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1.3. The Inner Workings of the Debian Project

The abundant end results produced by the Debian project derive simultaneously from the work on the infrastructure performed by experienced Debian developers, from the individual or collective work of developers on Debian packages, and from user feedback.

1.3.1. The Debian Developers

Debian developers have various responsibilities, and as official project members, they have great influence on the direction the project takes. A Debian developer is generally responsible for at least one package, but according to their available time and desire, they are free to become involved in numerous teams, thus acquiring more responsibilities within the project.
Package maintenance is a relatively regimented activity, very documented or even regulated. It must, in effect, comply with all the standards established by the Debian Policy. Fortunately, there are many tools that facilitate the maintainer's work. The developer can, thus, focus on the specifics of their package and on more complex tasks, such as squashing bugs.
The Policy, an essential element of the Debian Project, establishes the norms ensuring both the quality of the packages and perfect interoperability of the distribution. Thanks to this Policy, Debian remains consistent despite its gigantic size. This Policy is not fixed in stone, but continuously evolves thanks to proposals formulated on the mailing list. Amendments that are agreed upon by all interested parties are accepted and applied to the text by a small group of maintainers who have no editorial responsibility (they only include the modifications agreed upon by the Debian developers that are members of the above-mentioned list). You can read current amendment proposals on the bug tracking system:
The Policy provides considerable cover of the technical aspects of packaging. The size of the project also raises organizational problems; these are dealt with by the Debian Constitution, which establishes a structure and means for decision making. In other words, a formal governance system.
This constitution defines a certain number of roles and positions, plus responsibilities and authorities for each. It is particularly worth noting that Debian developers always have ultimate decision making authority by a vote of general resolution, wherein a qualified majority of three quarters (75%) of votes is required for significant alterations to be made (such as those with an impact on the Foundation Documents). However, developers annually elect a “leader” to represent them in meetings, and ensure internal coordination between varying teams. This election is always a period of intense discussions. This leader's role is not formally defined by any document: candidates for this post usually propose their own definition of the position. In practice, the leader's roles include serving as a representative to the media, coordinating between “internal” teams, and providing overall guidance to the project, within which the developers can relate: the views of the DPL are implicitly approved by the majority of project members.
Specifically, the leader has real authority; their vote resolves tie votes; they can make any decision which is not already under the authority of someone else and can delegate part of their responsibilities.
Since its inception, the project has been successively led by Ian Murdock, Bruce Perens, Ian Jackson, Wichert Akkerman, Ben Collins, Bdale Garbee, Martin Michlmayr, Branden Robinson, Anthony Towns, Sam Hocevar, Steve McIntyre, Stefano Zacchiroli, Lucas Nussbaum, Mehdi Dogguy, Chris Lamb and Sam Hartman.
The constitution also defines a “technical committee”. This committee's essential role is to decide on technical matters when the developers involved have not reached an agreement between themselves. Otherwise, this committee plays an advisory role for any developer who fails to make a decision for which they are responsible. It is important to note that they only get involved when invited to do so by one of the parties in question.
Finally, the constitution defines the position of “project secretary”, who is in charge of the organization of votes related to the various elections and general resolutions.
The “general resolution” procedure is fully detailed in the constitution, from the initial discussion period to the final counting of votes. The most interesting aspect of that process is that when it comes to an actual vote, developers have to rank the different ballot options between them and the winner is selected with a Condorcet method (more specifically, the Schulze method). For further details see:
Even if this constitution establishes a semblance of democracy, the daily reality is quite different: Debian naturally follows the free software rules of the do-ocracy: the one who does things gets to decide how to do them. A lot of time can be wasted debating the respective merits of various ways to approach a problem; the chosen solution will be the first one that is both functional and satisfying… which will come out of the time that a competent person did put into it.
This is the only way to earn one's stripes: do something useful and show that one has worked well. Many Debian “administrative” teams operate by co-optation, preferring volunteers who have already effectively contributed and proved their competence. The public nature of the work of those teams makes it possible for new contributors to observe and start helping without any special privilege. This is why Debian is often described as a “meritocracy”.
This effective operational method guarantees the quality of contributors in the “key” Debian teams. This method is by no means perfect and occasionally there are those who do not accept this way of operating. The selection of developers accepted in the teams may appear a bit arbitrary, or even unfair. Furthermore, not everybody has the same definition of the service expected from these teams. For some, it is unacceptable to have to wait eight days for inclusion of a new Debian package, while others will wait patiently for three weeks without a problem. As such, there are regular complaints from the disgruntled about the “quality of service” from some teams.

1.3.2. The Active Role of Users

One might wonder if it is relevant to mention the users among those who work within the Debian project, but the answer is a definite yes: they play a critical role in the project. Far from being “passive”, some users run development versions of Debian and regularly file bug reports to indicate problems. Others go even further and submit ideas for improvements, by filing a bug report with a severity level of “wishlist”, or even submit corrections to the source code, called “patches” (see Secțiune 1.3.2.3, „Sending fixes”).

1.3.2.1. Reporting bugs

The fundamental tool for submitting bugs in Debian is the Debian Bug Tracking System (Debian BTS), which is used by large parts of the project. The public part (the web interface) allows users to view all bugs reported, with the option to display a sorted list of bugs selected according to various criteria, such as: affected package, severity, status, address of the reporter, address of the maintainer in charge of it, tag, etc. It is also possible to browse the complete historical listing of all discussions regarding each of the bugs.
Below the surface, the Debian BTS is e-mail based: all information that it stores comes from messages sent by the various persons involved. Any e-mail sent to will, thus, be assigned to the history for bug number 12345. Authorized persons may “close” a bug by writing a message describing the reasons for the decision to close to (a bug is closed when the indicated problem is resolved or no longer relevant). A new bug is reported by sending an e-mail to according to a specific format which identifies the package in question. The address allows editing of all the “meta-information” related to a bug.
The Debian BTS has other functional features, as well, such as the use of tags for labeling bugs. For more information, see
Users can also use the command line to send bug reports on a Debian package with the reportbug tool. It helps making sure the bug in question hasn't already been filed, thus preventing redundancy in the system. It reminds the user of the definitions of the severity levels, for the report to be as accurate as possible (the developer can always fine-tune these parameters later, if needed). It helps writing a complete bug report without the user needing to know the precise syntax, by writing it and allowing the user to edit it. This report will then be sent via an e-mail server (by default, a remote one run by Debian, but reportbug can also use a local server).
This tool first targets the development versions, which is where the bugs will be fixed. Effectively, changes are not welcome in a stable version of Debian, with very few exceptions for security updates or other important updates (if, for example, a package is not working at all). A correction of a minor bug in a Debian package must, thus, wait for the next stable version.

1.3.2.2. Translation and documentation

Additionally, numerous satisfied users of the service offered by Debian like to make a contribution of their own to the project. As not everyone has appropriate levels of expertise in programming, they may choose to assist with the translation and review of documentation. There are language-specific mailing lists to coordinate this work.

1.3.2.3. Sending fixes

More advanced users might be able to provide a fix to a program by sending a patch.
A patch is a file describing changes to be made to one or more reference files. Specifically, it will contain a list of lines to be removed or added to the code, as well as (sometimes) lines taken from the reference text, replacing the modifications in context (they allow identification of the placement of the changes if the line numbers have changed).
The tool used for applying the modifications given in such a file is simply called patch. The tool that creates it is called diff, and is used as follows:
$ diff -u file.old file.new >file.patch
The file.patch file contains the instructions for changing the content of file.old into file.new. We can send it to someone, who can then use it to recreate file.new from the two others, like this:
$ patch -p0 file.old <file.patch
The file, file.old, is now identical to file.new.
In practice, most software is maintained in Git repositories and contributors are thus more likely to use git to retrieve the source code and propose changes. git diff will generate a file in the same format as what diff -u would do and git apply can do the same as patch.
While the output of git diff is a file that can be shared with other developers, there are usually better ways to submit changes. If the developers prefer to get patches by email, they usually want patches generated with git format-patch so that they can be directly integrated in the repository with git am. This preserves commits meta-information and makes it possible to share multiple commits at once.
This email-based workflow is still popular but it tends to be replaced by the usage of merge requests (or pull requests) whenever the software is hosted in a platform like Github or GitLab — and Debian is using GitLab on its salsa.debian.org server. On those systems, once you have created an account, you fork the repository, effectively creating a copy of the repository in your own account, and you can then clone that repository and push your own changes in it. From there, the web interface will suggest you to submit a merge request, notifying the developers of your changes, making it easy for them to review and accept your changes with a single click.

1.3.2.4. Other ways of contributing

All of these contribution mechanisms are made more efficient by users' behavior. Far from being a collection of isolated persons, users are a true community within which numerous exchanges take place. We especially note the impressive activity on the user discussion mailing list, (Cap. 7, Solving Problems and Finding Relevant Information discusses this in greater detail).
Not only do users help themselves (and others) on technical issues that directly affect them, but they also discuss the best ways to contribute to the Debian project and help it move forward — discussions that frequently result in suggestions for improvements.
Since Debian does not expend funds on any self-promoting marketing campaigns, its users play an essential role in its diffusion, ensuring its fame via word-of-mouth.
This method works quite well, since Debian fans are found at all levels of the free software community: from install parties (workshops where seasoned users assist newcomers to install the system) organized by local LUGs or “Linux User Groups”, to association booths at large tech conventions dealing with Linux, etc.
Volunteers make posters, brochures, stickers, and other useful promotional materials for the project, which they make available to everyone, and which Debian provides freely on its website and on its wiki:

1.3.3. Teams and Sub-Projects

Debian has been organized, right from the start, around the concept of source packages, each with its maintainer or group of maintainers. Many work teams have emerged over time, ensuring administration of the infrastructure, management of tasks not specific to any package in particular (quality assurance, Debian Policy, installer, etc.), with the latest series of teams growing up around sub-projects.

1.3.3.1. Existing Debian Sub-Projects

To each their own Debian! A sub-project is a group of volunteers interested in adapting Debian to specific needs. Beyond the selection of a sub-group of programs intended for a particular domain (education, medicine, multimedia creation, etc.), sub-projects are also involved in improving existing packages, packaging missing software, adapting the installer, creating specific documentation, and more.
Here is a small selection of current sub-projects:
  • Debian Jr., by Ben Armstrong, offering an appealing and easy to use Debian system for children;
  • Debian Edu, by Petter Reinholdtsen, focused on the creation of a specialized distribution for the academic world;
  • Debian Med, by Andreas Tille, dedicated to the medical field;
  • Debian Multimedia which deals with audio and multimedia work;
  • Debian GIS which takes care of Geographical Information Systems applications and users;
  • Debian Accessibility, improving Debian to match the requirements of people with disabilities;
  • Debian Science, finally, working on providing researchers and scientists a better experience using Debian.
  • DebiChem, targeted at Chemistry, provides chemical suites and programs.
The number of projects will most likely continue to grow with time and improved perception of the advantages of Debian sub-projects. Fully supported by the existing Debian infrastructure, they can, in effect, focus on work with real added value, without worrying about remaining synchronized with Debian, since they are developed within the project.

1.3.3.2. Administrative Teams

Most administrative teams are relatively closed and recruit only by co-optation. The best means to become a part of one is to intelligently assist the current members, demonstrating that you have understood their objectives and methods of operation.
The ftpmasters are in charge of the official archive of Debian packages. They maintain the program that receives packages sent by developers and automatically stores them, after some checks, on the reference server (ftp-master.debian.org).
They must also verify the licenses of all new packages, in order to ensure that Debian may distribute them, prior to including them in the corpus of existing packages. When a developer wishes to remove a package, they address this team through the bug tracking system and the ftp.debian.org “pseudo-package”.
The Debian System Administrators (DSA) team (), as one might expect, is responsible for system administration of the many servers used by the project. They ensure optimal functioning of all base services (DNS, Web, e-mail, shell, etc.), install software requested by Debian developers, and take all precautions in regards to security.
The listmasters administer the e-mail server that manages the mailing lists. They create new lists, handle bounces (delivery failure notices), and maintain spam filters (unsolicited bulk e-mail).
Each specific service has its own administration team, generally composed of volunteers who have installed it (and also frequently programmed the corresponding tools themselves). This is the case of the bug tracking system (BTS), the package tracker, salsa.debian.org (GitLab server, see sidebar TOOL GitLab, Git repository hosting and much more), the services available on qa.debian.org, lintian.debian.org, buildd.debian.org, cdimage.debian.org, etc.

1.3.3.3. Development Teams, Transversal Teams

Unlike administrative teams, the development teams are rather widely open, even to outside contributors. Even if Debian does not have a vocation to create software, the project needs some specific programs to meet its goals. Of course, developed under a free software license, these tools make use of methods proven elsewhere in the free software world.
Debian has developed little software of its own, but certain programs have assumed a starring role, and their fame has spread beyond the scope of the project. Good examples are dpkg, the Debian package management program (it is, in fact, an abbreviation of Debian PacKaGe, and generally pronounced as “dee-package”), and apt, a tool to automatically install any Debian package, and its dependencies, guaranteeing the consistency of the system after an upgrade (its name is an acronym for Advanced Package Tool). Their teams are, however, much smaller, since a rather high level of programming skill is required to gain an overall understanding of the operations of these types of programs.
The most important team is probably that for the Debian installation program, debian-installer, which has accomplished a work of momentous proportions since its conception in 2001. Numerous contributors were needed, since it is difficult to write a single program able to install Debian on a dozen different architectures. Each one has its own mechanism for booting and its own bootloader. All of this work is coordinated on the mailing list, under the direction of Cyril Brulebois.
The (very small) debian-cd program team has an even more modest objective. Many “small” contributors are responsible for their architecture, since the main developer can not know all the subtleties, nor the exact way to start the installer from the CD-ROM.
Many teams must collaborate with others in the activity of packaging: tries, for example, to ensure quality at all levels of the Debian project. The list develops Debian Policy according to proposals from all over the place. The teams in charge of each architecture () compile all packages, adapting them to their particular architecture, if needed.
Other teams manage the most important packages in order to ensure maintenance without placing too heavy a load on a single pair of shoulders; this is the case with the C library and , the C compiler on the list, or Xorg on the (this group is also known as the X Strike Force).