As of today I’m stepping down from TheOpenCD development, of which for the last eighteen months I’ve been the sole developer and general caretaker for the project. It’s not all bad news though – I’m leaving the project to pursue my own open source disc, which I believe will resolve the issues I’ve experienced in my time at the helmI. I’ve been working in the background on the new project, OpenDisc, and it’s now up and running so if you’d like to check it out, visit www.theopendisc.com. Why jump shipII on what seems like a perfectly good project?
Around two years ago I stumbled upon TheOpenCD site and thought (like many) that it was a great idea. I sent an email off to the project founder Henrik Nilsen OmmaIII, saying that I could help out whereever needed. Although there wasn’t a great deal for me to help out with, being that the disc was a one man job at that point, he said I could at least help moderating the forums. A new version was being prepared, and most time was spent between Henrik and a few others (Matt Oquist stands out in memory) creating a mini Ubuntu live cd that would let users boot into Linux with TheOpenCD, as well as further development of DiscTreeIV. During that time I basically sat by the sideline, kept the forums active and helped out where I could.
The Ubuntu disc had a fair share of supporters but overall wasn’t as great a success as they’d hoped, and a lot of time went by – so much so that a lot of people started asking the same question, “when is the next version out?”. From what I can remember it was about nine months since the last disc, and over the course of that I’d emailed Henrik more than a few times about helping him work on the next version.
Four Point Zero
A few months later a fellow supporter, Robert Schumann, offered his help at much the same time as I did and ended up helming the much awaited 4.0, which had the dubious honour of not including the Ubuntu LiveCD of the previous TheOpenCD. The strange thing about 4.0 was the huge momentum it had right up until it was due for release, where unexpectantly it stalled and didn’t materialise. I found later (after a few more emails) that both Robert and Henrik had moved (one another city; one another country) and even though it was completed, it sat for over a month unreleased. Even stranger was that it had been uploaded, but nobody had got around to letting the mirrors know that it was available.
By the time Henrik let me take over as project leadV I had to download the finished 4.0 image and update nearly every program with a new version. Only after that did TheOpenCD 4.0 hit the streets.
Shortly afterward I was given access to the sole email account (admin@) via GMail. I was shocked by the volume of mail coming in daily from people offering help, suggestions or with general questions about the project. I can only wonder what happened before I had access to answer the email; I certainly never saw anybody else offer help to the project nor any of the program suggestions make it through to the disc.
Over the eighteen months I’ve been the sole developer, email answerer and general caretaker for TheOpenCD. There have been some good moments, but for the most part it’s been fraught with problems. I’ve expanded on the main ones I encountered, because they’re essentially the reason why I decided to start OpenDisc:
TheOpenCD is sponsoredVI by CanonicalVII and thus all the software restrictions that were present in Ubuntu also counted for TheOpenCD as well. The single most requested addition to the disc was VLC, but soon after taking over I was forewarned that it was not to be included because it was risky software. It included decss libdvdcss, a famousVIII DVD-Video copy-protection stripping code that allowed you to play DVDs on any platform.IX For that reason I could never include an otherwise perfect candidate on TheOpenCD. After deliberating on the old forum, the answer was to request a special version to be made especially for us that didn’t include libdvdcss; something I’m sure the developers had a chuckle over, if they ever got the request at all.
Likewise I couldn’t include other decoders/converters or anything that would jeopardise the neutrality of Canonical and TheOpenCD project.
With OpenDisc I’m free from any company rules that stop inclusion of specific open source software. At the end of the day, users don’t care if somebody thinks certain software is risky, they just want stuff that works.
As already noted, when I’d first found the project and offered my help I was given the task to moderate the forums. As far as I remember they were either Mambo or bbphp forums, and for the most part they were always active and of little trouble. I noted that some older users complained that the threads of the previous forum were gone, and wondered why they weren’t migrated or at least mirrored for future.
The original forums that disappeared when MoinMoin replaced the old site.
The only trace of them I could find was this screen capture of TightVNC on the disc.
It was decided at some stage that the current site would be changed to wiki software, called MoinMoin. This was the same software that ran other Canonical sites, so naturally it was favoured over anything else and accepted without much hurrah or discussion. The forums disappeared, instead to be hosted by the wiki as well. Again, I couldn’t find any trace of them for preservation.
It was quickly discovered MoinMoin wasn’t a great solution for forums at all. There was however somebody designing a plugin for us to improve the state of things, but I never had contact with them and it was soon abandoned. After six months of trawling through all-but-ignored threads (and endless spam) I closed the forums and began deleting what was left of them, as the great majority were either spam or of questionable legitimacy.X
The MoinMoin ”forums” which were just a basic wiki hack.
Users could even edit other users comments or delete whole topics.
I’ve ensured the new OpenDisc forums are easy to navigate and post on, and once users are registered with either the project or the forum they won’t have to register for the other. And if I ever change the forum software, the old discussions won’t be left behind.
Contrary to what some might imagine, TheOpenCD was assembled, packaged and made into an image locally, and not dynamically online. It’s then uploaded to a private server, then moved from that onto the mirrors. The image itself has to then be moved onto TheOpenCD server, after which the mirrors are notified.
I handled everything up to uploading the image. Once that was done, I’d send an email off and would have to wait until I got the word back that everything had been done. Obviously I didn’t work for Canonical so I had no access to their servers, but the channels I had to go through almost always meant a delay in getting a new version out. A new release depended on every party being able and active at the time of release, with just one link out of the proverbial chain missing and the release was stranded until they returned.
Now I can simply upload new versions of OpenDisc to SourceForge and point to it on the site; no fuss, delay or people to go through to push a new version out. Expect to see OpenDisc release more often than was possible with TheOpenCD.
More Unacceptable Software
I’d raised my concerns to Henrik about the unsuitability of MoinMoin, and to my surprise he agreed that it didn’t really suit the purpose too much. I suggested a simple WordPress installation, which would handle everything the project required sans forums. bbPress could handle that, and linked in with WordPress so that users wouldn’t have to register twice on the site to post comments or forum threads.
TheOpenCD’s website, including the year-old logo which I had no access to update.
I got a reply saying that WordPress was probably on the list of okay software to run on the servers, but that bbpress most likely wasn’t. Now I realise that Canonical had to be careful what software they ran considering what traffic they got with the other projects, but I couldn’t see the sense in the well-developed, open source and highly supported bbpress.
It was suggested instead that Drupal be installed (again, it was being used on other Canonical sites), so I reluctantly obliged and we settled on the proposed Drupal installation. I was given the email address and was cc’d to the person responsible to install it, but even after a couple more direct emails I never got a single reply. Looking back this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Once I’d decided to start OpenDisc, I secured hosting and got to work on developing the project’s new home. Free to install anything I liked, with WordPress/bbPress I quickly got to the point where I was happy with both the design and flexibility where I could launch the project publicly. I also organised a SourceForge account to host the large files the project releases.
OpenDisc website, which hopefully looks a lot more pleasing and is certainly easier to use.
Derivatives and Translations
At least once a fortnight I was contacted by somebody making a derivativeXI or localised translation for non-English speakers.
Since I had no way to host and nurture major derivatives, they often released once then faded away into the obscurity of old versions and a total lack of availability. The same unfortunately is to be said about translations; often after the first version was released there was never another translated update available, so non-English users were left with dodgy old software.
With OpenDisc I can now look after major derivatives better. OpenEducationCD (created by Peter Kemp) has flourished and received some great exposure throughout UK and the greater educational world. Where I couldn’t do much for it beforeXII I can now host a web site and organise file hosting, providing a fuss-free operation for somebody already burdened enough by keeping the project up and running in their spare time.
I’ve also started a translation project for OpenDisc where anybody fluent in English and another language can contribute to present and future versions of the disc.
On the 15th August 2007 the Ubuntu community servers were hackedXIII – I’d read it at the time but hadn’t twigged that it meant the file hosting for TheOpenCD was included on one of them. When I came to release 07.09 I found out through Henrik that it was indeed so. In the mean time I was told I’d have to find somewhere else to upload the image, providing it could be transfered later from there via ssh to another server for release.
As I described above, you can appreciate that TheOpenCD really didn’t need another layer of complexity in the method of releasing new versions, so I decided to push out a torrent early for those starved of a release and leave it at that for the time being. Henrik did ask initially to meet me on freenode to work out a plan, but by the time (I was away for a few days) I’d returned I was determined to start OpenDisc.
It wasn’t all bad though…
I got to add some worthwhile features to the disc, like Tux, in aid of starting a stronger way to educate users of Linux. Aside from that and the disc artwork changes (and the origami cover I designed) the largest thing I think I brought to the project was the release cycle. Even so, it was only five releases in those eighteen months, something that will be improving with OpenDisc.
If you made it through the entire post you’ve done quite well. Finally, hello and thanks to all the users, developers and distributors that I’ve talked to during my time at TheOpenCD, and here’s to seeing you again soon at OpenDisc.
- And there’s the last pirate pun I’ll use this post. [↩]
- I know, I know, again with the pirate puns. [↩]
- Who I have nothing but kind things to say about; my decision wasn’t based on any argument or impass between us personally. [↩]
- Which is a whole other story, and unfortunately for those who spent time developing it, not one with a great ending either. [↩]
- Robert had just finished his PhD. from what I remember and was swamped with RL commitments [↩]
- Only the hosting and domain costs were covered. [↩]
- If you aren’t sure, the parent company of Ubuntu. [↩]
- or infamous, depending on which side of the moral fence you live. [↩]
- Which incidentally is more important for Linux, but still included in the Windows version. [↩]
- “Please send copies to my PO Box in Nigeria, Thank You Sir!” [↩]
- what we termed as a version of TheOpenCD customised in some way for a specific event or group, like Software Freedom Day. [↩]
- except for a quick news post [↩]
- Digg.com carried the story – http://digg.com/linux_unix/Ubuntu_Servers_HACKED. [↩]