Debian is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to developing free software and promoting the ideals of the Free Software Foundation. The Debian Project began in 1993, when Ian Murdock issued an open invitation to software developers to contribute to a complete and coherent software distribution based on the relatively new Linux kernel. That relatively small band of dedicated enthusiasts, originally funded by the Free Software Foundation and influenced by the GNU philosophy, has grown over the years into an organization of around 900 Debian Developers.
Debian Developers are involved in a variety of activities, including Web and FTP site administration, graphic design, legal analysis of software licenses, writing documentation, and, of course, maintaining software packages.
In the interest of communicating our philosophy and attracting developers who believe in the principles that Debian stands for, the Debian Project has published a number of documents that outline our values and serve as guides to what it means to be a Debian Developer:
The Debian Social Contract is a statement of Debian's commitments to the Free Software Community. Anyone who agrees to abide to the Social Contract may become a maintainer. Any maintainer can introduce new software into Debian — provided that the software meets our criteria for being free, and the package follows our quality standards.
The Debian Free Software Guidelines are a clear and concise statement of Debian's criteria for free software. The DFSG is a very influential document in the Free Software Movement, and was the foundation of the The Open Source Definition.
The Debian Policy Manual is an extensive specification of the Debian Project's standards of quality.
Debian developers are also involved in a number of other projects; some specific to Debian, others involving some or all of the Linux community. Some examples include:
The Linux Standard Base (LSB) is a project aimed at standardizing the basic GNU/Linux system, which will enable third-party software and hardware developers to easily design programs and device drivers for Linux-in-general, rather than for a specific GNU/Linux distribution.
The Filesystem Hierarchy Standard (FHS) is an effort to standardize the layout of the Linux file system. The FHS will allow software developers to concentrate their efforts on designing programs, without having to worry about how the package will be installed in different GNU/Linux distributions.
Debian Jr. is an internal project, aimed at making sure Debian has something to offer to our youngest users.
For more general information about Debian, see the Debian FAQ.
Ubuntu and Debian are distinct but parallel and closely linked systems. The Ubuntu project seeks to complement the Debian project in the following areas:
Ubuntu does not provide security updates and professional support for every package available in the open source world, but selects a complete set of packages making up a solid and comprehensive desktop system and provides support for that set of packages.
For users that want access to every known package, Ubuntu provides a "universe" component (set of packages) where users of Ubuntu systems install the latest version of any package that is not in the supported set. Most of the packages in Ubuntu universe are also in Debian, although there are other sources for universe too. See the Ubuntu Components page for more detail on the structure of the Ubuntu web distribution.
Ubuntu makes a release every six months, and supports those releases for 18 months with daily security fixes and patches to critical bugs.
As Ubuntu prepares for release, we “freeze” a snapshot of Debian's development archive (“sid”). We start from “sid” in order to give ourselves the freedom to make our own decisions with regard to release management, independent of Debian's release-in-preparation. This is necessary because our release criteria are very different from Debian's.
As a simple example, a package might be excluded from Debian “testing” due to a build failure on any of the 11 architectures supported by Debian “sarge”, but it is still suitable for Ubuntu if it builds and works on only three of them. A package will also be prevented from entering Debian “testing” if it has release-critical bugs according to Debian criteria, but a bug which is release-critical for Debian may not be as important for Ubuntu.
As a community, we choose places to diverge from Debian in ways that minimize the difference between Debian and Ubuntu. For example, we usually choose to update to the very latest version of Gnome rather than the older version in Debian, and we might do the same for key other pieces of infrastructure such as X or GCC. Those decisions are listed as Feature Goals for that release, and we work as a community to make sure that they are in place before the release happens.
Many Ubuntu developers are also recognized members of the Debian community. They continue to stay active in contributing to Debian both in the course of their work on Ubuntu and directly in Debian.
When Ubuntu developers fix bugs that are also present in Debian packages -- and since the projects are linked, this happens often -- they send their bugfixes to the Debian developers responsible for that package in Debian and record the patch URL in the Debian bug system. The long term goal of that work is to ensure that patches made by the full-time Ubuntu team members are immediately also included in Debian packages where the Debian maintainer likes the work.
In Ubuntu, team members can make a change to any package, even if it is one maintained by someone else. Once you are an Ubuntu maintainer it's encouraged that you fix problems you encounter, although we also encourage polite discussions between people with an interest in a given package to improve cooperation and reduce friction between maintainers.
Debian and Ubuntu are grounded on the same free software philosophy. Both groups are explicitly committed to building an operating system of free software.
Differences between the groups lie in their treatment of non-computer applications (like documentation, fonts and binary firmware) and non-free software. Debian distributes a small amount of non-free software from their Internet servers. Ubuntu will also distribute binary drivers in the "restricted" component on its Internet servers but will not distribute any other software applications that do not meet its own Ubuntu Licensing Guidelines.
There are many other distributions that also share the same basic infrastructure (package and archive format). Ubuntu is distinguished from them in a number of ways.
First, Ubuntu contributes patches directly to Debian as bugs are fixed during the Ubuntu release process, not just when the release is actually made. With other Debian-style distributions, the source code and patches are made available in a "big bang" at release time, which makes them difficult to integrate into the upstream HEAD.
Second, Ubuntu includes a number of full-time contributors who are also Debian developers. Many of the other distributions that use Debian-style packaging do not include any active Debian contributors.
Third, Ubuntu makes much more frequent and fresher releases. Our release policy of releasing every six months is (at the time of writing :-) unique in the Linux distribution world. Ubuntu aims to provide you with a regular stable and security-supported snapshot of the best of the open source world.