The init wars have recently caught a lot of media attention (e.g. heise, prolinux, phoronix). However, one detail that is often overlooked: Debian is debating over the default, while all of them are already supported to a large extend, actually. Most likely, at least two of them will be made mandatory to support IMHO.

The discussion seems to be quite heated, with lots of people trying to evangelize for their preferred system. This actually only highlights that we need to support more than one, as Debian has always been about choice. This may mean some extra work for the debian-installer developers, because choosing the init system at install time (instead of switching later) will be much easier. More often than not, when switching from one init system to another you will have to perform a hard reset.

If you want to learn about the options, please go to the formal discussion page, which does a good job at presenting the positions in a neutral way.

Here is my subjective view of the init systems:

  • SysV init is the current default, and thus deserves to be mentioned first. It is slow, because it is based on a huge series of shell scripts. It can often be fragile, but at the same time it is very transparent. For a UNIX system administrator, SysV init is probably the preferred choice. You only reboot your servers every year anyway.
  • upstart seems to be a typical Canonical project. It solves a great deal of problems, but apparently isn’t good enough at it for everybody, and they fail at including anyone in their efforts. Other examples of these fails include Unity and Mir, where they also announced the project as-is, instead of trying to get other supporters on board early (AFAICT). The key problem to widespread upstart acceptance seems to be the Canonical Contributor License Agreement that many would-be contributors are unwilling to accept. The only alternative would be to fork upstart completely, to make it independent of Canonical. (Note that upstart nevertheless is GPL, which is why it can be used by Debian just fine. The CLA only makes getting patches and enhancements included in the official version hard.)
  • systemd is the rising star in the init world. It probably has the best set of features, and it has started to incorporate/replace a number of existing projects such as ConsoleKit. I.e. it not only manages services, but also user sessions. It can be loosely tied to the GNOME project which has started to rely on it more and more (much to the unhappyness of Canonical, who used to be a key player for GNOME; note that officially, GNOME chose to not depend on systemd, yet I see this as the only reliable combination to get a complete GNOME system running, and since “systemd can eventually replace gnome-session” I foresee this tie to become closer). As the main drawback, systemd as is will (apparently) only work with the Linux kernel, whereas Debian has to also support kFreeBSD, NetBSD, Hurd and the OpenSolaris kernels (some aren’t officially supported by Debian, but by separate projects).

So my take: I believe the only reasonable default is systemd. It has the most active development community and widest set of features. But as it cannot support all architectures, we need mandatory support for an alternative init system, probably SysV. Getting both working reliably will be a pain, in particular since more and more projects (e.g. GNOME) tie themselves closely to systemd, and would then become Linux-only or require major patches.

I have tried only systemd on a number of machines, and unfortunately I cannot report it as “prime time ready” yet. You do have the occasional upgrade problems and incompatibilities, as it is quite invasive. From screensavers activating during movies to double suspends, to being unable to shutdown my system when logged in (systemd would treat the login manager as separate session, and not being the sole user it would not allow me to shut down), I have seen quite a lot of annoyances happen. This is an obvious consequence of the active development on systemd. This means that we should make the decision early, because we will need a lot of time to resolve all these bugs for the release.

There are more disruptions coming on the way. Nobody seems to have talked about kDBUS yet, the integration of an IPC mechanism like DBUS into the Linux kernel. It IMHO has a good chance of making it into the Linux kernel rather soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became mandatory for systemd soon after. Which then implies that only a recent kernel (say, mid-2014) version might be fully supported by systemd soon.

I would also like to see less GNOME influence in systemd. I have pretty much given up on the GNOME community, which is moving into a UI direction that I hate: they seem to only care about tablet and mobile phones for dumb users, and slowly turn GNOME into an android UI; selling black background as major UI improvements. I feel that the key GNOME development community does not care about developers and desktop users like me anymore (but dream of being the next Android), and therefore I have abandoned GNOME and switched to XFCE.

I don’t give upstart much of a chance. Of course there are some Debian developers already involved in its development (employed by Canonical), so this will cause some frustration. But so far, upstart is largely an Ubuntu-only solution. And just like Mir, I don’t see much future in it; instead I foresee Ubuntu going systemd within a few years, because it will want to get all the latest GNOME features. Ubuntu relies on GNOME, and apparently GNOME already has chosen systemd over upstart (even though this is “officially” denied).

Sticking with SysV is obviously the easiest choice, but it does not make a lot of sense to me technically. It’s okay for servers, but more and more desktop applications will start to rely on systemd. For legacy reasons, I would however like to retain good SysV support for at least 5-10 more years.

But what is the real problem? After all, this is a long overdue decision.

  • There is too much advocacy and evangelism, from either side. The CTTE isn’t really left alone to do a technical decision, but instead the main factors have become of political nature, unfortunately. You have all kinds of companies (such as Spotify) weigh in on the debate, too.
  • The tone has become quite aggressive and emotional, unfortunately. I can already foresee some comments on this blog post “you are a liar, because GNOME is now spelled Gnome!!1!”.
  • Media attention. This upcoming decision has been picked up by various Linux media already, increasing the pressure on everybody.
  • Last but not least, the impact will be major. Debian is one of the largest distributions, last but not least used by Ubuntu and Steam, amongst others. Debian preferring one over the other will be a slap in somebodys face, unfortunately.

So how to solve it? Let the CTTE do their discussions, and stop flooding them with mails trying to influence them. There has been so much influencing going on, it may even backfire. I’m confident they will find a reasonable decision, or they’ll decide to poll all the DDs. If you want to influence the outcome provide patches to anything that doesn’t yet fully support your init system of choice! I’m sure there are hundreds of packages which do neither have upstart nor systemd support yet (as is, I currently have 27 init.d scripts launched by systemd, for example). IMHO, nothing is more convincing than have things just work, and of course, contributing code. We are in open source development, and the one thing that gets you sympathy in the community is to contribute code to someone elses project. For example, contribute full integrated power-management support into XFCE, if you include power management functionality.

As is, I have apparently 7 packages installed with upstart support, and 25 with systemd support. So either, everybody is crazy about systemd, or they have the better record of getting their scripts accepted upstream. (Note that this straw poll is biased - with systemd, the benefits of not using “legacy” init.d script may just be larger).