Fanning the Flames of the Systemd Inferno

They say art imitates life, but it’s surprising how often the same can be said of the Linux blogs.

Case in point: Just as the world at large is filled today with fiery strife — Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, Ferguson — so, too, is the Linux blogosphere. Of course, it’s not political, social or racial struggles tearing the FOSS community apart. Rather, the dividing issue here is none other than Systemd.

Systemd is a topic that’s been discussed in heated terms many times before, of course — including a lively debate here in the Linux Blog Safari back in May.

This time, it was a post on the Linux kernel mailing list that set it ablaze.

“Systemd is a trojan,” developer Christopher Barry recently wrote in “An Open Letter to the Linux World.”

“We all need to collectively expel it from our midst because it will own Linux, and by extension us and our freedoms,” he argued. “Systemd will *be* Linux. Sit idly by and ignore this fact at all of our collective peril.”

‘Harbinger of the Linux Apocalypse’

Linux Girl

It was a call to arms — of that there was no doubt — and Linux bloggers have been firing full bore ever since:

Those are just a few of the headlines that added fuel to the fire, which soon was raging out of control on Slashdot, as well as on LXer and beyond.

Linux Girl donned her toughest flame-retardant gear and set out to learn more.

‘I Don’t Like Feeling Stuck’

“The theory behind Systemd sounds OK, but I just don’t like how it’s been implemented,” offered Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone on the smoky streets of the blogosphere’s main downtown. “It seems to violate just about everything about the *nix philosophy.”

Stone uses an older Ubuntu distro, so he doesn’t have Systemd on his own computer, he told Linux Girl, “but it’s really just luck that Canonical has held out as long as it has. Now even they’re going to be moving to Systemd.

“I’m starting to feel like I’m stuck with it, and I don’t like feeling stuck when I’m using Linux,” he concluded. “If I wanted to be stuck with software I don’t want, I’d use Windows.”

‘Not a Fond Memory at All’

Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien had a similar view.

“I am extremely skeptical about the value of Systemd for two reasons,” O’Brien began.

“First of all, it does seem to violate the basic rules of Unix systems,” he explained. “I really like the idea of text file configurations, of simple tools that do one thing well and can be combined. And binary blobs? Seriously?”

The other reason is that “I have approximately zero confidence in anything Lennart Poettering does, an opinion I first formed in my many struggles with PulseAudio,” O’Brien said. “For at least two years I could not get sound working on any machine without first ripping out every trace of PulseAudio, and this is not a fond memory at all.”

‘More Than a Little Repugnant’

Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza is “a proponent of the simpler-is-better approach to Unix-like operating systems,” he told Linux Girl. “I find Systemd to be more than a little repugnant.”

It would be nice to see fewer distributions making it mandatory, “but I anticipate that there will always be at least one Linux distribution which uses simple sysvinit or similar, so I don’t see any reason that I should panic,” he said.

“I have long desired a simplified Linux-based operating system which does not care about LSB or POSIX, or indeed any legacy cruft whatsoever, but I don’t actually want to make my Linux distribution into that,” Espinoza added. “I want to use it near a traditional Linux desktop, not as a replacement for it.

“Android is what comes closest so far, but I didn’t really plan to be running anything other than native executables, at least not a majority of the time,” he said.

‘It Offers Very Little in Return’

“I am sure I will be neither the first nor the last to quote Harry Spencer on this matter: ‘Those who do not understand UNIX are destined to reinvent it poorly,'” began Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “There is a reason this comes up in the debate all the time.”

Travers has worked with Systemd, he told Linux Girl, and while “I find it to have a number of nice features, ultimately it throws away everything that worked and offers very little in return.”

The init system was “really nice because it was transparent,” he added. “If I need to load a new service at boot time, the knowledge I need to have is significant, it is true, but when something goes wrong, I do not need additional knowledge to troubleshoot.”

‘The Ideal Is Being Lost’

With Systemd, on the other hand, “when something goes wrong, it is far harder to troubleshoot,” he asserted.

“The ideal of Unix being small pieces loosely woven is being lost here,” Travers opined. “The resulting system makes most of the same mistakes but strips out the key features which have proven so useful in the past.”

Meanwhile, “I think those who see this as a conflict between the older guard and the new guard have a point,” he added. “I came to Linux in 1999 and only had minimal experience with Unix before that. However, at that time, things were still transparent and very Unixy.

“I can’t help but think folks are trying to turn Linux into something far less Unixy — something like OS X or even Windows,” Travers concluded.

‘Folks Realize What’s at Stake’

“Should a large part of my distribution be such a large monolith? Can an almost omnipotent initialization system be said to be better than the modular traditional way?” mused Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C.

“I suspect not,” he said.

“I suspect Systemd will end up a lot like Devfs, where it ends up adopted, is discovered to be better than what was before it, but is ultimately replaced by something that more effectively does the job (udev),” suggested consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

Indeed, “options are popping up, since now folks realize what’s at stake,” noted Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol. “Let’s hope GNU/Linux continues to be free for all, with options to use, even in init systems, and not a dictatorship by a small group.”

‘I’m Tired of Constantly Updating’

Last but not least, “I know developers like to develop, but they should have mercy on the rest of us and not impose change until their new stuff is debugged,” blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl. “I’ve been amazed that Debian Jessie has been going sideways rather than downward in bug count — I suspect a lot of that has to do with introducing Systemd.

“Are we going to have to wait for Systemd to work before Debian can make another release?” he wondered. “I’m getting tired of constantly updating my software. I might go back to Wheezy.”

Pogson is in favor of improvement, he said, “but I don’t see any with Systemd. Sys V Init was simple and transparent. It did everything I needed.

“I know Systemd might be a few seconds faster booting, but do I care? My system never boots except to install a new kernel,” he pointed out. “I routinely suspend to RAM.”

‘Leave the Rest of Us Alone’

On the other hand, “there are lots of new applications and new features coming into Debian Jessie, and I don’t want to wait for the modifications required by Systemd to work before I can use it all,” he added.

In short, “I don’t have any idea what’s happening here,” Pogson concluded. “I use GNU/Linux rather than fight over its details. I wish those who feel they must fight over this would get on with it and leave the rest of us alone. We need all the best minds and most productive programmers working together, not against each other.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • Fanning more flames here! 🙂 I am a Debian user and I have to confess the proposed transition to Systemd scares the heck out of me. I will either not upgrade to Jessie or find a way to cut systemd out and replace it with sysvinit.

    I’ve done some reading on Systemd and the theories its based on seem fraught with peril. Certainly enormous capacity for dead locks and other forms of brain-freeze.

    I’m fond of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). I like my filesystems stabilizing before services start trying to run. I like my services making an attempt to start as I’ve commanded, instead of trying to grow a brain and determine when they should or shouldn’t start, on their own. Any time something tries to get smart its a recipe for disaster.

    Even in the micro versions of Linux that I’ve built I’ve implemented a SysV style start up, because I like the elegance of its flexibility combined with its simplicity. I also like having several different run levels. I typically have uses for all levels 1-5, with an eye towards more. Not just 1 & 2 (gentoo "default"), like many of the distros today force on us.

    As it is Debian Wheezy (7) on my notebook with SSDs and the current parallel SysVinit system boots faster than most other systems including tablets. And since my workstations run 24/7 I could care less if they take as long as windoze to boot. Most of them boot faster than either the OS X or windoze machines I’ve seen. Other non-Linux computer guys I work with marvel.

    So what are we trying to fix?

    I guess its time to download a copy of Debian testing and start working out a *fix* package for it.

    • I too am a longtime Debian user. I am very disheartened by Debian’s move to implement systemd as the default init system. I can only hope there is a new fork of Debian, or new leadership at Debian that comes to their senses and abolishes it. It is essentialially the corporatization of Linux, and is not why I, and millions of others choose to use Linux.

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