[Beowulf] A press release

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Wed Jul 2 07:50:40 PDT 2008

On Tue, 1 Jul 2008, Perry E. Metzger wrote:

> Prentice Bisbal <prentice at ias.edu> writes:
>>>> does it necessarily have to be a redhat clone. can it also be a debian
>>>> based
>>>> clone?
>>> but why?  is there some concrete advantage to using Debian?
>>> I've never understood why Debian users tend to be very True Believer,
>>> or what it is that hooks them.
>> And the Debian users can say the same thing about Red Hat users. Or SUSE
>> users.  And if any still exist, the Slackware users could say the same
>> thing about the both of them. But then the Slackware users could also
>> point out that the first Linux distro was Slackware, so they are using
>> the one true Linux distro...

Or rather, one of two or three contemporary "firsts", in the guise of
SLS which became Slackware.  I actually started with SLS and then
transitioned to Slackware, all 20 or 30 little floppies of it.  The
problem (for me) was getting an install on a 4 MB system, which is all
that I had at the time.

> Precisely. It pays to allow people to use what they want. Fewer
> religious battles that way. Whether one distro or another has an
> advantage isn't the point -- people have their own tastes and it
> doesn't pay to tell them "no" without good reason.

It isn't all about religion.  There are two "real" problems with
Slackware.  One is its packaging system, the other (related) is

It's packaging system doesn't really manage dependences or automated
updates, and dependence resolution is a major pain in the ass when one
is installing a large sheaf of applications all at once.  I was once a
passionate, fervent, nay, religious user -- it has/had a very
SunOS/BSD-like etc layout that was quite painless for me to work, moving
over from administrating a mostly-SunOS network, where RH had a much
more SysV-like interface that I had to learn.  The sources for most of
its apps were visibly ports of of the same software I regularly built
for the Suns -- remember that right up to linux, Sun workstations were
"the" unix boxes for people that wrote and adopted Linux.  Maintaining
all the open source packages was "easy" on Suns because that is what the
open source writers were using and was usually the makefile default, but
it was a PITA (or more practically, "expensive" in human time and
duplicated effort) there as well.

Beyond automated install/updates and dependencies (that now can be
sort-of-managed with add-ons basically derived from apt tools or rpm
tools) Slackware's other major problem is simply its up-to-dateness.  I
don't know numbers, but I think it is way, way behind in number of users
these days to both Debian and RH-derived distros, not to mention all the
rest.  I'd be surprised if it were as high as fifth in user base.  This
basically means that there is a time lag between package developments
and releases in the other distros where the user (and hence DEVELOPER)
base reside.  Then there is a further delay in getting builds in that
work with the existing dependencies, because there is no dependency
system to speak of.

Time lags of this sort are windows of opportunity when security exploits
are discovered.  They also annoy users, who ask "why is X available in
distro Y but not here?"  I think of Slackware as being a great hacker
distro, a good distro for somebody who wants to work close to the metal
(and very hard) to manage their sources, but not the best distro for
trouble-free, scalable maintenance of a large network of systems OR for
individual users installing a personal standalone workstation.

These two points aren't (I think) "religion" -- they are practical costs
associated with using the distro for clusters or workstation LANs or
personal workstations that need to be considered when picking a distro
for any of those purposes.  When I considered them, I switched.  The
human costs are real; people pay money for them or they come out of a
fixed opportunity cost time budget.  One person can manage a
staggeringly large, surprisingly heterogeneous network of RH-derived
systems with kickstart with very little effort -- what effort one
expends scales up to the entire network.  Debian is reportedly similarly
manageable at scale, although I have less experience there.  I have
never heard anyone say "Yeah, Slackware, that's the best distro to use
if you have just one person and she has to manage four hundred systems
in a mix of cluster, lab and desktop LAN settings.


> Perry

Robert G. Brown                            Phone(cell): 1-919-280-8443
Duke University Physics Dept, Box 90305
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Web: http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb
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