With Fedora, Red Hat recreates its lost community

Members of Red Hat's Fedora Project community met for the first time last week.

With the open-source Fedora project, Red Hat is aiming to rebuild its links to the open source community and regain that community's input for its innovation process. The developers and users now contributing to the Fedora project -- which a Red Hat executive credited with providing the starting point for the company's latest Enterprise Linux release -- had their first-ever meeting at a conference on Friday in Boston.

Until the launch of the Fedora effort in 2003, users had no direct impact on Red Hat's software development process, and some of those users considered that to be to the company's detriment.

"Suddenly they released Red Hat Linux 7.0, which was a big disappointment," said Ed Hill, a post-doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), looking back at Red Hat's attempt to keep research and development within its walls. "They would have committed suicide if they had continued with that model."

Today, Hill and his group at MIT are using both Red Hat and Fedora software for what he calls their "ugly math computing." Hill is also part of the Fedora community, contributing his own code.

Michael Tiemann, vice president for open source affairs at Red Hat, is the first to admit that the company made a mistake by simply focusing on the enterprise computing market.

"We had a number of people inside of Red Hat who instinctively, one could say reflectively, declared that Red Hat needed to maintain an open source project. But they were unsuccessful in articulating that belief in a way that could be understood on an executive level," Tiemann said. "As the open source people at Red Hat continued to argue for the need for an alternative free distribution, I began to see how our product strategy was incomplete because this exclusive focus on (software release) stability would close up innovation."

After attending a conference at MIT in April 2003 about user-driven innovation, Tiemann was ready with arguments. He presented those to Red Hat management, leading to the decision to involve the user community. "We finally all agreed each for our own reason."

"We have been able to make advances ... that I think could not have been done in any other way," Tiemann said.

Approximately 100 developers and users participated at the Fedora conference last Friday. Don Hardaway, a professor at Saint Louis University was one of them. Although not contributing with any code, he considers himself a part of the community. "We are the eyes and ears for the engineers," he said, referring to his filing of bug reports.

Hardaway is unlikely to become a customer of Red Hat's commercial software. "Am I going to buy a Red Hat product? No!" he said. "I'm sold on Fedora!"

Tiemann doesn't see any problem with Hardaway's free ride. "For someone teaching students it is perfectly appropriate," he said. Students should not use the Enterprise version even if it was free because it is not evolving as rapid as the Fedora version, of which a new version should be out at least every six months, Tiemann said.

"My hope is that Fedora is so great that the students choose to become innovators and when they get a job they introduce Red Hat products at their companies," Tiemann said.

Support for MP3 tops Hardaway's wish list for Fedora. A wish in vain, according to Tiemann. "Fraunhofer, who owns the patent covering the MP3 compression algorithm, only allow download and not distribution. Fedora is a distribution so we can't include it," said Tiemann.

According to Red Hat, 120,000 downloads of the latest Fedora Core version were registered as of last week.

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