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Inside Mandriva Linux

Sacked developers, financial headaches and technology trials - it's been a tough year for Mandriva.

The distro now known as Mandriva has been making headlines since its inception - unfortunately not all of the press has been flattering. It's the distro the community first loved, and now just loves to hate.

Way before Ubuntu and the current slew of desktop-friendly distros -when running Linux on your desktop was a measure of your geek cred - the technologically challenged turned to Mandriva. Over the years it grew in popularity, one man went on to form a firm - a company that would later show him the door.

But there's more to Mandriva than what goes on in the boardroom. It's still one of the easiest distros for Linux newbies. Sure, Mandriva’s fortunes have been on a downward spiral for quite some time, but the new team has managed to shrug off cash flow problems and technological traumas, and its latest release is filled to the brim with features.

A Reversal of Fortunes

Mandriva started life as Linux-Mandrake way back in 1998. The first version was based on Red Hat 5.1 and it was the first distro to bundle KDE's 1.0 release. Features such as the ability to auto-mount CDs without messing around with configuration files brought 'convenience' to Linux distros.

The project was a success and later that year lead developer Gael Duval, along with a bunch of other developers, created MandrakeSoft.

In 2001 the company decided to go public, announced an IPO (Initial Public Offering), and began trading on the Marche Libre exchange in Paris. It faced its first major cash issue in late 2002 and asked its users to bail it out by subscribing to a paid service offering extra benefits, such as early access to releases and special editions.

It wasn't enough and in January 2003 MandrakeSott filed for ''declaration de cessation des paiements" - the French equivalent of bankruptcy protection.

At the end of 2003, Mandrake Soft announced its first quarterly profit and. in March 2004, a French court approved its plan to emerge from bankruptcy and return to normal operations.

By now Mandrake had grown popular enough to attract the attention of the US publisher Hearst Corporation, which owned the trademark of the comic-book character Mandrake the Magician. Hearst sued MandrakeSott for trademark infringement in the distro's name, as well as for its hardware configuration tool Lothar, another of Hearst's characters. MandrakeSott lost and was forced to concatenate Mandrake and Linux to Mandrakelinux and change its logo.

Over the years, MandrakeSott acquired a host of companies. Of note, were Edge-IT, a French corporate support company that was to have a much larger impact on the distribution later on, and the Brazilian Linux distribution Conectiva, after which it changed the name of the company to Mandriva and its distribution's name to Mandriva Linux.

In 2006, after several more acquisitions, including the Lycoris distro and the enterprise software infrastructure company Linbox. Mandriva lay off several employees including Duval, the company's lead developer and co-founder.

Amidst all the booing, the company continued spitting out distro releases and created a niche for itself in the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), as well as France and Italy. It continued hovering among the top 10 distros on Distrowatch.com but struggled to keep its balance sheet in the black, even after a round of funding in 2007.

In May 2010, Mandriva announced it was up for sale, claiming that "selling the enterprise was the only alternative to closing it down completely'.

The following month, the company announced it had been saved, yet again, by new investors and in September Mandriva sold a controlling stake to a Russian company called NGI, and announced that while it intended to continue working on its server products in Europe, development of its desktop distro would be moved to one of the BRIC countries.

Following the deal, Mandriva liquidated its subsidiary Edge-IT and lay off its employees. It later emerged that many of the core Mandriva developers were technically employees of Edge-IT.

Soon afterwards, those former employees forked Mandriva and created the non-commercial Mageia project. The Mandriva community had in the past suggested that the distribution should be split in two, much like Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora, but the plans never materialized. (You can read about the workings of the Mageia fork in LXF149.)

In a blog post, Mandriva's then CEO Arnaud Laprevote assured users that "Mandriva is alive" and briefly mentioned new products, including Mandriva 2011, which was released on August 28 this year.

New team

After the sale to NGI, Mandriva's structure changed: the CEO was replaced by a board and Arnaud Laprevote took over as president. In July 2011 he was replaced by Dominique Loucougain. Alongside him, Dmitry Komissarov and Valentina Gorina make up the Mandriva board.

Komissarov is also CEO of the Russian firm PingWin Software, an active member of the Russian Association of Free Software. He explains that, as of now, there are three groups of developers working on Mandriva, in France, Brazil and Russia.

The Russian team, headed by ROSA Laboratories, focuses on the design elements of the distro and its interface. It employs UI designers and a large number of testers.

The Brazilian team at Conectiva concentrates on the development of the platform, while the French team maintains infrastructure and provides support to installed systems in the enterprise and government. A team of developers from Russia and Brazil are also working on a new build-system for Mandriva.

Eugeni Dodonov from the Brazilian team was the release manager of Mandriva 2011, until he left for Intel in July 2011, and passed the baton on to Denis Koryavov of ROSA Labs.

Komissarov insists that having a team of developers spread across three countries doesn't hinder development. He adds that although the Russian team was the last to join, having a clearly defined scope for all the teams not only helped them get started on Mandriva 2011 without any delay, but also helps them collaborate with each other.

This is evident from Dodonov's reply to a comment on the Mandriva blog, where he wrote that the Digikam photo manager, which was included in the early beta versions, was replaced by Shotwell on the request of ROSA Labs for design and usability concerns.

New release cycle

Talking about Mandriva's new release cycle. Komissarov says that preliminary testing of versions (alpha. beta. release candidates) involves hundreds of people and takes about six months. For Mandriva 2011 there were eight releases before the final version, and the entire process involved more than 200 testers spread over 28 towns in 10 countries, who solved more than 2.000 issues.

Major releases such as Mandriva 2011 require a huge amount of infrastructure. According to Koryavov, the developers produced more than 1,500 ISO images for testing, although not all of them were available publicly. Testing the images involved downloading more than IOTB of data. Once testing was finished the official release was announced and every official version of Mandriva Linux will now be supported for 18 months.

Mandriva 2011 was aimed at home desktop users and the developers are now working on a November Long Term Release (LTS) version for the enterprise that will be supported for three years.

Komissarov explains that the LTS release probably won't have bleeding edge software but will most definitely be a lot more stable, which works well for businesses.

New features 

Mandriva 2011 have a host of notable new features. It uses the KDE desktop, but has revamped the UI of most of its components and also added some new tools. Based on experience, Komissarov says that while KDE is a great desktop environment, its broad range of settings may confuse inexperienced users. He cites the example of an experiment wherein a KDE-based distribution was used to teach in Russian schools. The project had to be abandoned because students and teachers were confused by its various settings. Mandriva’s main challenge while designing the new interface was to keep things simple for new users, and expose just the right amount of settings.

The new Kickoff menu looks similar to the new Gnome 3 Activities and Ubuntu's Unity.

Komissarov says the team spent a considerable amount of time investigating the behavior of an average desktop user in a bid to create a distro with virtually no learning curve. It found that users are more productive and prefer running applications in full-screen mode.

Simple Welcome is the main element, which will be developed further- it's not only a program launcher but also a universal container for other original components that are in the pipeline.

TimeFrame - a new utility added to Nepomuk- visualizes files in your home directory based on the time they were created or modified. This saves you the trouble of having to look for files buried deep within multiple folders.

RocketBar implements a software oriented interface that is more convenient and easier for users to understand. Research by Mandriva suggests that a typical user works with an average of about 12 apps. The most used are on the panel and those used less often are stored in the history of Last Used apps, which lets users access the apps in one or two mouse clicks.

StackFolders resembles the stacks feature in Mac OS X and Komissarov believes that users who work with a large number of documents will find this particularly useful. Mandriva 2011's new installer has simplified the installation process by implementing the concept of 'pure choice: While it won't please some advanced users. Komissarov believes that most people are only confused by the many installation options in Linux distro installers.

There have been changes to various other parts of the desktop as well, and many are still under active development. The absence of the option to switch between multiple desktops is just one of the changes to the system tray, which will be further tweaked in upcoming releases.

New community 

Mandriva has always had a strong community of users and developers. Community manager Adam Williamson really invigorated the scene until he was asked to leave in December 2008.

The regular rounds of lay-offs obviously took their toll’ but it was the liquidation of Edge-IT and the subsequent fork into Mageia that really made the community lose confidence in Mandriva. Komissarov points out that by the time he got the opportunity to influence Mandriva’s future, a core team of developers had already gone, and with them went the community.

Having a community is important, but first Mandriva needed a product worth rooting for. Explaining the new team's priorities, Komissarov says it was important to find a new vector of development, and create a distro which focused on usability and design.

He thinks Mandriva’s focus on usability will attract a community like the Italian Mandriva International Backports (http://mib.pianetalinux.org/mib). The MIS is actively involved in Mandriva's Assembly, and provides a repository of packages for many Mandriva releases.

During the entire development process, Mandriva always looked to the community for feedback- in addition to testing the various pre-releases, it also asked for suggestions for its new build system. Viacheslav Kaloshin, CTO of PingWin, has kept the community abreast with the development of Mandriva 2011 via the official blog.

Mandriva is at the beginning of a new journey. The distro is built. Komissarov knows that what's important now is building a new community.

Into the cloud

MandrivaSync is to Mandriva what Ubuntu One is to Ubuntu and Apple iCloud is to Mac OS X. The service allows users to mark data and keep it offsite on Mandriva servers, and to automatically sync it to other devices that have the MandrivaSync client. Although implemented in Mandriva 2011, the service is currently in beta, and the developers don't recommend it for everyday work.

 Explaining the theory behind the service, Dmitry Komissarov, Mandriva board member, says that the idea is to have the MandrivaSync client on the desktop and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, to enable the user to sync files between them. Synchronization will either be automatic or manual. If the shared file in one of the devices has changed, it will automatically replace the older version on the server. If, however, there are conflicting versions, the user will be offered a choice. Currently the service is limited to sharing files such as documents and photos, but the plan includes the ability to sync meta objects such as app settings and bookmarks.

The service currently offers 2GB of free space to every Mandriva user. Shared data can currently only be synced with other installations of Mandriva 2011 but an Android client is expected in January 2012. Unlike Ubuntu One though, there will be MandrivaSync clients for other operating systems such as Mac OS and Windows.

Komissarov says that in the future restrictions will be on the channel bandwidth between the client and the server rather than on the volume of data stored, and shared. This is to discourage film sharing, while making it more convenient to share smaller documents, photos and videos.

What's RPM 5?

RPM is one of the two most popular package management systems for Linux. Although originally designed for Red Hat Linux, it is now used by many distributions. Currently there are two versions under active development - rpm.org (or RPM 4) and RPM 5.

RPM 4 is used by many distributions including Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, OpenSUSE and CentOS. Former RPM maintainer, Jeff Johnson forked the original system and works on RPM 5, and Mandriva is the first major distro to adopt the new format.

Komissarov believes RPM 5 offers significant advantages over RPM 4 and the switch seemed to be motivated by a number of considerations. Besides an active community, many viewed RPM 4 as relatively closed and dominated by Red Hat. Mandriva was already patching RPM 4 for its own needs and its RPM maintainer Per Oyvind Karlsen was very vocal on Mandriva's Cooker mailing list in his support for RPM 5.

 Furthermore, argues Komissarov, some of the features in RPM 5 were attractive to Mandriva, such as support for 'soft' dependencies to resolve package issues. This would allow developers to create a tool to update a distro’s full installation with a single click.

RPM 5 also gave Mandriva a very flexible packaging system, letting it disable packages depending on a country's software license. It uses this flexibility to enable proprietary plugins and drivers in a Russian version of its distro, known as ROSA Desktop.

Mageia or Mandriva?

Up until the release of Mandriva 2011, there were hardly any differences between the parent distro and its progeny. Now, the two are quite different, both inside and out, and these differences will only grow in subsequent releases. So which should you use?

While both appear to cater to the desktop user they approach the target user in different ways. For example, Mageia leaves the choice of desktop to the user, while Mandriva now only supports KDE.

Mandriva 2011 has switched to RPM 5. Whereas Mageia 1 uses RPM 4 and will probably stick with it in Mageia 2. One thing that might change in the next Mageia release is its init system. Like most distros, including Mandriva 2011, it could move to System D.

And that's the key. You can have a say in the future of Mageia. Its founders have been very clear that it's a community-controlled, community-governed project. Mageia will definitely not automatically adopt changes that Mandriva makes.

Mandriva's strategy in this regard has to be seen. While it has expressed its desire to listen to its community of users and developers, being headed by a for-profit company or a board that's answerable to shareholders, we don't expect it to open up all its component choices to users. And this is not always a bad thing.