10 Newbie Mistakes, and What’s Broken in Linux?

There’s nothing like the approaching dawn of a new year to make a person sit down and take stock of things.

Apparently the folks over at Infoweek were feeling a similar urge last week, if their article titled “Fixing Linux: What’s Broken and What To Do About It” is anything to go by.

“There’s no question that there are key areas where Linux is lacking — not just missing individual features, but things that are actively dysfunctional and which need immediate attention,” charged Serdar Yegulalp, the article’s author. Inconsistent package management, an inconsistent configuration system and the changeability of kernel application binary interfaces are among the problems Yegulalp cites.

‘Absolutely Inaccurate’

The article drew almost 40 comments on Infoweek’s site along with more than 800 comments on Slashdot, where bloggers fairly stumbled over themselves in their haste to get their two cents in. Most, it seemed, took exception with Yegulalp’s arguments — to put it mildly.

“This article is absolutely inaccurate,” wrote Matt in the comments at Infoweek. “Of the 10 or so points, perhaps the packaging issue and the audio API stuff [are] actually valid. … Do some research first next time.”

Similarly: “Fundamental lack of understanding of Linux shown here,” agreed Daniel Kasak. “It’s always funny to see a ‘tech’ writer use Linux for 5 days running and then write a ‘what’s wrong with Linux’ article.”

Even stronger: “It seems you don’t know any GNU/Linux distribution, and you talk about a nonsense OS,” wrote parq. “Maybe you can write an article about flowers.”


‘Completely Full of Crap’

While Yegulalp’s analysis of the question may have rubbed some the wrong way, so to speak, we here at LinuxInsider thought the question itself has merit — after all, to make anything better, you have to know what needs improvement. So we took to the streets of the blogosphere to see what others thought.

“The article is completely full of crap,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. “It’s mostly a multipage screed wishing Linux were more like Microsoft Windows.”

The complaint about Linux not having a stable Application Binary Interface, for example, “is completely nonsensical,” Mack charged. “Linus declared long ago that the ABI should not change. We still have A.out binary support even though it hasn’t been used in a decade.”

Same Old, Same Old

As for the possibility of bugs, “I don’t know of a single OS that manages to not have the odd bug affect backwards compatibility,” he added.

Indeed, the article is “basically a re-hashing of every complaint made on Slashdot, no matter how many times it is brought up, knocked down, or conceded,” Slashdot blogger Mhall119 agreed.

For example: “Yes, the Audio layer is a mess. No, your application probably doesn’t need a stable kernel ABI, but rather a stable API, which Linux has,” he told LinuxInsider. “If packaging your application as both an RPM *and* a DEB is too much work for you, your application can’t be complicated enough for anybody to be interested in.”

Similarly: “Yes, I’m sure some people would like automatic file backups, but a lot of other people like usable disk space too — you can’t please everyone,” he added.

Standards, Not Centralization

In fact, “there are damn good reasons why these suggestions haven’t been implemented in the open source world,” Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider. “The overall theme of this article was ‘centralize everything,’ yet Linux and the open source ecosystem exists primarily because centralization fails, over and over and over.”

Some of the critiques — such as of sound on Linux — are valid, Dean conceded. On the other hand, “a single, all-inclusive sound system that would make the desktop world jump with joy would cripple embedded designers with bloat and redundancy on systems that can’t spare it.”

Rather, “standards, not centralization, are key to easing the disharmony within the open source ecosystem while still protecting the most important part of being open source — user control and flexibility,” Dean said.

10 Mistakes

Of course, while Linux may have its problems, people can create their own problems, too — particularly when they’re new at the game.

In that vein, a blog from TechRepublic from just after Thanksgiving aimed to give newbies some help with a post titled “10 Mistakes New Linux Administrators Make.”

Installing applications from various types, neglecting updates and poor root password choice were the first three items on author Jack Wallen’s list, which drew 40 comments on the site — not to mention a whopping 1,299 Diggs and 160 commentsby Friday.

Cause for Firing

“Great article,” wrote lisawijaya.

“I think I have made all of those mistakes at some point,” confessed iamedward.

“If I knew one of my Linux admins were doing any of these things, they would certainly be looked at for a demotion or possibly fired,” added weizbox.

“I’m 1 for 10 on the new administrator mistakes, but I had some help,” Mhall119 said. “The only one of these mistakes I’ve made is installing from source, but I knew what I was getting into, and source was my only option, so it was more a matter of necessity. I would modify that to be installing outside your repositories, though, as I’ve been burned by that too.”

‘Completely Wrong’

Recent versions of X11 and Ubuntu make some of these mistakes obsolete, he added, “like X11 config files and root passwords, and make keeping up to date easier than ignoring updates.”

To help with point No. 10, “Ignoring Log Files,” “I’d like to see a nice, easy for-beginners log viewer,” Mhall119 said.

The article “manages to be completely wrong on the first point,” Mack asserted. “Mixing source and binary packages on a system is fine as long as they end up properly in /usr/local/. Most libraries are backwards-compatible, and when they aren’t it’s usually possible to keep the old version around for exactly this reason.”

‘Symlink Hell’

The rest of the article, on the other hand, “nitpicks on minor issues while leaving out some of the larger mistakes I’ve come across all too often,” Mack said.

Case in point: “Overpartitioning the system, leading to cases where you run out of space in one partition but still have room in another — usually causing symlink hell at this point,” he explained.

Another mistake “I wish people wouldn’t make,” Mack added, “is putting log files in places other than /var/log. This is bad because no one keeps track of them and they tend not to be rotated.”

That mistake is “most commonly done by people setting up Apache installs,” Mack explained. “I have had countless calls where apache won’t respond because it’s a 32-bit system and one of the countless logs has hit the 4 GB limit on Apache. It’s also fun when the drive is out of space and no one knows what file did it.”

‘The GUI Equivalent of Convenience’

Wallen’s mistake No. 9, “Logging in as a root user,” is the only one blogger Robert Pogson took exception to.

The author “seems to assume the login is in the GUI, which does open a Pandora’s box of bloat that should not run as root,” Pogson told LinuxInsider. “Using a terminal and SSHing around passwordlessly, though, is the GUI equivalent of convenience for a system admin. The admin can login properly somewhere and go all shift long without typing another password, running scripts securely to extend his reach to many systems in a timely fashion.”

It makes little sense to “SSH in as a mortal user and switch to root here and there using sudo or passwords,” he noted. “It is just extra work for no benefit.”

‘Like the Maytag Guy’

Either the SSH encrypted channel is secure or it is not, Pogson added. “If you lose control of a system by letting in malware on the network or an intruder in the building, you are toast,” he said. “If you login in a passwordless manner securely from a station where you authenticated once by a password, the risks are very small.

“A system administrator may have hundreds of systems to visit over the LAN,” he pointed out. “GNU/Linux makes the whole system behave as one machine if implemented well. That is why a ‘nix admin is so valuable, capable and so like the Maytag guy.”

‘Migrating From Where?’

Wallen describes the mistakes as “‘rite-of-passage’ mistakes new administrators make migrating to Linux, but migrating from where?” Slashdot blogger yagu asked. “These are mistakes in almost any administrator context. A good Unix administrator doesn’t make these mistakes, nor would he (or she) have problems migrating to Linux.”

The same types of issues apply to Windows administrators, yagu told LinuxInsider: “Good ones avoid these mistakes, and good ones migrate well to Linux.” Of course, “there are a lot of Windows administrators who just aren’t very good with technology — maybe that’s because Windows administrators are far more likely to be guilty of the #4 mistake, ‘Avoiding the Command Line,'” he added.

“I hope I never hire an administrator so deficient in these disciplines, because if I do, I’ll have to fire him (or her) too,” yagu concluded. “They’re not ‘new,’ they’re incompetent.”

‘Worth Its Weight in Rhodium’

Indeed, “as a professional administrator, I shudder to think people doing these things are called ‘administrators,'” Dean agreed. “On the flip side, we were all new to *Nix at some point. I recall struggling on my first few days of Debian with installing software by downloading tarballs and double clicking.”

There’s no clear solution to such issues, Dean said, “other than to encourage people to play around, break things and learn from it. Most of the things mentioned aren’t signs of bad administrators, but signs of ‘thinking like a Windows user’.”

Bottom line? “A good backup solution is worth its weight in rhodium,” he said. “Whatever operating system you run, you should have one.”

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