Debian And The Systemd Storm - Ready To Reconsider?
Written by Alex Armstrong   
Monday, 20 October 2014

Debian has adopted systemd in place of the existing init system and this seemingly small technical change is creating mayhem. Is it about to move back to init or will the Fork Debian group have to go though with their threat?


Systemd seems to be polarising the Linux community and Debian users particularly. Back in February the Debian technical committee decided to make systemd the standard initialization system for the next version - Jessie. This is important because Debian is one of the most used distributions of Linux and it is the basis for many others including Ubuntu and Raspberry Pi's Raspbian. 

The problem with systemd is that it provides a unified system for doing all system initialization. This, many say, goes against the Unix philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well. Others, on the other hand, point out that systemd is providing a unified OS more in keeping with the 21st century. Perhaps a more practical problem is that experienced users and sys admins are reporting that systemd isn't all it is supposed to be and upgrading systems to use it is difficult because of interactions between software that uses it and software that doesn't. 

At this point you might think that the solution is simply to accept systemd as a fact of life and install the original init system. After all, Linux should be able to work with any init system. This is what was suggested by project leader Lucas Nussbaum a few weeks ago. There is also a package called systemd-shim that can be used to ensure that packages that have systemd dependencies will work. And it is the ever-growing reliance of other packages on systemd that makes the shim difficult to take seriously. It is currently being tested and is promised to be ready for Jessie. 

Part of the problem is that systemd is suffering mission creep. It has alternatives for cron, ntp, logging and so on, none of which have anything obvious to do with initialisation. The problem is that systemd is providing kernel facilities and we programmers are making use of them. Already major subsystems, e.g. Gnome and XFCE, are dependent on systemd.

All of this has prompted a number of reactions. Perhaps the most worrying for Debian is the formation of the "Shall We Fork Debian" group, who basically say that unless systemd is removed from Debian they will create a new Debian that doesn't make use of it. However, their claims ring a little hollow because at one point in their "manifesto" they say

"We are excluded from voting on the issue: only few of us have the time and patience to interact with Debian on a voluntary basis."

and then follow up with

"If systemd will be substituting SystemV in Debian, we will fork the project and create a new distro: Pure Debian by Veteran Unix Admins."

The contradiction is, of course, that if they have the time to fork Debian they should have the time to get involved and change things from the inside.  

However, the reaction to systemd does seem to be spooking the Debian technical committee. A new general resolution has been submitted and passed to "Preserve Freedom Of Choice Of Init Systems". This has widely been interpreted as a reopening of the "should Debian move to systemd" question, but this is not its remit. It is more that Debian should ensure that any init system is modular enough, or made modular enough, so that it can be swapped out. The general response from the Debian people is that this is just too much work to commit to and the best that can be done is to work on systemd-shim. 

So the bottom line is?

At the moment it looks as if systemd is going to stay the default in Debian Jessie. 

This might cause some group to fork Debian, but at the moment there is no sign that the necessary group of people ready to do the work exists.

It could mean that Debian loses its position as a top Linux distribution, but this also seems unlikely.

The Debian commitment to allowing other init systems to be used is very likely to crumble as more dependencies on systemd occur and as systemd spreads its way into other sub-systems.

Finally - this is the way that open source is supposed to work.




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Last Updated ( Monday, 20 October 2014 )