The last few days have seen a depressing flurry of forum topics and blog posts about the supposed death of Slackware, evidenced (primarily) by the fact that Slackware.com has been down quite a bit recently (indeed, it is down at the time of this writing). For any other modern distribution, downtime on the site might not mean anything other than some routine maintenance or a glitch, but then, Slackware isn’t most modern Linux distributions.
Benevolent Dictator for Life
Linux is big business these days. With distributions like Ubuntu branching out to everything from smartphones to TV’s, it’s hard to imagine how a modern distribution could be managed without a fleet of paid developers.
Yet, Slackware has always been the project of a single man, Patrick Volkerding. Not to say he hasn’t had help, of course. Slackware is supported by a core team of highly devoted volunteers that manage things like documentation, adding new packages to the distribution, and porting to other architectures. But a large part of the work, and indeed the final say in every aspect of Slackware, rests in the hands of Patrick.
The status of Patrick as Slackware’s Benevolent Dictator for Life has always been taken as somewhat of a joke in the community, but on occasion, has raised some serious questions about the long term viability of the distribution. In 2004, Patrick was struck by a mystery illness which had his doctors stumped. With Patrick unable to continue development of Slackware for some time, rumbles in the community about the death of Slackware were hard to ignore. Slackware team members such as Eric Hameleers and Robby Workman were quick to explain that a contingency plan was in place if the worst were to happen, but little was said about what it entailed.
While Patrick recovered from his illness and Slackware went on to put out some absolutely stellar releases, people’s faith in Slackware was undeniably shaken. For a distribution that was already bordering on a cult following, the idea that the whole thing could conceivably come crashing down at any moment didn’t help matters. For the devoted Slackers, it was just one of the quirks of the distribution, but for companies and developers looking for a distribution to bank on, it was a crucial blow.
Hard Times and Jumped Conclusions
With the Slackware site experiencing frequent downtime, and the development branch of Slackware only seeing occasional activity, it wasn’t long before the rumors began. It started innocently enough, with a thread on LinuxQuestions.org asking what had happened to the Slackware website:
It wasn’t long before active LQ member and regular spokesman for all things Slackware, Eric Hameleers, replied with the unfortunately cryptic:
Old hardware, lack of funds…
This single line had a strong effect on the forum, and the topic was soon crowded with members asking how they could donate money to aid Patrick, and keep Slackware going. The creator of the thread, Eric Layton then decided to take to his blog and write up something of a plea for help on Slackware’s behalf.
But what was meant as a good gesture soon backfired, as people started to reference it as proof Slackware was in a dire situation. This culminated yesterday when it came up in the discussion of “DistroWatch Weekly“:
It seems Slackware and Mandriva have something in common…
Both Mandriva and Slackware are in financial difficulty: http://noctslackv1.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/slackware-needs-your-help/
You remember that comment about my involvement in the development of a Slackware derivative? Forget it. We’re already discussing about delaying the release and rebasing off of something with a more secure future.
The situation rapidly devolved with a heated debate over the viability of Slackware, until Eric Hameleers did his best to squash it:
The slackware.com server is down. This is a technical malfunction. It costs money to do something about that. Something will be done about that server, but if it takes a while, it is most likely caused by prioritizing and finances. Slackware was without its own web server for a long time in the past. And still active are ftp.slackware.com and connie.slackware.com, so what’s the big deal?
There is no reason to doubt the availability, stability and long term viability of Slackware, the distribution. It has not been a one-man show for some time, the development effort is substantial and plainly visible in the ChangeLog, and there are no plans to switch to another development model or even ditch the distribution.
Returning to the thread on LinuxQuestions.org, Eric further clarified the situation:
It’s not that difficult: if everybody suddenly stops buying stuff from the Slackware store, then Slackware will not last another year in its present form – the Store sales are Pat’s income (and it feeds several other people too), but remember, the core team surrounding Pat do not get a penny of these revenues at all. Therefore, the rest of the team is not impacted in any way by Slackware sales figures and we will keep working with Pat on the distribution just like we have been doing for the past years. Look at the ChangeLog – sometimes there is a period of relative silence but that does not mean that no work is being done. Like last week, the updates can come in big gulps. Slackware will not die, its philosophy will not change, the team is dedicated and full of ideas.
Slackware will not die because of financial issues, it will die if all of its users leave.
As Eric explained, none of the Slackware team members make any money off of their work on Slackware; not a cent. The only person who makes any money from Slackware is Patrick, and it’s his primary source of income. No money coming into the Slackware project (be it from sales of Slackware merchandise or direct donations) will make things difficult for Patrick personally, but won’t change the resolve of its team or legions of dedicated users.
There is no question that Slackware has fallen on difficult times financially. With fewer and fewer people paying for Slackware subscriptions or buying merchandise, and the increasingly expensive economy we live in, corners will have to be cut somewhere. Right now, one of those corners is the server for Slackware.com. But to take this as a sign that Slackware is dying or that its team is jumping ship is simply rumor mongering.
If you really want to help Slackware, arguing about it online certainly won’t get anywhere. If you’ve ever used Slackware, or ever wanted to, head over to the Slackware Store and spend some money. Whether it’s a few dollars via the “Donate” button, a Slackware t-shirt, or a auto-renewed DVD subscription, the money will go towards supporting the oldest actively maintained GNU/Linux distribution in the world.
The impact Slackware has had on GNU/Linux and its users since it was released in 1993 is absolutely immeasurable, Patrick deserves all the help he can get.