Reports of Slackware's death way premature

Downed web site sparks debate on project's health

Concerns about the apparent health of Slackware Linux were eased after the community Linux distribution's web site was back up and running, after several days of being dark.

The site's unexpected unavailability led to lengthy and at times heated discussions about the overall life expectancy of the project on both LinuxQuestions.org and DistroWatch.

The focus quickly shifted from the problems with the website to worries that Slackware itself was experiencing financial problems, when top Slackware contributor Eric Hameleers responded early in the LinuxQuestions thread with a brief "Old hardware, lack of funds…" statement.

This was the social equivalent of throwing gasoline on the tiny (metaphorical) short that zapped the Slackware web site to begin with. Suddenly the conversation careened into the repeated queries on what could be done to help. Several participants in the discussion thread began to post their own public entreaties for funding support for the venerable project.

Curiously, even as many were concerned about the Slackware distro as a whole, updates were being regularly posted within the the 64-bit Slackware64 project at the same time.

By April 16, the discussions on LinuxQuestions and the community blogs, which led blogger and Linux Yarok developer Caitlyn Martin to speculate in the DistroWatch comments her concerns about basing the Yarok distribution on Slackware when Slackware's apparent viability was in doubt.

"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," Martin wrote.

Martin's comments angered many in the threads on both sites, and drew many respondents to accuse her of jumping to conclusions. Martin maintained that she was simply re-voicing concerns about basing open source projects on unstable upstream projects.

Martin's comments may have been enough to stir Hameleers into clarifying his too-brief comments about the website. On April 17, Hameleers posted a new comment on the Distrowatch thread:

"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?

"This turning of the rumour mill is pretty much unfounded, and I see some of the same old people pouring oil on the fire as usual.

"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."

On LinuxQuestions, Hameleers would add more detail about the financial situation of the Slackware Project.

"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.

"If people start chickening out and cancel their subscriptions, then that is a pity. Thankfully, I see lots of other Slackware users who decided that this is a good point to make a donation or buy something at the Store (if their financial situation allows it). Thanks to all of you for 'supporting the cause.' And remember--if you can not financially support Slackware, then helping your fellow Slackware users in forums like this one is an invaluable form of support as well! Slackware will not die because of financial issues, it will die if all of its users leave."

Hameleers' comments make an important distinction about what keeps a community open source project going. There are two pieces to helping a community start consistent: funding and code. As Hameleers indicates, the funding from the Slackware store is what gives Slackware founder and lead developer Patrick Volkerding and others in the project income.

If, hypothetically, money would vanish from the Slackware project, that does not mean the death of Slackware, about which Martin and others seem to be concerned. Indeed, the community-oriented nature of Slackware makes it all that much easier for the project to be re-adopted and kept up by any combination of the Slackware community. The copyrights are held by Volkerding and Slackware Linux, Inc., so the Slackware name and logos would have to be formally transferred to whomever if the actual name were to continue, but there's nothing stopping the code from living on, even if under another label.

We should not be worried about distributions like Slackware or Mandriva "dying." It would take a serious depletion of their respective communities for that to happen. It is more possible that the names will fade into memory, like Mandrake and Caldera; or SLS and MCC Interim .

But for now, there's no sign of trouble on the Slackware front that they are experiencing anything other than a financial slowdown, like so many other businesses/projects in this economy. Funding is nice to have, of course, but it's the code and community that keeps an open source project truly alive.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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