Debian community splits over systemd, but fork still unlikely

UNIX admins threaten to fork Debian if systemd makes it into next version

The latest chapter in the ongoing furor over the software known as systemd threatens to split the Debian community, after a splinter group stated that it would create a fork of the well-known Linux distribution if systemd is included in an upcoming release.

“We don't want to be forced to use systemd in substitution to the traditional UNIX sysvinit init, because systemd betrays the UNIX philosophy,” a group of unnamed “veteran UNIX admins” writes at the campaign’s website,

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Systemd, essentially, is a piece of software designed to be the first thing that runs in a given Linux session, initializing the various services required for a user to do work. It’s a replacement for the venerable init process, which dates back to the days of Unix. According to its proponents, it’s a badly needed modernization of an archaic process, letting systems boot faster and reducing system resource overhead.

Critics, however, are suspicious of systemd. The aforementioned Unix philosophy cited by the group states that “software should do one thing, and do it well” - a principal that a piece of software as broad-based and unitary as systemd arguably violates. Skeptics like kernel developer Ted Ts’o, Slackware founder Patrick Volkerding and many others have cited “mission creep” as a serious concern.

While the website protesters state that they’re prepared for the task of forking Debian, former Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon expressed incredulity at the idea.

Jono Bacon

Jono Bacon

“When I saw the [website], I honestly thought it was parody,” he told Network World. “Forking a distribution is a *lot* of work and is more involved than just creating new packages.”

Bacon said that, beyond the technical aspects, there are huge issues of recruitment and general management to address.

“It involves creating an entirely new community, building trust, building a developer base, deploying infrastructure, managing governance and process, and much more,” he said.

It should be noted, in the interest of fairness, that the people behind the site have stated that a fork of Debian isn’t their preferred solution to the issue, either – they state that they would rather have the older sysvinit remain as the default, with systemd merely optional.

For his part, Bacon also stated that it’s crucial for Debian to consider all the angles in making a decision on systemd.

“What is important is that distributions make an informed decision on whether to ship it, and base that decision on the technical implementation, user experience, and benefits, not pointless political bickering,” he said.

The technical arguments over systemd’s merits have also been distorted by personality conflicts. Systemd principal Lennart Poettering and several of his co-creators have garnered a reputation for arrogance and inflexibility among other open-source developers, who accuse them of casually breaking compatibility among other software modules, among other things.

That’s led to outright abuse in the past, as Poettering catalogued in a much-discussed Google+ post earlier this month, in which he detailed death threats he has received and slammed Linus Torvalds for contributing to a general lack of civility in the Linux community.

A discussion period for a Debian proposal that would “preserve the freedom of choice for init systems” could end as early as Oct. 30. The effect of the fork threat could become clearer as the month wears on.


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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