The governance of Linux distros


Although the Fedora project [6] is the open source basis for Red Hat Enterprise Linux and CentOS, it is also popular in its own right. Its membership is unstated, but rivals Debian's in size. Unsurprisingly, it has a complexity of structure that rivals that of both Debian and Ubuntu.

Fedora is managed by the Fedora Council, which consists of four members appointed by Red Hat: one to represent the Engineering team, one to represent the Mindshare (marketing and communications) team, and two community-elected representatives. In addition, the Fedora Project Leader is appointed to chair the council. The Fedora Council may vote on decisions in the hopes of reaching consensus, but its charter also mentions "'lazy approval', in which general consent is assumed unless valid objections are raised within a period of time – generally three to seven days, although the timeframe should be stated each time and should be proportionate to the impact of the action. This process is used for decisions with short-term consequences and which can be easily reversed. Any project member can ask for the deadline to be extended or the decision escalated to require full consensus." Numerous specialized projects are organized under the Fedora Council and report to it.

One the one hand, the composition of the Fedora Council means that Fedora is not officially a community-based distribution. On the other hand, the specialized projects appear to act independently. Even more importantly, of all the major distributions, Fedora appears to be the least technocratic, being careful to give non-programmers a role and a voice.

Linux Mint

When Linux Mint [7] started in 2006, development decisions were made by founder Clement Lefebvre and a handful of active developers. As Lefebvre told me in 2013, "strong leadership is important and benefits Linux Mint, [because] the decisions we take remain consistent and are coherent with our overall vision." At the same time, Lefebvre added that "We always try to gather as much feedback as possible, and to get a good appreciation of what people want." In fact, Linux Mint has a reputation for listening to user feedback far more than many distributions; it first became popular by forking Gnome 2 after Gnome ceased to develop it. Soon after, Mint started the development of Cinnamon, a desktop environment whose development continues to be heavily influenced by user feedback. The Linux Mint blog continues to be a major means of communication with the distro's user base, as well as the forums.

Today, Mint is more structured than it once was. In addition to Lefebvre, Mint has an Administration and Moderation team, as well as teams for development, design, translation, and quality assurance. Its philosophy remains unchanged. The project website's FAQ explains: "Linux Mint does not support any political or ideological stance against any software programs or editors no matter what license they use. With that said, most if not all (depending on the edition) software used in Linux Mint is Free and Open Source. We believe in Open Source as a choice, not as a constraint."


Just as Fedora is a community project associated with Red Hat, so openSUSE [8] is a community project associated with SUSE. However, while Red Hat appointees dominate the Fedora Council, the five members of the openSUSE Board are elected by the community. Historically, the openSUSE Board tends to consist of a majority of Germans and other Europeans. Far from being dominated by SUSE, the openSUSE Board rarely hears from SUSE about matters of policy, aside from the appointment of the board chair. In fact, in early 2020, the openSUSE Board was discussing ways to interact more closely with SUSE.

The openSUSE Board then appoints people as tasks arise. Currently the only appointed board position is the treasurer, who oversees the Travel Support Program and interacts with SUSE and the project's other sponsors on all financial matters. Appointees remain in their position until the next board election. Although openSUSE has ongoing teams like other large distros, its bureaucratic structure appears lighter than most.

Another similarity to Fedora is openSUSE's insistence on using only free software in its releases. If anything, SUSE is even more specific about this policy, with the openSUSE Board wiki devoting several hundred words to the topic before describing the governance of the project.

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