One OS, three flavors: How Fedora 21 is splitting up to double down on focus

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The Fedora 21 beta is out today, and a final, stable release is right around the corner in December. This is a longer than normal release cycle for Fedora—an entire year instead of just six months. And it’s no surprise, considering the sweeping vision change heralded in the update.

I spoke to Matthew Miller, Fedora’s project leader, about the sweeping, once-a-decade “” changes going on right now and where he sees the Linux desktop going in the future.

The initiative

Fedora has an identity as a long-standing free software Linux distribution; it’s now existed for ten years. The project is a rethink of the way Fedora is made and developed, and who it’s targeted towards.

“ is basically looking at this next decade and seeing what we can do to be more successful and hopefully dominate the decade—that’s the goal," Miller told me. Fedora’s stated goal is still “world domination.” It’s good to aim high.

matthew miller fedora Matthew Miller via Creative Commons

Fedora project lead Matthew Miller.

Traditionally, Fedora has been developed as a bunch of “Lego bricks,” as Fedora’s project leader put it. Sure, there’s a desktop installation disc, but if you want to do anything beyond use the basic desktop you’re a bit on your own. There’s a full installer DVD with four gigabytes of packages you can download if you’d like. You’re on your own when it comes to choosing, installing, and setting them up, however.

Fedora’s reorganized itself to produce “three separate products… not just as a bunch of packages and Lego bricks,” but to meet specific needs. These products are Workstation, Cloud, and Server.

As Mathew told me, these aren’t just three different installer discs. Instead, there are three different groups in Fedora overseeing these different projects. Each product can have its own defaults. For example, Fedora Workstation might want to pursue simpler installer partitioning options and switch to newer file systems like Btrfs, while Fedora Server might want to keep advanced enterprise file system tools available in the installer.

In the old Fedora, a choice made for one product would affect all the others—now it doesn’t. When deciding on previous defaults, the decision “was always in the context of what is the best default for all situations,” Miller said. Now different situations can have their own best defaults.

Workstation, Server, and Cloud

In a nutshell, here are the three products. When you visit Fedora’s soon-to-be-redesigned homepage, you’ll see links to each and an explanation of who they’re for. There won’t be such a singular focus on the Fedora Desktop product.

Workstation: Fedora Workstation is closest to the traditional desktop product. However, what’s really interesting here is a stronger focus on developers who need a Linux workstation to get things done. This is targeted at “somebody who’s writing code for whatever use out in the world,” from student programmers to developers working in the enterprise. To this end, Fedora Workstation includes a “DevAssistant” tool that will quickly set up a developer environment in just a few clicks or keystrokes.

fedora 21 devassistant

Fedora 21 Workstation's DevAssistant tool.

The goal is to make Fedora the best platform for these developers, so, when you go to a developer event, all those Macs you usually see would be replaced by Fedora machines. That’s quite a goal.

Miller was quick to stress that Fedora Workstation would still have all the usual stuff for enthusiasts. To continue the Lego set analogy, they “still have all these buckets of Lego,” but it’s not just random buckets of Lego. There are Lego sets to help get you started. So it’s now “here’s a castle set and here’s a spaceship set”— you’re not just a bunch of options and left to your own devices. But you can ignore the sets and dive into the bucket, if you want.

Cloud: The cloud product is what you’d expect: pre-built images “to run in Amazon EC2, OpenStack, or other cloud providers," as Miller explains it. Fedora has always had a bit more of a desktop focus, so “many people haven’t chosen to use it” for the cloud. They want people to think of Fedora first for this. Miller was also eager to discuss Fedora Atomic, a Docker host ready to go for the cloud. Docker is a container-based virtualization system that many people are becoming very enthusiastic about lately. Even Microsoft now loves Docker!

Server: This is the product closest to the traditional big Fedora installer DVD. “It’s your Lego and you can assemble it into whatever server you want,” he said. It’s meant for a home or small business server, and you can easily install “roles” to set it up as a database server, identity server, or whatever other type of server you want. They’ll also be shipping the Cockpit web-based server administration tool to provide easy, web-based administration of a Fedora server. This is ideal for new server admins, or just server admins new to Linux.

fedora 21 cockpit web based server gui

Fedora's Cockpit web-based server GUI.

When asked why someone would choose to go with Fedora on a server instead of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (Red Hat funds Fedora, and Fedora provides a sort of development platform for the stable, longer-supported, slower-moving RHEL) or CentOS (a free repackaging of RHEL), Miller quickly conceded that RHEL and other slower-moving systems would be ideal for many servers.

“It’s not necessarily for everybody,” he said, but Fedora would have all the newest versions of things and support for the latest hardware. “RHEL 7 has a lot of big changes from RHEL 6, but people who were keeping up with Fedora were ready for them already.”

The future of the Linux desktop

So that’s the future of Fedora, at least for the next ten years. A stronger focus on the reasons people actually choose to use Linux, where Linux is particularly ideal, without sacrificing all that tweakability enthusiasts like. “We still have all those things you can tinker with… but we wanted to make something that is polished to a certain audience.”

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But what about the future of the Linux desktop, something that’s intertwined with the future of “the desktop” in general?

“Most people who have a computer don’t want a computer. Most people want the things you can get by having a computer… Having a computer is a horrible nightmare they put up with,” Miller told me. It’s true. Not everyone is a geek who enjoys messing around with an alternative operating system. But this doesn’t mean Fedora is abandoning the desktop and trying to become a tablet operating system, as Windows 8 attempted to be. “The desktop is going to take a long time to die,” he said.

To Miller, this is good news for Linux.

“Of the people who are running the desktop, a lot more of them are going to be interested in running Linux, percentage-wise.” There are always going to be people who want more than a tablet or a stripped-down computing experience like Chrome OS provides. These people are everyone from software developers to advanced users who want to customize things and have more control of the system. Linux will have an important role to fill in appealing to developers, productivity-focused users looking for a full desktop operating system, and just advanced users and tweakers—“especially as those mass-market operating systems get more and more locked down to be more like a tablet’s operating system,” Miller said.

It’s a legitimate concern, so it’s good to have a solid Linux desktop environment waiting in the wings if that day ever comes. (Fear of a Microsoft’s tightly controlled Windows Store is also a big reason why Valve is building SteamOS.) Linux gives users an escape hatch if Microsoft ever decides to lock down the Windows desktop completely, as they already do on Windows RT.

Fedora 21 is currently in development, but the alpha release we tested seemed surprisingly stable and solid. The goal of Fedora is to be “leading edge, not bleeding edge,” according to Miller—and they’re living up to that here. The final release of Fedora 21 should be out in early December.

“It’s shaping up to be one of our best releases ever,” Mathew told me.

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