The SUSE family of distributions has the motto "have a lot of fun," but
it's Slackware that really pushes that philosophy to its limit. While most of the major Linux distributions are shaped by corporate influence, community politics, and pursuit of mainstream success, Patrick Volkerding has taken a much different path with Slackware, which is readily apparent in the release candidate of Slackware 13.37.
The "13.37" version numbering, of course, is a nod to the Slackware userbase (the leet or elite, as it were) and Slackware's history of not taking version numbers too seriously. For a while, when Linux was still elbowing its way into the mainstream, some distributions were accused of "inflating" version numbers as a marketing tactic. And speaking as someone who attended one too many trade shows selling Linux CDs (with the now-defunct Linux-Mall.com) and explaining the differences to new users, this tactic actually worked to some extent. Thus Volkerding decided to one-up the competition by jumping from Slackware 4 to 7 to tweak other vendors and be competitive in version numbering.
Slackware Linux is the oldest surviving Linux distribution. It was not
the first, that honor goes to MCC
Interim Linux, which was followed by Yggdrasil and Soft Landing Systems
(SLS) Linux. SLS was taken by Volkerding, cleaned up, and that became Slackware. It may be hard to imagine for newcomers, but Slackware was once the dominant distribution and considered very easy to use. It has weathered the loss of its distributor when Wind River bought Walnut Creek in 2001, and Volkerding's leave of absence while dealing with health issues.
Nearly 18 years have passed, and the Linux landscape looks radically different. But Slackware does not. Slackware 13.37 retains the text-based installer that has been part of Slackware seemingly forever — at least since this user first picked it up in 1996. When GUI installers were all the rage at the turn of the century and vendors were starting to think seriously about the "Year of the Linux Desktop," Slashdot asked Volkerding if he'd make Slackware "pretty" and easy to use like other distributions. Volkerding responded that Slackware is easy:
And I think we set up the desktop (at least on KDE) with the nicest set of defaults. But I understand what you're saying -- many of the other distributions now provide a fully graphical installation. But, then you end up raising the hardware requirements, so it's a trade off. I do think keeping things primarily text based is the most flexible, then you can do things like installing with a serial console, and maintaining the machine remotely is more straightforward. Of course, I've been accused of being one of those "command line" kind of people...
Judging by the looks of Slackware 13.37, nothing has changed on that front. In fact, not a lot has changed in Slackware since the 13.1 release last May.
Naturally, the release contains updates for all of the major packages. Firefox has been updated to the 4.0 release candidate, and Slackware now features KDE 4.5.5 (though KDE SC 4.6.1 has been out for a few weeks and 4.6.0 was released in January), Xfce 4.6.2, Linux kernel 2.6.37, and a slew of other updates that can be found in the changelog.
For those who haven't run Slackware previously, it's something of a minimalist affair. You begin by booting from the CD or DVD, and are dropped into a root prompt. From there, if you need to format your disk you can choose between
fdisk or the slightly more user-friendly
cfdisk to partition your disk. Then you can run the Slackware setup utility, which walks through the installation of package sets. At that point you can pick and choose software from package sets that range from "a" for base packages (such as the kernel, glibc, and so on) to "xap" for X applications like Firefox. The suggested method is to simply proceed with a full install, which should be around 5.5GB of software when all is said and done.
At the end of the install, you're prompted to set up networking —
which is only really useful if you have a wired connection — the
bootloader (Slackware still opts for LILO), and set up a root
password. Then you may reboot and begin using your freshly installed
Slackware system. If you want to run KDE, Xfce, or another desktop you need
to either edit the inittab to boot to an X login, (Volkerding has not
embraced Upstart as a replacement for init, nor is it likely Slackware
would take a chance on systemd just yet) or run
startx. KDE, Xfce, and other desktops are presented with very minimal changes from upstream — another difference between Slackware and most modern Linux distributions. GNOME is not presented at all, having been dropped from Slackware years ago. GNOME enthusiasts who want the Slackware experience should look to GNOME SlackBuild.
Slackware leaves it to users to create non-root users and manage packages. Slackware has advanced in this regard over the years, and includes
slackpkg — a utility which allows users to keep a system updated, but this is done manually. On first run, users will have to edit the slackpkg configuration and select a mirror from which to get updates. Fedora, Ubuntu, Linux Mint and openSUSE users who are accustomed to seeing a notification for system updates may find this a little antiquated. Not to mention the lack of dependency resolution in Slackware's native package management tools, which is a given for APT, Yum, and Zypper but left to the user with Slackware's package tools.
Indeed, Slackware on the surface seems to be a bit behind the times. Since Slackware has no official user mailing lists, I turned to the LinuxQuestions.org Slackware forum to ask Slackers why they choose Slackware over Linux distributions with more advanced package management and system management tools.
The query brought quite a few responses — ranging from users
who've been using Slackware to replace SLS to users who started with
Slackware (and Linux) around Slackware 12. The overwhelming response was
"simplicity" along with the fact that software is
"stable" before being put into Slackware. One example is the
2.6 kernel series — Slackware did not default to a 2.6 kernel, which
was released in 2003, until Slackware 12 in 2007. Thomas Ronayne sums it up well:
It does matter to me that Slackware is conservative; too many times I've burned by cutting-edge technology crashing down around my ears and, frankly, I don't want to deal with that nonsense. I value stability far more than I do bells and whistles. The first editor I learned was ed (came with GECOS). I use vi simply because it is rock-solid, dependable and I never have to deal with "improvements" that get in my way. I learned AT&T's Documenter's Workbench, still have it, still use it -- I like the macros and troff!
[...] A full installation of Slackware results in a full-boat system -- the compilers are there, MySQL is there, Apache is there, all the tools are there, you get on with what you want to do (I do a lot of software development). When you install, say, Ubuntu you have to start adding (and adding and adding) stuff just to get to the point where you can compile and execute hello, world: nuts to that. Plus there's a constant barrage of updates. Plus, because the distribution has been "tuned," you really can't tell what the heck was done to which when you try to change something. Yeah, with Slackware you have to add OpenOffice.org if you want a word processor (KWord just doesn't cut the mustard) but that doesn't bother me anywhere near as much as not having a software development environment at first boot and having to figure out why I can't get Apache configured or where the heck to I get Korn Shell.
Slackware is the most un-fooled-around-with distribution and that makes it my baby.
JK Wood responded
that he prefers Slackware because "Pat keeps things as close to
upstream as possible. He also publishes the scripts and patches he uses in
the source tree, so if I have a question how something was compiled, I
simply have to go looking." Wood says that it has "just enough"
pre-configuration, with "defaults that make sense in Slackware, and the rest is left to the end-user admin."
Though it's not advertised heavily, Wood points out another of
Slackware's advantages — long-term support. Wood says that Slackware
8.1, released in 2002, is still receiving security updates. Few distributions can match that kind of longevity. For Vim users, "Emacs is in its own diskset. I can skip it completely in the installer, no questions asked."
Other users were lured in from Slackware derivatives like Wolvix or Slax before settling on the original.
Not everyone stays with Slackware, though. One respondent says
that they tried Slackware "for all of a week and then went back
to Debian" though they said they like Slackware:
So if I like Slackware why did I go back to Debian? Homesickness for one, I
started with Ubuntu and after a couple of years moved to Debian for about
another year. Another reason is because I needed to have an operating
system that I could set up in a day and forget about. I will give
Slackware another shot though, probably within the next few months at
In short, Slackware users are those who want to tinker with their system and don't find it intimidating — or are willing to face intimidation to learn more about their systems. The users range from hobbyists to one who claims to manage more than 150 Slackware servers across the state. Which isn't to suggest that Slackware is likely to be a big choice on behalf of business. The Slackware site lists a few companies that offer Slackware support but it doesn't seem too many organizations are clamoring for it. I contacted Steuben Technologies and Adjuvo Consulting. William Schaub of Steuben Technologies says he's received only one serious call for Slackware support and says "My guess is either there isn't a lot of people running Slackware in production or (and this is more likely) that most people running Slackware on their servers have all the help in house that they need."
The Slackware community may be smaller than those of major Linux distributions, but it's also largely free of politics and drama (Volkerding's health scare excepted). The distribution is driven by Volkerding, but it's not a one-man show. The changelog is full of acknowledgments from Volkerding to Robby Workman, Eric Hameleers, and many others.
You could look at Slackware and say that it's out of date, a throwback
to the days when Linux was the domain of the "l33t" and little more than a
hobbyist OS. Another way to look at it is that Slackware is for users who
miss the simpler days of Linux and still want to tinker with their systems.
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