Science and technology

What’s the distinction between a fork and a distribution?

If you’ve got been round open supply software program for any size of time, you will hear the phrases fork and distribution thrown round casually in dialog. For many individuals, the excellence between the 2 is not clear, so right here I will attempt to clear up the confusion.

First, some definitions

Before explaining the nuances of a fork vs. a distribution and the pitfalls thereof, let’s outline key ideas.

Open source software is software program that:

  • Is freely out there to distribute beneath sure license restraints
  • Permits its supply code to be viewable and modified beneath sure license restraints

Open supply software program may be consumed within the following methods:

  • Downloaded in binary or supply code format, typically at no cost (e.g., the Eclipse developer environment)
  • As a distribution (product) by a vendor, generally at a value to the person (e.g., Red Hat products)
  • Embedded into proprietary software program options (e.g., some smartphones and browsers show fonts utilizing the open supply freetype software)

Free and open supply (FOSS) shouldn’t be essentially “free” as in “zero cost.” Free and open supply merely means the software program is free to distribute, modify, examine, and use, topic to the software program’s licensing. The software program distributor might connect a purchase order worth to it. For instance, Linux is accessible for free of charge as Fedora, CentOS, Gentoo, and so on. or as a paid distribution as Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE, and so on.

Community refers back to the organizations and people that collaboratively work on an open supply venture. Any particular person or group can contribute to the venture by writing or reviewing code, documentation, take a look at suites, managing conferences, updating web sites, and so on., offered they abide by the license. For instance, at, we see authorities, nonprofit, business, and training organizations contributing to some open source projects.

An open supply venture is the results of this collaborative growth, documentation, and testing. Most tasks have a central repository the place code, documentation, testing, and so forth are developed.

A distribution is a duplicate, in binary or supply code format, of an open supply venture. For instance, CentOS, Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE, Ubuntu, and others are distributions of the Linux venture. Tectonic, Google Kubernetes Engine, Amazon Container Service, and Red Hat OpenShift are distributions of the Kubernetes venture.

Vendor distributions of open supply tasks are sometimes known as merchandise, thus Red Hat OpenStack Platform is the Red Hat OpenStack product that could be a distribution of the OpenStack upstream venture—and it’s nonetheless 100% open supply.

The trunk is the principle workstream locally the place the open supply venture is developed.

An open supply fork is a model of the open supply venture that’s developed alongside a separate workstream from the principle trunk.

Thus, a distribution shouldn’t be the identical as a fork. A distribution is a packaging of the upstream venture that’s made out there by distributors, typically as merchandise. However, the core code and documentation within the distribution adhere to the model within the upstream venture. A fork—and any distribution primarily based on the fork—ends in a model of the code and documentation which can be totally different from the upstream venture. Users who’ve forked upstream open supply code have to keep up it on their very own, which means they lose the advantage of the collaboration that takes place within the upstream neighborhood.

To additional clarify a software program fork, let’s use the analogy of migrating animals. Whales and sea lions migrate from the Arctic to California and Mexico; Monarch butterflies migrate from Alaska to Mexico; and (within the Northern Hemisphere) swallows and plenty of different birds fly south for the winter. The key to a profitable migration is that every one animals within the group stick collectively, comply with the leaders, discover meals and shelter, and do not get misplaced.

Risks of going it by yourself

A chicken, butterfly, or whale that strays from the group loses the advantage of remaining with the group and realizing the place to search out meals, shelter, and the specified vacation spot.

Similarly, customers or organizations that fork and modify an upstream venture and preserve it on their very own run the next dangers:

  1. They can not replace their code primarily based on the upstream as a result of their code differs. This is named technical debt; the extra adjustments made to forked code, the extra it prices in money and time to rebase the fork to the upstream venture.
  2. They doubtlessly run much less safe code. If a vulnerability is present in open supply code and glued by the neighborhood within the upstream, a forked model of the code might not profit from this repair as a result of it’s totally different from the upstream.
  3. They won’t profit from new options. The upstream neighborhood, utilizing enter from many organizations and people, creates new options for the advantage of all customers of the upstream venture. If a company forks the upstream, they doubtlessly can not incorporate the brand new options as a result of their code differs.
  4. They won’t combine with different software program packages. Open supply tasks are not often developed as single entities; slightly they typically are packaged along with different tasks to create an answer. Forked code might not have the ability to be built-in with different tasks as a result of the builders of the forked code usually are not collaborating within the upstream with different contributors.
  5. They won’t certify on platforms. Software packages are sometimes licensed to run on platforms so, if issues come up, the and software program distributors can collaborate to search out the foundation trigger or drawback.

In abstract, an open supply distribution is solely a packaging of an upstream, multi-organizational, collaborative open supply venture offered and supported by a vendor. A fork is a separate growth workstream of an open supply venture and dangers not with the ability to profit from the collaborative efforts of the upstream neighborhood.

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