Miscellaneous ephemera…

Forking Arch

Over the last couple of months there have been a number of discussions on the Arch boards about the forum policy of only providing support for Arch Linux, culminating in this long thread about Archbang users (login required) being denied support and having their threads summarily closed. As it emerged in the discussion, there seem to be two separate issues at play here; the question of Arch-derivatives using the Arch brand (logo, colours and even the forum style sheets), and how the wider community of GNU/Linux distributions are treated on our boards.

The first issue is relatively simple to address. Allowing derivative distributions to use the Arch brand is, in my view, a mistake. It dilutes the value of the Arch “brand” and—as can be seen when people show up having installed a derivative and thinking they are running Arch—just confuses people.

For some of these derivatives, like Archbang, there is an argument to be made that once they have completed the installation process, they are in fact running Arch, albeit an off-the-shelf version. I find this argument to be specious. All of the derivatives that I have come across, in addition to “simplifying”1 the installation process and including X and some sort of desktop or window manager by default, also make a number of other system changes that invalidate their claim to being Arch by another name.

See this scathing review of Manjaro or Allan’s roundup of the Arch Spin-Offs for the details on the decisions these developers make that mean it is not practicable to support them on the Arch boards, nor desirable to do so in future. As a distro, Arch is essentially vanilla packages, pacman and rolling release, and a base on which you build your preferred system. Changing two of those three means that you are not running Arch…

That leads in to the second point, which is I’ll paraphrase as “well, we are all Linux users, so everyone should be welcome to ask for support from Arch users.” It is a fine sentiment, but one that is neither historically accurate, nor in the long term interests of Arch. I have harped on in the past about help vampires and last year I came across the perfect illustration of the unchecked effects of this phenomena:

Right now I'd say the bug queues are flooded with bugs that you can't really act on… It's a strain on the project that there are so many users that don't really get it.

Alison Randall Ubuntu Technical Architect. Linux Format July 2012

Your bugtracker becomes essentially unusable. Your forums end up the same way. No-one ends up getting much in the way of assistance at all, let alone anything approaching informed help. That may be an inevitable consequence of the collision between considerable but still finite resources and a philosophy of being the OS of the masses; Arch has nothing like that in terms of resources, and a very different philosophy.

That philosophy doesn’t include anything about shortcuts or commoditized images for a mass user base. It doesn’t mention making the installation and maintenance of your system completely idiot-proof so as to facilitate a relentless march to the very top of whatever spurious distro popularity ranking system you subscribe to. And it certainly doesn’t say anything about your entitlement to immediate and courteous support from the Arch community in the face of your own inability to reach a minimum level of understanding of what it is that you have installed on your hard drive.

If you think that you can just skip the whole tiresome RTFM thing by downloading a derivative and installing that, how exactly do you expect to be able to run a rolling release distro that has, on average, a couple of significant changes every year?

Sooner or later you are going to have to come to terms with the responsibility that is an integral part of this type of rolling release and, if you have installed it yourself, you will be much better placed to be able to build on that understanding and broaden and deepen your knowledge of your system.

That is ultimately far more satisfying for you, and much more beneficial for the rest of the community as it means that you will be more able and likely to contribute back in whatever way that you can; reporting bugs to a functioning bug tracker, editing the fine Wiki, maintaining packages in the AUR, submitting patches, etc. Doing all the things that will sustain Arch and continue to make it an attractive distribution for competent GNU/Linux users and those that are willing to invest the time to become so.


  1. If you have used the Arch install scripts, you would appreciate that it is not really possible to provide a simpler installation process.

Creative Commons licensed image on Flickr by pietroizzo