Free Open Source Support: The Bad and the Good

I have recently had the pleasure to experience both the bad side and good side of getting support in the world of open source. Numerous time I have heard and read of OSS advocates defending against complaints about lack of support from users of proprietary software. There are several arguments that get spun out over and over again. “XYZ software has support in the form of mailing lists and a bbs/forum.” “Hey, if you need that kind of support, you should pay someone to provide it.” I understand these arguments. The people providing the support on the mailing lists and forums are generally volunteers and they freely give their help. So, enter the second argument of paying for support. This is probably the best argument and I agree with it completely to a point. If you need “on-demand” support, you should not expect to get it for free. The point at which I stop supporting this argument is when the user is a hobbyist who is just starting out or have just hit a wall: the stereotypical “newbie” or “noob” or whatever else you want to call them.

Like most users of OSS, I am mostly self taught and I can figure out how to fix most of my own problems. Sometimes however I run up against something that I cannot figure out. Thus, comes my bad experience. I run a certain piece of software on my servers that logs its messages to a MySQL database. As such, I am a member of the “users” mailing list for this software. The piece of software is fairly complex with many different configurations. This leads to many different types of conversations on the mailing list most of which are too advanced for a casual user such as myself. So, generally, I just lurk on the list and soak up as much as I can. I think I have posted only two questions in about six months both of which were fairly “newbie-ish.” Now, I am experienced enough to do my research before posting. So, I spent as much time as I could spare on the questions. Maybe it was about an hour on the first and at least two on the second before posting. I found some information that helped flesh out the questions, you know, the “I have tried this, that, and the other and none of them worked” type of stuff. The first question was completely ignored. I guess it was not “interesting” enough to deign to answer. To this day, I have managed to piece together the answer from different sources. In this manner, I discovered that the question was indeed an easy one that a little experience would have bourn out. I am newbie with this software though and I did not know exactly what I was looking for.

Anyway, this is not the bad part. The bad part came from the second question. A new installation of this software on a different linux distribution than what I would normally use. For some reason, this software was not sending its messages to the database. I followed my installation directions exactly but it still did not work. Note that these directions came from a supposed long time user of this software. Naturally, the first place I looked for the issue was in the logs of the various pieces of this software. I checked the logs of the software itself, the syslog, the MySQL log, and the log of the final piece of the software. I found nothing amiss except a vague warning that was certainly nothing to make it not work. As I said earlier, I am not a complete newbie and went in to do the research in the mailing list archives and Google for a couple of hours. I found maybe one question that came close and no one had replied to it.

So, I went to the next logical place and posted again to the mailing list. Having learned my lesson before, I tried to make the question as “interesting” as possible. I first put in my distribution name and versions of all the different parts of the software. I then posted my question which can be paraphrased, “Hey guys, the main part of this software will not log its messages into the database. I have checked all the logs of each piece and cannot find the problem. Any ideas?” After a couple of days, I get two emails from the same person both off-list. The first email was a statement saying that I should ignore the warning. Nothing else in it just that. The second email, which was sent seconds after the first, told me to check the archives because this issue comes up three to four times a week. As I mentioned before, I have been a lurker on the list for a few months and had not seen it come up once. So, I waited a day and replied to the person and cc:'d the mailing list in order to have the topic come up again and maybe get a new response from someone else seeing it. Again, the guy sent two emails seconds apart. The first blasted me for copying the list on my reply to his off-list post. The second told me he did not believe me that I had done any research on the topic and he included a link to a post that had nothing to do with what I needed help with.

Why is this bad? All the support that a “newbie” received on this topic was silence from the list at large and ridicule from a prominent member. This is the biggest reason that new users run away and would-be converts scoff at the idea of forums and mailing lists as a measure of support for OSS. So, every time I hear someone say “there is no quality support” for a piece of software and an OSS advocate claims “sure there is, we have great forums and mailing lists!” I remember what happened to me.

So, did this turn me off to OSS? Not at all. There are many reasons for this but one of the reasons is that not all support systems for OSS have jerks who are so willing to jump and say “RTFM!” or ignore you all together. For the bad part of this blog entry, I was unwilling to point out which mailing list with which I had my bad experience. I did this so as to not characterize the whole list as being bad when that may not be the case. After all, I have only lurked there a few months. Anyway, for the good, I will definitely share the name of the supporting forum. It is the support forum for Arch Linux (http://bbs.archlinux.org). My particular experience was from the “Newbie Corner” section of the forum. I will not go into the post itself but will provide the link to my experience.


Basically, a very helpful member helped me walk through the process of setting up my Netgear wireless card for my laptop using madwifi, which I am using to post this blog by the way. It is a classic example of what OSS support is supposed to be. The person, desertViking, was respectful, patient, and encouraging of a “newbie” who was new to Arch, though not so to linux. With this person's help, I was able finally getting it working after only a few days. Now would pay support have me running quicker, sure. I don't need that kind of support, though. If you need that kind of support, don't listen to the OSS advocates who say that forums are enough because generally they are not. Even as I have explained here, you can see that forums and mailing lists are not always good for basic support unless you have an “interesting” problem. Though, sometimes you can get someone very helpful.

Hopefully, I have achieved my objective which to bring some OSS advocates into reality about how some support for software can be down right hostile and even when they are not they can be just as bad and ignore newbie questions. Also, I hope that users who listened to these advocates and think they can get support similar to paid for support from the forums and mailing will see it for what it is: a hit or miss proposition.