where contributions made to it can be tax deductible. A formalization of the organization as a Not-For-Profit corporation (in the US, this is referred to as a 501(c)3 under the US tax codes) would require a number of bylaws as well as officers responsible for the welfare of the Corporation. This is exactly how the other two high profile community Linux distributions, Debian and Ubuntu operate in public, as do several of the BSD Unixes.
There is also the question of whether or not it makes sense for there to be two community-driven Red Hat clones. Scientific Linux, while under the stewardship of Fermilab and CERN, two very stable organizations, only has a small amount of developers working on it. It might behoove both Scientific and CentOS to join forces and pool their resources in producing a single "Mother Distribution" which both can be based on, and form a Not-for-Profit organization that can be made responsible for the non-technical administravia and financial aspects that will ensure their continuance.
Did the CentOS imbroglio with its developers shock you as well? Talk Back and Let Me Know.