FOXTROT/ALFA: FOSDEM Special Edition Newsletter

Welcome to FOXTROT/ALFA #75 for Monday, 3 February 2020, this is a bit of a FOSDEM special edition. The Free and Open source Software Developers' European Meeting, which took place in Brussels over the weekend, is pretty much the biggest open source conference in the world, certainly the biggest one without any commercial interests behind it.

I’ve tried to collect all the relevant news from FOSDEM, but I have to admit that most of it is German and a lot of it is written by myself. I naturally would have preferred English stories for this newsletter, but there seems to be next to no professional coverage of this event in English-speaking publications, sadly. So I had to translate the most salient points for you…

Portable Home Directories with Systemd

Systemd now has support for portable home directories via the new, optional systemd-homed service. The Register calls it “the fix no one asked for”, and they aren’t exactly wrong. It will be available in systemd 245.

Home directories in the new system support several storage mechanisms and may be located on a removeable drive. The user record is cryptographically signed so the user cannot modify it themselves without invalidating it. There is an option for encryption with fscrypt (applies encryption at the directory level), or mounting from a CIFS network share, or in a partition encrypted with LUKS2 (Linux Unified Key Setup). This last is the most secure approach.

One use case is where a user has a PC running Linux in both their home and office, and is able to carry their home directory with them on a portable storage device. The advent of cloud storage has made this less of a problem than would have been the case a few years back, and a common reaction to the new systemd approach is that the problems it fixes are not pressing and may be outweighed by potential incompatibilities.

Systemd creator Lennart Poettering held a Q&A talk about the new system at FOSDEM , but that didn’t seem to manage to explain any better why you would use this, either. On the contrary, the underlying technology still seems to be very flaky and immature. Poettering didn’t mince words: “It sucks.”

Unix Greybeards Hate Containers

Speaking of systemd, Red Hat’s container expert Daniel Riek, who oversaw RHEL’s move to the shiny new world of containerisation, gave an overview of the history of Unix/Linux as an application platform at FOSDEM. He talked about the different stages: mainframes, bare metal Linux servers, virtualisation and finally containers.

In his eyes, software stacks getting more and more complex means there is no alternative to containers when deploying software in production. And he predicted “a greybeard revolt” to counter this container revolution. “This stuff will be worse than systemd when it comes to greybeard acceptance and forks”, he reckons. I think he might be right. I can’t get used to containers either and my beard is getting quite grey these days…

Karlitschek Says the GPL is Great for Nextcloud, So it Should Be Fine for You, Too

In the ongoing discussion about cloud companies “strip mining” open source by forking software projects, deploying them for their customers and then not giving back to the community, ownCloud and Nextcloud founder Frank Karlitschek is of the opinion, that “the GPL is great for business”. In his FOSDEM talk, he argued that open source does not need to fear these developments. Licenses changes, like the ones undertaken at Redis, MongoDB and CockroachDB, are an attempt “to fix open source by killing it”, said Karlitschek. “That stuff clearly isn’t open source”, he opined.

He did admit that the only open source business model that works at a large scale is selling support and that this is theoretically threatened by cloud providers, who copy the open source software and then simply support it themselves. This does theoretically threaten the business model of companies like Red Hat and his own company Nextcloud, Karlitschek said. But he then said that Red Hat is clearly doing fine and so is his company.

Which is a logic error in his argument, I feel. Red Hat is fine because its huge and can take a lot of hits in its current business model before the company will be in trouble. Red Hat is also trying to enter the same cloud market as the providers threatening it, which could be seen as a kind of defending-by-attacking mentality. And Nextcloud is fine because it is, by definition, a private cloud business. People run Karlitschek’s software precisely because they don’t want to put their data in Amazon’s, Microsoft’s and Google’s cloud. So he’s fine because he carved out a very special niche for himself. His talk did not, however, explain how companies like Redis and MongoDB are fine and how the GPL would have helped them defend against Amazon and similar cloud providers.

The Future of Thunderbird …is Murky

As I’ve reported previously, Mozilla is pushing Thunderbird off to a for-profit company. It also looks like they’re laying off 70 people with this move. Apparently their “partnerships with search engines” weren’t “as lucrative as they hoped” – although I’m not sure if that refers to their well-known Firefox deal with Google or separate Thunderbird deals. At a FOSDEM talk, Ryan Sipes (who’s the community manager for Thunderbird) said that Mozilla’s tax-exempt charity status had presented problems for developing the mail client. They are now free to strike out on their own, said Sipes. Whatever that means.

I’m also not sure why not making enough money on something would be a problem for a charitable organisation. Unless they are planning to go the Avast route and start spying on people’s email usage. Hey, it works for Gmail.

Anyway, back to Sipes' FOSDEM talk. Apparently Thunderbird made $1.5 million in donations in 2018. But wouldn’t this now present a problem, because clearly now people won’t be able to tax deduct these donations? I don’t get it.

Sipes did talk about some upcoming features like native support for encrypted emails directly via OpenPGP, coming in Thunderbird 78. They’re also integrating the calendar plugin Lightning directly into the email client and working on HTML widgets to make email “more productive”. All well and good, but I’m really still very sketchy on this whole financial stuff. That all really reads like bullcrap to me, but sadly the Heise colleague who covered this talk seems to have missed all of these inconsistencies.

My personal takeaway from all of this is that I need a new email client. I’m thinking Claws Mail.

The Three Freedoms of AI

An interesting talk I covered had two AI ethics researchers propose “Three Freedoms of Ethical AI”, along the lines of Stallman’s Four Freedoms. Broadly, these say that humans should

  1. Have the freedom to understand machine-made decisions
  2. Have the freedom to hold designers to account over AI decisions
  3. Have the freedom to manually override AI decisions

I really like this idea and I hope there will be more written about this in the future. This clearly still needs some work, but AI ethics are clearly a field we need to sort out – and quickly.

I like the idea that people should get access to all the data and design specifications of AI systems so that they can understand how decisions are made. It’s a no-brainer, really, as is the idea that designers (organisations and people) should be accountable for the systems they design. Now, the concept that there always should be a manual override isn’t a new one, but it is probably the most important of the three ideas.

This was probably the most important talk at FOSDEM this year, if you look at the big picture of it all. AI ethics will be a crucial field of research and development and open source developers should get involved as soon as possible so as to not cede the field to big companies.

Further Noteworthy FOSDEM Talks

If you speak German, you might want to also check out my coverage of the following talks (direct links to video of the full talks in English, if available, in brackets):

Okay, that’s if for today. I’ll catch you up with all the non-FOSDEM news in tomorrow’s newsletter.

I’m already at over 1,400 words here and have written things all day. See ya tomorrow, time for some Red Dead Redemption on my end!

This is an archived issue of my daily newsletter FOXTROT/ALFA. You can find more information about it, including how to subscribe via email, on this page.