What is the X.Org Foundation, anyway?
A few weeks ago the annual X.Org Foundation Board of Directors election took place. The Board of Directors has 8 members at any given moment, and members are elected for 2-year terms. Instead of renewing the whole board every 2 years, half the board is renewed every year. Foundation members, which must apply for or renew membership every year, are the electorate in the process. Their main duty is voting in board elections and occasionally voting in other changes proposed by the board.
As you may know, thanks to the work I do at Igalia, and the trust of other Foundation members, I’m part of the board and currently serving the second year of my term, which will end in Q1 2024. Despite my merits coming from my professional life, I do not represent Igalia as a board member. However, to avoid companies from taking over the board, I must disclose my professional affiliation and we must abide by the rule that prohibits more than two people with the same affiliation from being on the board at the same time.
Because of the name of the Foundation and for historical reasons, some people are confused about its purpose and sometimes they tend to think it acts as a governance body for some projects, particularly the X server, but this is not the case. The X.Org Foundation wiki page at freedesktop.org has some bits of information but I wanted to clarify a few points, like mentioning the Foundation has no paid employees, and explain what we do at the Foundation and the tasks of the Board of Directors in practical terms.
Cue the music.
(“The Who - Who Are You?” starts playing)
The main points would be:
The Foundation acts as an umbrella for multiple projects, including the X server, Wayland and others.
The board of directors has no power to decide who has to work on what.
The largest task is probably organizing XDC.
Being a director is not a paid position.
The Foundation pays for project infrastructure.
The Foundation, or its financial liaison, acts as an intermediary with other orgs.
Umbrella for multiple projects
Some directors have argued in the past that we need to change the Foundation name to something different, like the Freedesktop.org Foundation. With some healthy sense of humor, others have advocated for names like Freedesktop Software Foundation, or FSF for short, which should be totally not confusing. Humor or not, the truth is the X.Org Foundation is essentially the Freedesktop Foundation, so the name change would be nice in my own personal opinion.
If you take a look at the Freedesktop Gitlab instance, you can navigate to a list of projects and sort them by stars. Notable mentions you’ll find in the list: Mesa, PipeWire, GStreamer, Wayland, the X server, Weston, PulseAudio, NetworkManager, libinput, etc. Most of them closely related to a free and open source graphics stack, or free and open source desktop systems in general.
X.Org server unmaintained? I feel you
As I mentioned above, the Foundation has no paid employees and the board has no power to direct engineering resources to a particular project under its umbrella. It’s not a legal question, but a practical one. Is the X.Org server dying and nobody wants to touch it anymore? Certainly. Many people who worked on the X server are now working on Wayland and creating and improving something that works better in a modern computer, with a GPU that’s capable of doing things which were not available 25 years ago. It’s their decision and the board can do nothing.
On a tangent, I’m feeling a bit old now, so let me say when I started using Linux more than 20 years ago people were already mentioning most toolkits were drawing stuff to pixmaps and putting those pixmaps on the screen, ignoring most of the drawing capabilities of the X server. I’ve seen tearing when playing movies on Linux many times, and choppy animations everywhere. Attempting to use the X11 protocol over a slow network resulted in broken elements and generally unusable screens, problems which would not be present when falling back to a good VNC server and client (they do only one specialized thing and do it better).
For the last 3 or 4 years I’ve been using Wayland (first on my work laptop, nowadays also on my personal desktop) and I’ve seen it improve all the time. When using Wayland, animations are never choppy in my own experience, tearing is unheard of and things work more smoothly, as far as my experience goes. Thanks to using the hardware better, Wayland may also give you improved battery life. I’ve posted in the past that you can even use NVIDIA with Gnome on Wayland these days, and things are even simpler if you use an Intel or AMD GPU.
Naturally, there may be a few things which may not be ready for you yet. For example, maybe you use a DE which only works on X11. Or perhaps you use an app or DE which works on Wayland, but its support is not great and has problems there. If it’s an app, likely power users or people working on distributions can tune it to make it use XWayland by default, instead of Wayland, while bugs are ironed out.
X.Org Developers Conference
Ouch, there we have the “X.Org” moniker again…
Back on track, if the Foundation can do nothing about the lack of people maintaining the X server and does not set any technical direction for projects, what does it do? (I hear you shouting “nothing!” while waving your fist at me.) One of the most time-consuming tasks is organizing XDC every year, which is arguably one of the most important conferences, if not the most important one, for open source graphics right now.
Specifically, the board of directors will set up a commission composed of several board members and other Foundation members to review talk proposals, select which ones will have a place at the conference, talk to speakers about shortening or lengthening their talks, and put them on a schedule to be used at the conference, which typically lasts 3 days. I chaired the paper committee for XDC 2022 and spent quite a lot of time on this.
The conference is free to attend for anyone and usually alternates location between Europe and the Americas. Some people may want to travel to the conference to present talks there but they may lack the budget to do so. Maybe they’re a student or they don’t have enough money, or their company will not sponsor travel to the conference. For that, we have travel grants. The board of directors also reviews requests for travel grants and approves them when they make sense.
But that is only the final part. The board of directors selects the conference contents and prepares the schedule, but the job of running the conference itself (finding an appropriate venue, paying for it, maybe providing some free lunches or breakfasts for attendees, handling audio and video, streaming, etc) falls in the hands of the organizer. Kid you not, it’s not easy to find someone willing to spend the needed amount of time and money organizing such a conference, so the work of the board starts a bit earlier. We have to contact people and request for proposals to organize the conference. If we get more than one proposal, we have to evaluate and select one.
As the conference nears, we have to fire some more emails and convince companies to sponsor XDC. This is also really important and takes time as well. Money gathered from sponsors is not only used for the conference itself and travel grants, but also to pay for infrastructure and project hosting throughout the whole year. Which takes us to…
Spending millions in director salaries
No, that’s not happening.
Being a director of the Foundation is not a paid position. Every year we suffer a bit to be able to get enough candidates for the 4 positions that will be elected. Many times we have to extend the nomination period.
If you read news about the Foundation having trouble finding candidates for the board, that barely qualifies as news because it’s almost the same every year. Which doesn’t mean we’re not happy when people spread the news and we receive some more nominations, thank you!
Just like being an open source maintainer is not a grateful task sometimes, not everybody wants to volunteer and do time-consuming tasks for free. Running the board elections themselves, approving membership renewals and requests every year, and sending voting reminders also takes time. Believe me, I just did that a few weeks ago with help from Mark Filion from Collabora and technical assistance from Martin Roukala.
The Foundation spends a lot of money on project hosting costs, including Gitlab and CI systems, for projects under the Freedesktop.org umbrella. These systems are used every day and are fundamental for some projects and software you may be using if you run Linux. Running our own Gitlab instance and associated services helps keep the web decentralized and healthy, and provides more technical flexibility. Many people seem to appreciate those details, judging by the number of projects we host.
Speaking on behalf of the community
The Foundation also approaches other organizations on behalf of the community to achieve some stuff that would be difficult otherwise.
To pick one example, we’ve worked with VESA to provide members with access to various specifications that are needed to properly implement some features. Our financial liaison, formerly SPI and soon SFC, signs agreements with the Khronos Group that let them waive fees for certifying open source implementations of their standards.
For example, you know RADV is certified to comply with the Vulkan 1.3 spec and the submission was made on behalf of Software in the Public Interest, Inc. Same thing for lavapipe. Similar for Turnip, which is Vulkan 1.1 conformant.
The song is probably over by now and you have a better idea of what the Foundation does, and what the board members do to keep the lights on. If you have any questions, please let me know.