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By mephisto786 at 2006-06-18 11:48
WHY SLACKWARE WILL ALWAYS MATTER
By Jibril Hambel
Released under a Creative Commons (Attrib-NonCommerical-No Derivs 2.5) license.
Several months ago, some gormless weasel from somewhere stirred up a fuss when he wrote an essay on one of the Nixer sites asking whether the Slackware distro mattered any longer. Its not really worth googling to find the author and the site where it ran, since it seems to have created an inadvertent meme in the Linux community as advocates, fanboys and editorial writers picked up upon the concept of Slackware 'mattering.' Misguided and myopic as the essay was, it certainly provoked a reaction. For a number of very good reasons, the question stuck in many a craw, and triggered a defensive barrage of articles telling the clueless author just why Slack remains a vital distro and a necessary flavor option in the distro hit list, despite the fact that most other distros are moving on to DVD size releases and trying to outrace each other to be latest and greatest.
The premise of this essay is simple: the question is not whether Slackware matters, but WHY it does and WHY it will continue to do so as long as it remains in ongoing development. I suppose the 'always' part is a bit of hyperbole; should a distro become defunct and all development cease, it would be as useful as a Ygdrassil install floppy in 2006. But perhaps not. The question posed by that one article was not whether Slackware was useful or current or important, but whether it 'mattered'.
So perhaps even a defunct Slackware would continue to matter, especially in light of the fact that a number of slick and solid derivative projects seem to be taking off from the Slack launchpad.
Slackware matters for many reasons. Some quite up-to-date concerns continue to be addressed by the oldest surviving Linux distro. Before the Linus Torvald's bombshell expressing his disdain for the Gnome desktop environment, Slack had already jettisoned the desktop favorite. For different reasons perhaps, but it showed the Linux fold that some distros were not afraid to dump what no longer worked well enough, rather than cave into contemporary traditions and competitive habits.
Slack can afford to do that because it is still maintained primarily by its founder and it doesn't claim the huge number of users seen by Ubuntu, Suse or Fedora. And the fact that the distro is not overly concerned about dragging more converts into its fold is another reason why it remains an important offering. While Debian claims to be the universal operating system, the one offering the largest degree of freedoms to its users, and it's ongoing development promises to keep the users first, one can catch many of those philosophies and promises in Slackware as well, albeit in a slightly different form. As someone who used Debian daily, I can vouch that their manifestos and promises are being upheld. But I find many of the same benefits running Slackware.
For the sake of a reference point, I'll point out that I currently run Slackware 10.2 and Suse 10 on a laptop and a very dated XP (Service Pack 1) and Debian Unstable on the desktop. Between those three Linux variants, I find all I need to maneuver the GNU/Linux landscape while relying on VMWare to test stuff I don't necessarily want to install on hard drive. Why then, with a full blown Slack install, would I go through several nights of hairpulling frustration to get Slack also running virtually on the Window's VMware? Because Slack works a cut above most as a stable, simple, fast and clean production machine, and is also the most educational, and often unforgiving distro to experiment on. With a virtual Slack, I can hose it as often as needed while plumbing its depths and intricacies, but not lose the work I prefer to do on a Slackware production box.
With other distros racking up as many as 20,000 available apps for their package managers, Slack seems minuscule by comparison. The number of apps that are officially supported runs to about 600. And yet more than one of the 'big ass' distros out there claim to offer a one app for one job default installation. With Slack, whether they make that claim or not, it remains more evident. Rather than tailor their distro to run the most apps, they have designed a distro that aims at getting the job done rather than collecting more software to do the same job with different guis and developer teams.
What your basic Slackware release doesn't do is hedge on the conservative side (except perhaps in kernel matters), with Linux software releases. It aims to provide the latest release that have proven themselves to work without making undue sacrifices to overall stability. I fully expect the next release to have KDE 3.5 so long as there are no major last minute bugs in its Slack build. You could, of course, have installed it when it came out and many have, but I'm talking about Slackware supported here. The term 'supported' means a lot to Slackers. It means it will run, and run well, and won't fall down and go *boom* dragging your OS with it. You're free to run all the 'unsupported' software' you want. But when something is supported it's virtually a product guarantee from the Slack folks that it will work. A first time install of Slack will leave you, well, slack-jawed, if you equate stability with something like Debian Sarge's 3.3 KDE and OpenOffice 1.4. Simply put, Slackware offers the best of both worlds so stability doesn't always translate as extremely dated.
Things like this matter. Slack remains a flavor with very specific strong points and all those pluses have a lot to do with the distro's overall approach. To oversimplify, the approach can be broken down into a few subheadings that can further illustrate why such a development philosophy is so important as the distro field grows more and more competitive. There are the standard subcategories of stability, simplicity and speed, which tend to speak for themselves. Being developed almost single handedly by the man who invented the distro means you would be hard pressed to find someone more intimately knowledgeable about the distro in question. The fact that its the same person who began the distro in 1992-3 means that the cerebral archive of Slack wisdom is more unified and holistic than 'thousand developer' systems. The possible drawback is in terms of size and software availability, but if you're looking to load ten thousand apps on your box you're not looking for Slackware.
The simplicity of design and structure tends to provide speed to even antique machines, since the idea of cruft and bloat is a non-issue. These are standard Slack selling points and probably don't need to be explored further.
What makes it such an important distro in the first decade of the 21st century are words like non-competitive, anti-trendy, slightly arrogant and extremely hackerish. And I mean that in a good way. As the battle for the desktop continues to rage, Slackware refuses to join the rumble if it means sacrificing it's core qualities mentioned above. It doesn't follow trends to corner market shares, it simply does what works. If Slack were trendy it would have changed its installer to a slick gui and made sure it released as regularly as the rest of the top tenners. Distro testers and bleeding edge seekers are often frustrated by the lack of consistent release schedules. Slackers are quite content to wait 'till it's ready.'
The distro has gotten the rep over the past several years as being arrogant, as being as user-friendly as a coiled rattlesnake, with a user base that cuts newbs no slack at all. But, like Debian, it never claimed to be a migration tool or a newb friendly point and click world. The 'unofficial' ##slackware channel on Freenode counts as one of the most knowledgeable and helpful channels I've encountered. Therefore it attracts users who want to increase their Unix skills and competence and explore how a system works, and who want to customize to their hearts content, preferably without relying on third and fourth party control centers. Users who KNOW the first step in troubleshooting and learning is the man page. If you want to learn Slack, you will be perusing Unix manuals - not Sam's 24 Hour Linux Distro guides - more often than many other distro users. Which means the knowledge you glean while slacking tends to be applicable across a wider range of OSs. And if going into command line to edit configuration scripts still gives you a case of nerves, the hacker in you has yet to develop the bloodlust that leads to reinstalls as you learn by trial and error what it was that hosed your system this time. Or to realize it is often the fastest and most efficient way to configure your system without worrying about distro configuration tools overwriting your changes.
You do need to spend time on a system like Slack, to maintain the system itself and make it do your bidding. Because it is a relatively small distro, though, you don't need a Debian sized education to start tweaking, configuring and customizing. Debian, in spite of its size remains a pretty bare bones distro, but simply addressing package management could lead to a series of summer intensives at a local community college. Slack doesn't even offer a dependency handler in its own brand of package management. And that – according to official Slack documents – 'is how we like it'. If that's arrogance, so be it. Having tried Slack, I find I can at least say I've never spent hours in dependency hell, and I've never lost an app because a new one had issues with an old one's libs. Arrogance, in reality, is the wrong word, or an incorrect perception from non-slackers. It's more of a 'this works, and it works well and simply... so why do I need the bells and whistles and options I never needed in the first place if I'm willing to learn the Slack way of doing things?” pragmatism. Efficient pragmatism will always matter.
I have no intention of slighting the many people out there besides Patrick Volkerding (Slack's Papa) who sweat away to keep the old workhouse in tiptop shape and running smoothly. But I think its safe to say there were times when the debugging and promoting and hacking runs were endured by 'the man' himself and no one else. The singularity of vision and the commitment to excellence found in the Slackware distribution come in large part from the sometimes Herculean, sometimes Sisyphean efforts of a man who devoted himself to keeping his vision of an OS alive and kicking through both personal and industry upheavals, and it's why he's one of the few personalities mentioned on a first name (or initials) basis alongside Linus, Larry (of Perl fame), RMS and ESR. And it's one of things that makes Slack so streamlined, efficient and trustworthy; so well crafted.
And craftsmanship, commitment, and quality will always matter.