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Debian’s init Options

A look at the choice that Debian faces in choosing a new init system and process.

The Debian Project will choose a new default init system for its next major release (codename Jessie). The debate details (Debian Wiki: Debates: initsystem) include the following proposals:

  1. sysvinit (status quo)
  2. systemd
  3. upstart
  4. openrc
  5. One of the above for Linux, other(s) on non-Linux
  6. Multiple on Linux, at least one for every other kernel

The chief goal in switching? Bring modern boot functionality (speed and lower resource use). Others include lowering the bar for packaging and maintenance, and taking advantage of newer kernel features.

The matter of choosing an init system mainly deals with the amount of work and amount of benefit available. Unfortunately, some aspects of this debate must focus on other things.

The main contenders, systemd and upstart, both have at least one strike against them:

  • systemd looks technologically superior, but that superiority makes it a non-option for at least some non-Linux kernels (owing to using Linux-specific features), and support for other kernels would require much effort. It also takes a different approach to being pid 1, namely rolling in some functionality that has long been outside of init‘s domain.
  • upstart can be supported more readily, but similar if slightly less effort would be required for non-Linux. Worse, Ubuntu’s stewardship of upstart hampers it with the Canonical Contributor License Agreement problem.

A Contributor License Agreement basically states that by signing it, you grant rights of your contributions to the project maintainer. But the Canonical CLA goes a step beyond, in claiming for Canonical the right to relicense the contributions in a non-free manner.

In the Free/Open Source world that makes it as attractive as poison ivy. Also important, some who contribute as part of their work may actively be barred from participation. A company that sees benefit in open source will probably see hostility in their employee’s work being tied into a CLA of this sort (or any sort).

It all adds up to one difficult decision. The fact that both major contenders do not reduce Debian’s workload means the decision will boil down to technical merits. That makes systemd more likely.

What of non-Linux, then? openrc or sticking with sysvinit both seem plausible. Debian likely will not abandon their work with other kernels, so they will likely bite their tongues. Debian will put up with the extra work of dual systems for now. That will also mean that their Linux decision will remain a technical hybrid for the time being.

But not forever. Post-Jessie, I expect Debian will re-evaluate and hopefully find a more useful option to shed some of the extra weight they will take on in the short-term, whether that means configuration conversion tools, or something else.

The main reason that upstart seems unlikely, Ubuntu and Canonical never took the time to lead the way on non-Linux and while some Debian packages might have easier times adopting upstart configurations, the feature set of systemd seems to be a bit more powerful.

Healthcare.gov’s Identity Problem

Some thoughts on the broken healthcare exchange website, and how proper identity management could have saved it a lot of trouble.

Identity management poses the most important and most striking problem for the new healthcare exchange site. Identity management remains one of the great, unsolved issues of our times and uniquely displays the anti-capitalist postures of some of the biggest technology businesses that exist.

That something as basic to any and every service as identity remains a closely guarded commodity shows that many major companies do not wish to compete on an even playing field. They would rather draw straws amongst themselves for the userbase pie, based on lock-in and turf wars, than to actually free their own markets. But while that general malignance runs rampant throughout virtually every industry, why in gods’ names should it infect government projects?

Indeed, inevitably the government will create a single sign-on or other universal identity mechanism for its Internet services. But in the meantime we all suffer. Everyone includes the government, with all of the bad press the new website received post-shutdown. Finger-pointing from the contractors, calls for resignations, and general what-the-fuckery from most of the attempted users of the site.

But a rough guess would get you the answer that at least half of the problems with the site center on identity when you include:

  • The initial sign-up process (username, password, e-mail verification)
  • The identity verification process (document submission, phone verification integration)
  • Family member and employee identification process

The site, like any government services site, relies on identity for so much of what it does. Handing off to other databases for things like subsidy requirement verification and other eligibility requirements.

A whole swath of inefficiency in government, much less in this one site, vanishes if the government merely gets its identity house in order.

But instead the government pays a high premium to build a monstrosity. Of course, that same argument bears against the Affordable Care Act itself with equal keenness (that a simpler system like single-payer would have saved far more money and woe both in the short term and long term).

What else could have eased the creation of the site? Some say that management of such a large-scale project requires a so-called quarterback. Others say you want a catcher. Some say you really need a good goalie, or a head chef, or even a Benevolent Dictator for Life (BDFL).

Nah. New projects suffer the most pain from the code they use for the first time. Like a new idea, fresh in your mind, or a fresh stone broken off a larger stone. Still sharp, cuts your hand, not yet smoothed by time and trial. Full of mealy worms wriggling waiting to grow into full-fledged bugs.

A QB will screw up a new play the first time through just like the rest of us. The most-needed piece of kit in software? Reuse. Use something that already gets used a ton, that does not have bugs because it gets used all the time.

The site broke because too much of the code and the way the code got used had not been proven. The databases had not been proven for their loads.

Testing a new project does help you sand the code smooth, but building from smooth code to begin with sounds smarter.

Gerrymandering: A Double-edged Sword

A look at how the gerrymandering of districts can and will backfire.

The shutdown ended, the debt ceiling hiked, and House Republicans found themselves bewildered by a backfiring strategy to retreat the Affordable Care Act.

With a follow-up due by 15 January 2014 for the funding issue, and the limit on borrowing to pay for debt requiring another tune-up by 7 February 2014, the question firing among the people: what will snap the American government out of their funk?

One of the major adverse interactions behind the GOP House attempt against the ACA comes from the nature of House seats and the reality of gerrymandering. State lawmakers try to draw their districts to empower their party-mates and suppress those outside of their party.

But the pretense of parties then rears its head. The reality that no such thing as parties can truly exist, so long as humans do not become automatons, shines through.

The party line, a fiction, only holds so long as it does not damage those holding it. But when select interests who identify with the party find themselves underrepresented, they will seek to magnify their attention within the party.

Whence primaried. Another way to say it: reverse-gerrymandered. The district, drawn too strictly and too strongly for your party position, swung around you. The center moved to your right. What now?

Now, the fiction of parties mainly serves special interests that hitch on to the party. But when the party sours, from party to Tea Party to Tea Pirates, either the interest groups will drift solo, or remain tethered to a listing ship.

If the former, they hope for short rescue, the latter for new hands to right the ship. Blood in the water attracts sharks. The opposition interests find new purchase, new avenues of attack, while the interests tethered to the soured party bail and pump the bilges and panic.

At some point one must question the sensibility of gerrymandering, a trap set too tight for the trapper’s own good. It caricatures the electorate, makes fools of good men, as they must take up increasingly contorted poses to fit the party mold.

But the party member sees himself as but an acolyte. As he twists half-way, so the politician must make a three-quarters twist. And so on. And then, one fine day: snap goes the neck, crunch goes the bone, squirt goes the blood, and out go the lights in the eyes of the extremist politicians trying to find standing ground in a world they turned upside down.

The aftermath of gerrymandering comes chaos. Some to any semi-sane third-party around, some to the formerly minority party. Some to the wind, out of Dodge, never to vote again or to speak of the strange rituals they partook on the Tea Pirate ship.

Rumors among the people of cannibalism sneak in between nervous laughter and a tired hope for a better government. Too much to ask.

Oh, do not call this bleak. The demise of the Tea Party (be it in 2014 or in years to come) will bring renewed hope. The center will normalize to a truer equilibrium, for example. The minority party strength will grow.

The memetic force of the Tea Party relies on the notion that the government fold up like a map, and that their politicians can fold that map. Neither bear out. They promised the world and delivered nothing. But at least the people still will another shot at the reform game, even if they chose such a lackluster option.