Get Slack

Slackware is the most venerable of Linux distributions, loved and trusted by hordes of users, sysadmins and programmers around the world for its solidity and closeness to the ground. Slackware comes from an earlier time when Linux users were almost exclusively hackers who walked the command line without fear or prejudice, scorned the world of point and click, and never went out overdressed.

Not that Slack is behind the times - a Slack user can sit behind the same GUI as any SUSE, Ubuntu or Fedora user. Just that Slack comes from a different tradition where the virtues are simplicity, straightforwardness, and lack of bloat. The asset most valued by the Slack user, and most often claimed for Slackware Linux, is system stability.

Slackware is often perceived to be behind the times, because it doesn't necessarily come with the latest and greatest version of every piece of software, which is a deliberate policy of Patrick Volkerding, the one and only maintainer of Slackware Linux, who prefers to include only software that is proven to be mature and stable.

In contrast, most other distributions adhere to the release early, release often, 'bleeding edge' philosophy that has been a feature of many GNU/Linux and other free software projects since the earliest days.

The stripped-down cleanliness of Slackware Linux may explain why there is still a vast user base of loyal and trusting Slack users, despite its lack of apparent commercial appeal. Other distributions may come with a greater range of options - three different database servers, four different music players, five different browsers - but Slackware Linux comes with all the tools that are essential to run a clean system in a production environment, as a server or as a development platform. You don't need the latest and greatest music software to run Apache or Samba. In the world of Slackware less is often more.

A corollary of the perception that Slackware is behind the times, is the much travelled legend that Slackware is hard to use, and not to be touched by first time users. True, Slackware doesn't have a picturesque, simple-choice, resource-hogging GUI installer, but many people would argue that, for all that, Slackware is just as easy to install, that the installer has more clarity than most, is more flexible, and that it is easier to customise a Slackware installation for the precise requirements of more advanced users and system administrators.

The Slackware user would claim that other distributions will install superfluous packages and tools that have to be removed after the installation is complete. What is more, Slackware, more than most other Linux distributions, has a feel that is similar to a commercial Unix, and feels like home to the experienced Unix user, in installation and in practice.

Slackware was the first of the Linux distributions to be employed on a regular basis as an illicit backroom server, as Linux often was, sneaked into the server space under the noses of the management. From this perspective it is possible to claim that Slackware was the first commercial Linux, and for some years, was by far the most popular.

The Master of Slack

So why is Slackware called Slackware? Slackware, after all, is not the most obvious moniker to take Linux into the business world, (and who cared about that then?), however fetching it might have sounded to the odd mix of rebellious youth, technofreaks, and frustrated hackers who, as legend has it, contrived to bring Linux into the world.

At the time that Slackware first emerged as the logical replacement for the Software Landing Systems (SLS) Linux distribution, the satirical Church of the Subgenius, with its slogan "get slack", was still a popular source of humour on the college campuses of the US. Slackware can be taken as a a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Church of the Subgenius, and its charismatic leader, JR 'Bob' Dobbs, 'The Master of Slack', and as an assertion that Slackware was part of the zeitgeist of the youth of America. On the other hand, Volkerding, the true master of Slack, may just have liked the sound and feel of his unlikely choice of name, which is as good a reason as any for choosing a name that both catches the eye and is not easily forgotten.

But there is another story from way back there near the beginning of time, or more precisely, during the first days of January 1994, when Slackware was still in its infancy and GNU/Linux was very young, and Usenet was more or less respectable, a worried user named Garry nervously posted to comp.os.linux.misc that he had "just heard from a friend of mine that has just read a bunch of messages claiming that Slackware 1.1.1 was put together by 'Wiccas' (Satanists)."

"It doesn't help," he wrote, "that by default the three sample users created by the install program just happened to be named 'Satan, Gonzo, Snake-Pit.'"

Apple and Eve

In these days when Usenet is too often a home from home for kerb crawlers and spam traders, it is hard to remember that Usenet used to be fun. Garry's post sparked a classic Usenet debate - on RFC 666 compliance, sourcery and sorcery, the subliminal messages emitted by vi, of Kerberos and the hounds of hell, and of speculation that Pat Volkerding was L Ron Hubbard in disguise...

There were angry Wiccans and earnest, or not so earnest, searches for Satan in the source, and declarations of defiance from the friends of Patrick Volkerding: "I've met the maker of Slackware," one wrote, "and he wasn't wearing pentagrams or drinking blood. There are some hidden things in Slackware but they have nothing to do with Satanism..."

Another told the story of how Satan once tempted Eve with an Apple, and another declared that "the SunOS Pascal compiler came up with 'atan.S' once and the word 'sin' many times. This, for me, is conclusive proof that Sun Microsystems is a company founded on the unholy triptych of devil worship, virgin sacrifice, and proprietary operating systems."

At this time, of course, Slackware Linux was the ultimate in "cool", and in some circles this is still true. Prior to Slackware's emergence in 1993, SLS (Software Landing Systems) was the most established of Linux distributions. SLS had its critics. Ian Murdock, the founder of the Debian project told Linux Journal in 1994 that SLS was "possibly the most bug-ridden and badly maintained Linux distribution available; unfortunately, it is also quite possibly the most popular."

A similar dissatisfaction with SLS was the spur for Volkerding to begin his distribution, which was very different in character to Debian, with its thousands of contributors, who worked on a cooperative development model. Slackware, in contrast, was and is maintained by the efforts of one singular individual, Volkerding himself and, like FreeBSD, was sold on CD by Walnut Creek, and mirrored on FTP sites around the globe.

In an interview in the June 1994 issue of Linux Journal, Volkerding said: "It would be nice to make money from [Slackware], but not from selling the actual package", which can be taken as a declaration that Slackware was seen as a community project, rather than as a commercial enterprise.

As late as 1996, the majority of Linux servers were running Slackware, and it wasn't for another three or four years that Slackware's profile as the best known and most popular of Linux distributions was eclipsed by the success of Red Hat, Mandrake (later Mandriva), SuSE and other commercial distributions, some of which, notably Red Hat and SUSE, had originally evolved from Slackware distributions.

Without the commercial sponsorship and marketing hype available to its rivals, or the community involvement of Debian or Ubuntu, Slackware has disappeared off the radar of many Linux users, but the distribution is still alive and vibrant and, the afficianados will tell you, is the most stable and dependable of Linux distributions for low level server applications, with an enviable reputation for being secure and reliable, easier to configure on older and smaller computers, and with an independence and character all of its own, and all you have to do is get slack...


Richard Hillesley


References

Slackware Linux: www.slackware.com
Slackware FAQ: www.slackware.com/faq/
Slackware Advocacy: www.slackwareadvocacy.org
Church of the Subgenius: www.subgenius.com



Comments

Great write up

Nice to see a well thought out write up of Slackware that doesn't focus on package management or what version of xorg is shipped. As a long time Slacker, I really enjoyed reading your piece.

Nice article

I really liked your article, maybe beacuse I have been a long and faihful slacker my self. But cudos again on the text. Have a good one!

Nice

A very nice intro to why slack is so great. I've always wanted to get a slack system going and this really motivates me.
Comrade Ringo Kamens

All too true

I originally learned to use Linux on Slackware because a friend of mine gave me the CD and didn't tell me there were any other "distributions". While it had a very steep learning curve for a begining user, i'm greatfull of all the knowledge I gained by having to actually *read* and *learn* about how to properly (and somewhat manually) configure the system to my specific needs, rather than having an installer just default everything for me.

It still is, and will always be my favorite distro. Their slogan should be "Get smart: get slack!"

"Vast User Base"

I like how every flavor of Linux claims this "vast user base" that is loyal and unswerving in its devotion. It makes me wonder about the definition of "vast."

I saw recently where Fedora--my personal flavor of choice--has only about 6% of Linux userdom. Six percent.

I'd hardly call that "vast," but then you consider that in real terms that's six percent of a small number to begin with.

I can only imagine how "vast" Slackware's user base must be.

No criticism intended, BTW. Just commenting on the use of language.

Re: "Vast user base"

OK you win. I don't know how that phrase crept in :)

But there was a time when if you met three other Linux users that seemed like a vast user base....

Richard Hillesley

Most excellent

Very nice article, great subject and well written. Could be that for the last 30 minutes or so I've been surfing digg and wading through the crap that somehow made it to the top, but I think its more that you write very well, did a good bit of research and used it appropriately. Even provided references! Good thing there isn't more articles like this, I might get spoiled and have to nuke from orbit the rest of the interwebs.

Thanks for the article, bookmarked your site because of it (in my geeky ways that is one of my largest signs of approval and appreciation).

Worked right out of the box, er, the book

Richard Hillesley's article covers Slackware nicely.
Slackware worked miraculously for me through the Slackware CD version included in Naba Barkakati's Linux Secrets, 1996 --- over ten years ago now! Book described at http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/121 and was out a couple of years after SLS turned into the Walnut Creek Software.

I used SLS and it did suck.

I used SLS and it did suck. I almost surely used one of the first slack distros and never really looked back. I ran redhat a long time (work) but it was always slack for me, and my OLD slack server was the one that was always there to run the show when the redhat machines were choking on dependencies or some other nonsense.

Back in the old days, some guy in the #linux channel had "NCSA Mosaic is GOD" as his /quit message. I say "Slack + screen" is God, screw X!

Thanks for the history. It

Thanks for the history. It gives me some dates for my past. I tried sls and it was impossible to get running. Then slackware came along. That was the first useful linux distribution I used. Then redhat for a while. It's been debian for a long time now though with its derivative Ubuntu creeping in. I also didn't realize Debian was that old.

Thanks

Thanks for the history, it was an interesting read, and I learned a couple of things that I did not know.

I have been using Slackware, and I liked it some, it was nice. It is the Linux distribution I have used the most, I haven't used others so much.

The thing I don't like about Slackware is that it includes proprietary software. I am not sure it does this anymore, but atleast it did last time I tried it, which was a couple of years ago. Then it included freeware tools like "xv". :(

I also don't like that it have old software, because I want a modern operating system with fresh software.

'Mature and Stable'

A phrase used by another distrobution...Debian. What is seen in the eyes of Slack and Debian as 'Mature and Stable' is seen as 'out-of-date' and 'are the developers of this dead?'......not bashing the distro (well I am on Debian...haven't used slack enough to say for sure) but package management is what makes a distribution, in my opinion. Still a nice read! Anything to get he linux word out is a-okay in my book.

package management is the distro?

OK, maybe. You have to agree that Slackware is really unique then.
Now seriusly, in Slackware it is package *selection* that makes the distribution.

Slackware and Free-as-in-speech software

Yes, Slackware still comes with xv, Java(*), official trademarked Firefox binaries(**), an mp3 coder/encoder(***), and probably some other gratis-but-not-Free software. That doesn't mean you have to use them. All of the non-Free components are entirely optional and it's perfectly possible to have a 100% functional Free-as-in-speech Slackware system.

(*)Yes, Sun is going to open-source Java but I don't think they have, yet, and in any case, Slackware ships with a proprietary, closed-source version.
(**)At least Debian says these trademark restrictions make Firefox non-Free and they have renamed their custom-compiled Firefox to Iceweasel in their distro and derivatives, such as Knoppix.
(***)The mp3 format is patent-encumbered, so purely Free-as-in-speech distros cannot play mp3 files.

- Martijn Dekker, Groningen, Netherlands

Alternative reason for the name Slack

As someone who was using Linux when Slackware appeared on the scene, I recall reading that one of the reasons for choosing the name Slackware was that it was designed to pick the the slack left when the SLS methodology faltered. People were unhappy with SLS and it's slow response to community suggestions to make it better and Slackware appeared, compatible with SLS in many ways and picked up the slack. There may have been other reasons for picking the name such as you suggested, but I don't think they were the only ones.

As for the article, while I was once a Slack user, they lost me a long time ago. One of my major complaints was that for a while, there were major problems with quality control. Some things were just broken for multiple releases and while the tgz package format allowed for great flexibility, the lack of a good package management system with dependency tracking made it more difficult to maintain than other distributions.

Slackware has undoubtably improved since the last time I used it seriously. I'm sure that the good things that people say about it are true, but after struggling with trying to get it to work well in a production environment (over 200 servers running Dejanews), it left a bad taste in my mouth. In a small environment, Slackware is fine, but I couldn't even conceive of running it in a large environment like I work in now (over 8000 Linux servers just in the data center I work in). It would simply consume too much SA time wrangling with the "flexibility" that is the trademark of Slackware.

... small environment only ?

I run Slackware in a small environment (less than 20 computers in a SOHO), but even I know that setting up and running Slackware is almost a no-brainer.

For large environments (like your data center) as well as small environments (like mine), you set up a testbed machine to check upgrades. Once you get the testbed running like it should, it's a trivial matter to setup a tagfile on a central repository that defines what packages to upgrade via ftp/nfs with the automated scripting available in Slackware using a cron job.

Since I have a server running a pretty much stock Slackware v8.0 (only difference is a recompiled kernel to utilize the dual-cpu system) serving an environment that has Slackware v8.0 to latest (11.0) release (along with the boss's Apple Mac Mini), I can vouch for the stability of Slackware - right along with the differences between the different systems only needing minimal SA time. And, btw, I'm the only SA this business has (a brick and mortar retail store), so my time spent doing administration must be split between system time and customer service time - guess how much SA time I spend.

If you think only of the alternatives (like Red Hat Enterprise), then working with Slackware may seem to be harder to manage large enterprises - but that's because of the difference between how Slackware works and how Red Hat works - not in the difference in "flexibility" of Slackware vs. ease-of-use for (insert your setup distribution here).

Slackware tools

Nice article on Slackware! Have been a using Slackware since 1994. I have drifted to other distros briefly but always came back to Slackware. Most of my production data I will leave it on the Slackware system since I know I can rely on the distribution.

The only reason I drift to other distributions like Fedora, Gentoo (yuck) and Debian is for the SELinux support. I wish that Patrick and his angels will consider better SELinux support. There are some security purists like us for whom SELinux/RSBAC and similar types are important. Please don't ignore the users/admins in this security segment.

Viva Slackware!

NJ

Why the name slackware, why indeed!

He does his best to not do anything. Slack being the are not doing anything. As much as is possible he uses unmodified sources from the upstream. He dropped Gnome, because it required too much configuration. The absence of some new packages has to do with the fact that old ones work fine and the new ones need tweaked. Now before anyone thinks I am bashing Patrick, Slackware is always compared with RedHat, Debian and other "Major" distributions, these projects are invariably the results of thousands upon thousands of manhours of labor for their maintainers per year, but Patrick continues to maintain his project alone, and is counted among the big boys of Linux distributions. Further you'll see him singled out as the only distro maintainer that doesn't create support issues for upstream package maintainers by messing with their code and introducing bugs.

An Accurate Description of Slackware

I think this article and the comments that followed paint an accurate description of Slackware.

Although more of my computers run Debian these days for various good reasons, the workstation I use the most still runs Slackware. I am often amazed when it takes me less time to get a new application running on Slackware than it does with other distributions where I have to fight wars with their package and configuration managers to coax them into installing and configuring software properly.

Patrick makes good judgement calls on the list of software he thinks he can include in Slackware to provide a reliable OS. Unfortunately this list seems to be shrinking with time. Maybe I'm just getting too used to the 20,000+ software packages available in Debian.

PS: Slackware is a good distro for people who (like myself) choose to drive automobiles with manual transmissions. Most of the reasons are the same.

Great Story, I am along time

Great Story, I am along time slackware user/admin and I would love to see it more in Businesses. I would also like to see more people to try it and discover it's greatness. I don't know what else to say. I just love it and it will never disappear on my side.

get slack and keep slacking

Great Article

Refreshing to finally read a pice as others have said that does not deal with Slackware VS X_Distro.

I still think Satan is in the source :]

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