Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Init wars: Debian technical panel to decide

Init wars: Debian technical panel to decide

The leader of the Debian GNU/Linux project, Lucas Nussbaum, has announced that the question of which init system will be the default in the next release, Jessie, will be decided by the project's technical committee.

The panel will also rule on which additional init systems, if any, are to be supported in Jessie; if the changes cannot be made for Jessie, then these changes will go into the following release. Debian's last release, Wheezy, was made on May 4 this year; it takes roughly 18 months for a release to be made, though it is often longer.

Nussbaum's announcement follows long and, at times, acrimonious arguments on the developers' mailing list in October (1, 2) and also this month. There was a long debate about the same thing in 2011 as well.

The toss-up is likely to be between upstart which is used by Ubuntu, the most widely used Linux distribution, and systemd, the init system used by Fedora and some other distributions like Arch Linux and openSUSE. Red Hat Enterprise Linux does not yet use it. Debian currently uses the old Sys V init system and this system has its promoters.

The Debian project has five wiki pages for arguments which the technical committee can consider when looking at the options: one for multiple init systems, one for systemd, one for OpenRC, one for Sys V and one for Upstart.

Apart from the technical merits and demerits of each of the systems, there is also a good deal of politics at play. Red Hat has been systematically making other parts of the distribution dependent upon systemd; right now things have come to the stage where even GNOME depends on systemd to some extent. In the long run, this may make it difficult to run GNOME on systems with other init systems.

Controlling standards is one way to dominate in the technology industry; IBM did it in the past, so did Microsoft. But the current situation is somewhat different since all the software in question is open and not closed.

In the case of IBM and Microsoft, once they had set a standard, others had to pay to use the same standard. In the case of Red Hat, systemd is open for everybody else to use - but that will give Red Hat control of how things develop in future since it controls the upstream project.

Theoretically, other developers can fork the upstream project and go their own way but that will consume one of the resources that the free and open source software sector can ill-afford - developer time. There will be a lot of duplication of effort, something which open source abhors.

Hence a situation exists where no-one can complain of lock-in in the traditional sense; yet, in many ways, this is what is slowly coming about.

The Debian technical committee is chaired by Bdale Garbee. It has six members: Russ Allbery, Don Armstrong, Andreas Barth, Ian Jackson, Steve Langasek and Colin Watson. Jackson has worked for Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, in the past. Langasek and Watson are current employees of Canonical. Additionally, Langasek is the maintainer for upstart in the Debian package system.

Red Hat and Canonical are not the best of friends - and that is likely to be the understatement of the year. The main developer behind systemd, Lennart Poettering, is not prone to be diplomatic when writing about his creation; during one of the Debian debates, he made what can only be considered an inflammatory post. This is not the first time he has indulged in such baiting and it probably will not be the last.

Though it might look like a simple thing, in truth this is a battle for control of the Linux industry. Red Hat is on one side, Canonical on the other, and Debian is in the middle. If Debian wants to make a change in init system for its next release, then a decision will have to come fairly soon given its rough release schedule.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.