Fastidious Elegance


My name is Aaron Hsu, and I'm a computer scientist. I'm changing the way people look at computing and programming languages, what they can do with them, and how they do it.


Slackware 14.1: Why take a closer look?

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Slackware Linux remains among the top 20 most "visitied" distributions on the DistroWatch website, though such numbers mean next to nothing when determining distribution worthiness. As the oldest surviving Linux distribution, Slackware possesses remarkable staying power. Nonetheless, while most respect the distribution, Slackware bears a fearsome reputation. Linux newbies frequently associate Slackware with doing it the hard way, or going it old school. This fearsome reputation results from a poor mix of facts and a healthy dose of losing sight of the forest for the trees. Even so, does Slackware deserve any attention today? It may have once been the most popular distribution, but the modern Linux user faces a sea of potential choices each one of varying quality and attractiveness.

From the perspective of a heavy Slackware user, this venerable distribution satisfies a need and delivers a value both larger and broader than its largely inaccurate reputation implies. Do not let Slackware's reputation deter you from considering it seriously. Indeed, the reasons Slackers so faithfully appreciate and use Slackware for so many things resonate with the desires of an obvious and large group of Linux users and even beyond.

Why use Slackware?

Consider the following compelling Slackware virtues, built on the perspective of doing real work on a daily basis with a workstation and one or two servers.

Slackware is Stable unlike any other. Distributions throw around the "Stable" label all too freely. What does this actually mean? Most distributions slap the term stable to a release when it is "good enough" for general consumption. Those that have a more enterprise oriented mind define stability in terms of the length of support or the longevity of the platform. Indeed, RedHat creates value by creating stability amidst the distribution chaos that is Linux; by allowing companies to anchor their businesses on technology that will exist in supported form for a fixed length of time, RedHat delivers confidence. Slackware does something different. Slackware does provide long support cycles (sometimes even longer than RedHat) for its releases, but more importantly, the releases themselves each contain the best quality that the Linux community has to offer at a given point. Each version delivers a total package that will prove to work well together and as a platform, work at the best levels possible, and do so reliably. Slackware combines, as no other distribution does, the goals of modern software and working software. Perhaps more so than any other distribution, Slackware just works, as intended, as described, release after release.

Slackware is predictable. Change is good; rampant chaos is not. Slackware continues to release up-to-date software that meets the modern needs of users, but it doesn't fundamentally alter itself without good cause. When you learn Slackware, you know what to expect with each release, and when the time comes to deviate from the norm, these deviations receive prominent attention in the CHANGESANDHINTS.TXT file. While the components shift with the times, the fundamental glue, the invisible spirit of Slack that binds together the distribution to make it Slackware, these give predictable, reliable performance year after year. Moreover, because Slackware releases roughly yearly "when it is ready," the distribution feels more solid in use, and less flighty; you simply don't upgrade as often or with such a sense of urgency.

Slackware is easy to use. Ah, the controversial one. Slackware lists simplicity and stability as two driving goals. This simplicity makes the system easy to maintain and use. Slackware avoids needless complication. A simple set of skills suffices to administer a Slackware system successfully; these skills transfer from one task to the other. Everything from system upgrades to basic everyday configuration gets handled in similar fashion, a simple way. Slackware makes building packages, updating a kernel, installing custom software, updating software versions, configuring and loading X, setting up the network, configuring services, &c. easier and less complicated than other systems. It does so largely by getting out of the way.

Slackware is flexible. Distributions like Debian have many attractive qualities, but they often deliver these qualities by sacrificing flexibility. Debian can do some remarkable things with its package system, but you lose the ability to really work with and set up the packages and versions in a way that fits your needs. Slackware puts flexibility right out front, keeping with the KISS principle and letting you do pretty much whatever you need to do. Take the installer, for instance. Because the installer is so simple, and the process so straightforward, custom installation processes to support all sorts of needs can happen without complex infrastructure support. The system installers of other distributions might provide many features, but if your desired configuration and goals do not fit within their predefined set of actions, adding those features takes more work than just doing it without modifying the installer on Slackware. Because of the simplicity, you have a great deal of confidence in your actions, and what those actions will do to the rest of the system.

Slackware is Modern. Unlike many other distributions which provide long release cycles, predictable stability, and high reliability, Slackware keeps up with software, ensuring that the software is both stable and modern. Even better, Slackware does not get in the way of the user, so the user can easily keep an installation up to date above and beyond a conservative choice made by the distribution. Slackware users can stay as modern as desired without breaking the paradigm of the distribution.

Slackware is effective. The real reason Slackware sticks around? Slackware is effective. Slackware gets the job done, it gets it done well, and it gets it done without undue pain. Slackware isn't a toy, it's a serious tool for getting Real Work (tm) done. It's also a place of freedom and possibilities. Combine these together and you get an effective, hardy distribution that stands the test of time.

Slackware avoids needless patches. Slackware delivers software without undo modifications. This pleases developers and users alike: the software works the way the authors wrote it. This sort of vanilla purity feeds back into the flexibility mentioned above. Unmodified sources make things easier, and generally more stable.

Who is Slackware for? Who should avoid it?

So, who might like Slackware? Who should consider it? Anyone who identifies more with UNIX practices than with Mac or Windows should take a close look at Slackware. Slackware is the most UNIX-like distribution, and it looks to remain that way. If you are tired of surprises and just want a workhorse distribution that reliably gets the job done well and will work for years and years, check out Slackware. If you enjoy the hacker ethos and being able to get into things and build and work on a distribution, Slackware is as accessible as any, and provides a convenient platform for such exploration and discovery.

I hesitate to suggest that anyone should avoid Slackware, because who knows whether they might find some unknown delight through using it? On the other hand, Slackware clearly does not aim to service a certain kind of customer. It does not pretend to be Windows or Mac. Users looking to naively and ignorantly use Linux as just a "better Windows" will probably find Slackware hard and unfriendly. Slackware could also bore the tweaker, or anyone else who enjoys the excitement of rapid releases and risky software. It's going to work, and it's going to be ready when it is ready. While you can run the -Current development if you want, the Slackware way doesn't mesh as well with the twiddling tweaker as it does with the old school hacker.

Finally, if you can't tell the difference between easy to use and "Windows user-friendly", Slackware will either change your thinking, or you will not like it.

Examining the latest 14.1 release

Because Slackware stays so remarkably similar from release to release -- a good thing -- reviewing the whole installation process, and all the software and so forth doesn't make much sense. Suffice to say that it worked well, as intended, as documented, and without any hitches. What's cool about the 14.1 release are the hidden gems that take a little polish to reveal.

SSD Caching. Bcache recently went into mainline kernels. The 3.10 kernel release has the bcache system in it, making it possible to use the SSD as a cache. The catch? Bcache doesn't make it easy to add caching after installation. No other distribution I am aware of at this time has a stable release with the capacity to do a bcache install from the beginning. Out of the box, neither does Slackware. However, a custom initrd, possibly a slight modification on the initrd package, the bcache tools, and a rebuild installation media are all you need. Now, novices should not attempt this unless they want to learn more than they intended. However, if you've wanted to have access to SSD caching and wanted a clean, smooth way to do this, Slackware's system is flexible and easy to use enough that you can make this happen in Slackware, without waiting on other distributions to get support for this into their installers.

Modern software. This release maintains a great set of modern software releases, and the Dropline Gnome project recently released an alpha version of Gnome 3.10 for Slackware 14.1. Now is a great time to trade up to a distribution that is both up to date and stable. Keep in mind that Slackware easily enables the upgrading of software even if Slackware doesn't ship with it by default.

Conclusion

While Slackware does not try to satisfy all types of Linux users, Slackware will satisfy a great deal of them who take the plunge. Slackware manages to consistently release stable, up to date versions while still keeping to the UNIX and old school hacker ethos. It remains simple and easy to use, and this latest release adds some cool new features for those who are looking to take advantage of some of the newest things happening in the Linux world.

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