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[Glug-nith-discuss] RPM Story

From: Vijay Kumar Mateti
Subject: [Glug-nith-discuss] RPM Story
Date: Sat, 10 Feb 2007 01:52:37 +0530

If you’re reading this article in Red Hat Magazine, it’s hard to imagine
that you don’t know the story of RPM, the package manager that is the
core of so much of Red Hat’s Linux experience. From a beginner’s first
installation to the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) developer’s
latest Fedora release, RPM is inherently part of the Linux user
interaction. But what happens when a core piece of software suffers from
politics and agendas, cruft, and bad decisions–or no decisions at all?

RPM has endured a little of each and is now at a crossroads. This
article examines some of the decisions, indecisions, and bungles that
led to the current state of RPM. Where is RPM headed? What led to its
current (forked) state, and what should Red Hat, Fedora, or any other
major stakeholder do about it? In whose hands does RPM rest? This
article is not meant to be a technical guide or primer on RPM, but
presents the history of RPM in context, including some project

For those just getting started with Linux, RPM refers to the RPM package
manager, formerly the Red Hat Package Manager. On the most basic level,
RPM is a powerful command-line-driven package management system capable
of installing, uninstalling, verifying, querying, and updating software
packages. RPM is free software, released under the GPL, and is a core
component of many Linux distributions. Red Hat® Enterprise Linux®, the
Fedora™ Project, SUSE, openSUSE, CentOS, and Mandriva, and many others
use RPM. RPM is also available in other operating systems and is part of
the Linux Standard Base.

Where did RPM come from? The functionality that we know as RPM came from
a few different projects. RPP was used in Red Hat Linux prior to version
2.0, supported one-command installation, package verification, and had a
powerful query mechanism. The major problem with RPP was that it didn’t
rise from pristine sources. This meant that RPP’s packages were based on
source code that had been specifically modified for RPP. This was a
problem because different versions of source code had to be released for
the same product. If you’re a developer managing dozens of packages,
keeping track of all the different versions can complicate your project
management and cause you to devote more time to package management that
you need to.

Another project that eventually became part of RPM was PMS. PMS was
developed at the same time as RPP and was part of the BOGUS Linux
release. PMS had a fairly feeble query mechanism and no package
verification. Its saving grace was that it used pristine sources. Under
contract to Red Hat Software, Rik Faith and Doug Hoffman created PM from
the best features of RPP and PMS. Although PM was very close to a viable
package management system, it never used in a commercially available

With a few attempts at package management behind them, Marc Ewing and
Erik Troan developed RPM. Although it was built on the experiences of
RPP, PMS, and PM, RPM was innately different. It was written in Perl for
fast development and attempted to solve many of the problems of its
predecessors. This led to a host of other problems, not the least of
which was trying to cram a Perl implementation on a boot floppy. By
version 2, RPM had been completely rewritten in C, the database format
had been redesigned to provide reliability and improve performance, and
rpmlib–the library of RPM routines–allowed developers to use RPM
functionality in their applications.

Red Hat realized early on that decisions made on Red Hat’s behalf would
affect developers up- and downstream. As such, development of RPM
consisted of five design goals:

      * Make it easy to get packages on and off the system
      * Make it easy to verify a package was installed correctly
      * Make it easy for the package builder
      * Make it start with the original source code
      * Make it work on different computer architectures

The building and maintenance of packages had to be kept as simple as the
installation of packages. Also, to make it easy for developers to keep
track of changes made to code in a package, the elemental components of
a package had to be simplified.

These goals made RPM a relatively easily solved problem. And, by 1998,
Red Hat effectively had its package manager. However, with major
engineering problems out of the way, the remaining issue became
innovating on RPM while maintaining legacy functionality. While
engineers tried to work out bugs and get new releases of RPM through
quality assurance (QA), new innovations were saddled with ever-deepening
requirements to satisfy. As a result, development of new RPM
functionality was stifled.

“It’s hard to innovate on such a central piece of software,” said Greg
DeKoenigsberg, Red Hat’s Community Development Manager. The RPM
implementation, says Greg, is “10 years worth of cruft. It may well be
that, upon closer examination, a number of RPM’s features must work in
the exact way in which they’ve been coded. But there’s also complexity
that we don’t think we need.”

Recognizing this issue was a big step towards getting RPM back on track.
On December 14, 2006, Max Spevack (the Fedora Project leader) posted to
the fedora-announce mailing list stating that Red Hat was ready to focus
on RPM again. In the announcement, Spevack spoke of the technology of
RPM, the relationship Red Hat and Fedora shared with the community that
existed around RPM, and their renewed commitment. Perhaps most telling
of the innovation struggle was Spevack’s fourth major point in the

“RPM, as an application, has a fairly mature feature set that we are
very interested in stabilizing and bug fixing. Furthermore, we want to
make sure that RPM is a stable and simplified base for the building of
other technologies on top of it. Down the road, we might be interested
in exploring a variety of new features, but we don’t believe that should
be the initial focus of our efforts.”

So where does RPM go from here? “We need a strong technical community
around RPM that believes what we believe: that stability and community
are paramount.” Again, Greg DeKoenigsberg. “We see RPM as being under
Red Hat’s influence, rather than control, and that’s an important

Its clear that one of the side effects of the RPM experience is that Red
Hat has learned things can get significantly off track when
accountability isn’t clear in an FOSS project. As the company changed
and FOSS became a larger part of the general computing landscape, many
of the key engineers (and much of the RPM team) left to pursue other
opportunities. Red Hat was complacent in exerting major influence over
RPM in their absence, and so when Fedora finally made its move to
reclaim RPM, it had to use 4.4.2–the common base for Novell and Red Hat,
but several releases behind the latest work.

One can argue that this effective fork of RPM is good a good thing.
While the general perception about forks is that they fragment the
development community and are detrimental to its growth, forks result in
new projects and new competition. Consider the example of the split. When releasing version 4.4 of the XFree86 server,
licensing changed and most major Linux distributions threw XFree86
overboard in favor of the fork. Prior to this split, there was
additional split lead by Keith Packard following dissatisfaction with
XFree86 development. Among the problems Packard cited were limited
development resources, slow release schedules, lack of co-operation with
other projects (notably GNOME and KDE) and opacity of the development

In the end, this created competition for XFree86, and XFree86 obtained
the resources they needed from work with The
competitive drive made both projects better. This illustrates a
fundamental truth about Free and Open Source Software: when end users
are included in the process of building software and making decisions,
FOSS succeeds. In the course of any project, there are eventually
divergent views on how things should go, what path to take, and where to
stop working on one piece of code over another. Project leaders will
disagree and a decision has to be made. This is fertile ground for a
fork. Managed properly, and undertaken for the right reasons, a fork can
improve both projects while increasing diversity and preserving
cooperation and competition.

With FOSS, there are additional benefits to forking. If, after a fork,
one branch is innovating more than the other–making the “right”
decisions–it may attract a larger portion of the user base over time.
Since the code is freely available, one branch can borrow ideas from the
other and the best ideas are replicated across both projects.
Ultimately, good ideas propagate throughout the community.

This also applies to RPM. Despite the awesome success of Ubuntu, there
are still millions of users of RPM. And, perhaps now Red Hat is ready
for the best ideas from the community to flow into RPM. This willingness
is what you already see in projects like Yellowdog Updater Modified
(YUM) and what you will see in the near future in projects like the
Community Package Manager (CPM), a proposed strip down and rewrite of

RPM has a long way to go to build back its previous momentum, but it
also has a lot going for it; among other things, a great community. For
now, you can find more information at, including a wiki,
mailing lists, information about the #rpm IRC channel and more. There
are many ways to contribute to RPM and now’s probably the best time to
join in. While there may be some bad blood and scar tissue left over
from the previous flame wars, it’s in every user’s best interest to
foster growth in the community. -Redhat Magazine

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