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OpenBSD Developers

So, how can a group of volunteers scattered all over the world actually create, maintain, and develop an operating system? Almost all discussion takes place via email and online chat. This can be slower than a face-to-face meeting, but is the only means by which people everywhere in the world can openly and reasonably communicate. This also has the advantage of providing a written record of discussions.

OpenBSD has three tiers of developers: the contributors, the committers, and the coordinator.


Contributors are OpenBSD users who have the skills necessary to add features to the operating system, fix problems, or write documentation. Almost anyone can be a contributor. Problems range from a typographical error in the documentation to a device driver that crashes the system under particular circumstances. Every feature that is included in OpenBSD is there because some contributor took the time to sit down and write the code for it. Contributors who submit careful, correct fixes are welcome in the OpenBSD group.

If a contributor submits enough fixes of high enough quality, he may be offered the role of committer.


Committers are people who have direct access to the central OpenBSD source code repository. Most committers are skilled programmers who work on OpenBSD in their own time, as a hobby. They can make whatever changes they deem necessary for their OpenBSD projects, but are answerable to each other and to the project coordinator. They communicate via a variety of mailing lists, which are available for reading by interested parties. As these mailing lists are meant for developers to discuss coding and implementation details on, users asking basic questions are either ignored or asked to be quiet.

A committer's work is frequently available on websites and mailing lists before being integrated into the main OpenBSD source code collection, allowing interested people to preview their work. While being a committer seems glamorous, these people also carry a lot of responsibility — if they break the operating system or change something so that it conflicts with the driving "vision" of the Project, they must fix it. All OpenBSD committers answer to the project coordinator.


Theo de Raadt started OpenBSD in 1995 and still coordinates the project. He is the final word on how the system works, what is included in the system and who gets direct access to the repository. He resolves all disputes that contributors and committers cannot resolve amongst themselves. Theo takes whatever actions are necessary to keep the OpenBSD Project running smoothly.

Many people have very specific coordination roles within OpenBSD — quite a few architectures have a "point man" for issues that affect that hardware, the compiler has a maintainer, and so on. These are people who have earned that position of trust within the community. The only time that Theo acts as the final word is when someone has broken one of OpenBSD's few rules, such as bringing bad licenses into the source tree or behaving poorly with other committers.

This style of organization, with a central benevolent dictator, avoids a lot of the problems other large open-source projects have with management boards, core teams, or other structures. When someone decides to work on OpenBSD, they can either accept Theo's decisions as final or risk conflicting with the main OpenBSD Project. Thanks to the cooperative nature of OpenBSD development, Theo doesn't have to use that Big Stick nearly as often as one might think.

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