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How Ubuntu is Made

Cat Herding with Launchpad

  • September 8, 2010
  • By Sean Michael Kerner
Sean Michael Kerner

Recent years have seen the Ubuntu Linux distribution, led by Canonical, experiencing rapid growth in both users and features. With the upcoming Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat release, set for October, Ubuntu developers will continue to push the boundaries further of both server and desktop Linux. Sitting at the upper rung of Ubuntu's engineering efforts is Matt Zimmerman, Canonical's CTO, who helps to lead Ubuntu's technical direction.

That's no small feat: Keeping the project and its developers organized is a mammoth undertaking, requiring the daily coordination of activities across the globe. But as Zimmerman describes it, he has the tools and processes in place to keep the Ubuntu project running strong.

One way that Zimmerman keeps the project on track is ensuring close communication among members of his team, a disparate organization that mirrors how the Ubuntu community itself builds and develops its Linux distribution. For one thing, While Canonical has offices in multiple countries, most of Zimmerman's engineers aren't located in those offices.

"My team is about 120 people and I think we have less five people who are in offices," Zimmerman told InternetNews.com.

While Zimmerman noted that he does get together face-to-face fairly regularly with his staff once a quarter, facilitating regular interaction requires a long list of common tools. For instance, Zimmerman said that Canonical engineers do a lot of work through IRC , wikis and teleconferences. The team also uses the open source Gobby tool for collaborative editing and Mumble for voice chatrooms.

"Mumble is sort of like IRC for voice," Zimmerman said. "You have a set of channels and then people come and go from one channel to another and whatever channel you're in, there is live voice between the people that are in the room."

Engineering organizations are often big users of whiteboards to build and share ideas, and Ubuntu is no exception. While his staff and contributors are distributed, Zimmerman said that they do rely on some desktop and screen-sharing, though he added that there isn't a one-to-one whiteboard substitute.

For overall project and goal management, Canonical is using its own Launchpad platform.

"Launchpad provides some basic project management support," Zimmerman said. "We've developed other tools around that for tracking."

Zimmerman described the project's overall management as using a blueprint -- a project plan on which individual tasks are broken out. Canonical also has a tool that extracts data out of Launchpad and does reporting. One of the key reporting elements used by Zimmerman is a burn-down chart, an important element of the Scrum agile software development methodology.

"It's basically a bar chart that shows you how much work you have remaining to do in your iteration," Zimmerman said. "So if you start off with, say, 200 tasks, you then draw it down to zero and you track it as you go if you're above or below the trend line."

Though Zimmerman is using a Scrum-style burn-down chart to track project progress, he added that he isn't strictly adhering to any one particular development methodology.

"We're using bits and pieces of different methodologies," Zimmerman said. "We use some components from Extreme Programming (XP), Scrum, and others. Different engineering teams have different requirements so we're experimenting with different approaches."

From an accounting perspective, however, Zimmerman noted that by using elements of the Scrum approach, he is able to report on the output capacity of his team.

"So we know in this amount of time how much we are able to get done and that enables more accurate forecasting," Zimmerman said.

From a testing perspective, the Ubuntu engineering organization has multiple efforts underway. Zimmerman explained that hardware certification testing occurs in a hardware lab where daily, automated compatibility testing occurs. There are also automated functional tests to ensure that users can upgrade cleanly from one release to another. Then there is also manual testing, which is crowdsourced by the Ubuntu community.

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