3.06.2006

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.

http://bbs.archlinux.org/viewtopic.php?t=19112

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.

9 comments:

Penguin Pete said...

Um, the "link to your experience" jumps to microsoft.com... so instead, I tried typing "log message database" in the search at the bbs.archlinux.org and only found one thread in "Newbie Corner", which - to put it mildly - bears not the slightest resemblance to the story you tell.

FracturedSingleton said...

hmm.. it seems I put two http:// in the href for the url. It is fixed now. Thanks for the catch.

hammergeek said...

Singleton:
Both you and Helios have recent blog posts in similar veins; i.e. difficulties in support and tech help for newbies. I think this will be a recurring theme for Linux enthusiasts, as our OS of choice increases it's acceptance across the board.
When I first ventured into Linux, lo, these many years ago, the accepted gospel was that any inquiry would result in an "rtfm" reply, so I never bothered. I just assumed that if I had a problem, it was up to me to fix it. OK, it probably took longer than it should have, but I did learn quite a bit, in the process. And never had to deal with the dreaded techie disdain....
But times have changed. We (longtime linux users) still have reason to expect newbies to do their homework, when asking questions, but it is incumbent upon us to point them in the right direction, in my opinion. Not in a dismissive (rtfm)way, but realizing that we're dealing with a fairly steep learning curve, and many people are just stumped at the very beginning. I'm guessing that we've all held somebody's hand through at least one install/upgrade process, and it's instructive to remember what it's like for a complete newbie- not to know the directions to get to where many of us have been for a long time.
Blogs such as yours are to be commended- this is the way to show people your experiences, and to foster the community as a whole, at a time when the community is increasing in size, and really needs help in dealing the help/support issue. There's not really a better way to spread info than "this is what I wanted, this is what I did, this is what happened". Constructive in every way, and no BS. After all, even longtime users will occasionally be stymied by some new program or tweak, and we've already read the Fine Manual!
Thanks for posting your stuff- you'll be a regular read, from now on.

ed said...

Amen. I started "serious" computing on Macintoshes around 20 years ago (by serious I mean actually doing stuff and not running some educational program on my school's TRS-80... on cassette no less!) Then when I left college (early 90s), the business world forced me to learn Windows. My point is that I came into computing with no experience with a command line. Imagine! I'm sure I'm not alone, though.

The learning curve in migrating from Windows to some *nix flavor is steep even if you are an experienced IT professional. Just the fact that everything is wide open and available to be tinkered with is a burdensome freedom. It's hard to jump in without some advice. How many times will a n00b hear "RTFM" before deciding to just suck it up and stick with Windows or MacOS? If the F/OSS community wants to grow, steal mindshare from the commercial software universe, then it's going to have to think hard about these soft skills everyone's talking about.

Lamer said...

Sadly this has been the same thing thats happening everywhere in the Internet Communites.

Every newbie is treated like an idiot and everything they ask borders on the stupidity realm.

What started out as a the ultimate shared medium where everything is equal is now spiralling into Elitist enclaves where the "pro" rules and all newcomers are treated like sh!t.

Petrus said...

Hi Fractured,
As linked on my own Blogger , I've created a response on my local wiki to this post and several others like it which I've read, which I'm hoping will be able to help a few people, if not you yourself.

Penguin Pete said...

This is more "hate Linux", period. What, like it's even a story anymore? Funny, all these "true" experiences are coming out of the woodwork, but I've been up to my eyeballs in Linux for ten years and haven't met *one* person who behaves this way. I have, on the other hand, been called a geek, snob, and elitist for daring to use Linux. If I say "type this command in on the command line", I get bashed for being an elitist snob who hangs onto "bad methods" i.e. the command line (as if the concept of a command line didn't exist outside of Linux, OK, what's that thing on BSD, Open Solaris, plan9, ReactOS, or even in Window's DOS prompt???). If I try to helpfully suggest that the answer to a user's question may be found in an excellent book chapter such and page such-and-such, I'm screamed at for being an "RTFM-jerk". If I patiently explain what the user might do step-by-step, I get told that I'm "talking down to" the user. The deck is stacked against me every single possible way. Now, let's see here, is it more likely that (a) innocent users who truly want to learn are coming for help and finding none even though millions before them had no problem? or (b) immature, spoiled, lazy, arrogant brats are spilling into Linux from other OSes and projecting their frustration at their own unwillingness to learn against Linux itself? Golly, what a poser. I wasn't born knowing Linux myself, you know. I learned Linux through working my f***ing a** off, cracking 1000-page manuals, practicing at it every day. Co-incidentally, that's also how I learned a dozen programming languages, several hundred applications, multiple shells and command options, and several other FOSS systems besides Linux. Come to think of it, even when I was using Windows, I *still* had to pick up a book or two to learn my way around DOS and various applications that ran on Windows. Even the Visual Studio programming interface doesn't just write the code for you; you still have to learn something. Hey, maybe that's why there's all these colleges where you need a Comp Sci degree before you get hired for a tech job? I think I'll try that next time I apply for a sysadmin job. When they ask me what degrees and experience I have, I'll stand up and cuss all of them out for being elitist snobs whose attitudes are my barriers to entry into the IT field. Oh, yeah, that's the way to be a real winner in life!

FracturedSingleton said...

Interesting point of view Pete, I appreciate the candor and your point of view. Just a few comments:

You Wrote:

"This is more "hate Linux", period. What, like it's even a story anymore? Funny, all these "true" experiences are coming out of the woodwork, but I've been up to my eyeballs in Linux for ten years and haven't met *one* person who behaves this way."

This article was not specifically about Linux. It was about a good experience and bad experience I have had using other FOSS. I am glad your experiences have been more positive than some of mine. Then again, you have been doing this stuff for 10 years while I have only been at it for 5. Also, it was sheer coincidence that my blog entry came out at the same time the others were "coming out of the woodwork". I was just documenting my experiences. I had no idea it would turn into this.

You Wrote:

"If I say "type this command in on the command line", I get bashed for being an elitist snob who hangs onto "bad methods" i.e. the command line (as if the concept of a command line didn't exist outside of Linux, OK, what's that thing on BSD, Open Solaris, plan9, ReactOS, or even in Window's DOS prompt???). If I try to helpfully suggest that the answer to a user's question may be found in an excellent book chapter such and page such-and-such, I'm screamed at for being an "RTFM-jerk". If I patiently explain what the user might do step-by-step, I get told that I'm "talking down to" the user. The deck is stacked against me every single possible way."


I would have loved to get these kind of answers during my bad experience. If the people on the mailing list would have provided these kind of answers, I would have jumped for joy. Yes, users do expect too much from people and it is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. I applaud your efforts to voluntarily try to help people who ask questions. My "good experience" was just like you describe and I hold that effort in the highest regard. Thankfully, there are those who do help and from my blog, "not all support systems for OSS have jerks who are so willing to jump and say “RTFM!” or ignore you all together".

You Wrote:

"Golly, what a poser. I wasn't born knowing Linux myself, you know. I learned Linux through working my f***ing a** off, cracking 1000-page manuals, practicing at it every day."

Pete, this is a little out of line with the rest of your comment which was quite insightful. You have no idea what I have done with FOSS. Though, in my bad experience, I was a newbie with that particular application, I am not a newbie in general. I have been using Debian and Slackware(more recently Arch) since 2000 and have worked as hard as anyone learning Linux and alternatives to non-free(beer or freedom) applications.

Again, I am appreciative of your point of view and hope to hear more comments from you in the future.

Thanks,

-FS

Anonymous said...

Due to the fact that the internet has been growing in such a pace the last decade. More and more people seem to be coming online. This growth in online activity also exposes us to ruder or more strange people.

Ashamde silence is the answer i give when i don't know the answer ;)

We see idiots and abusive people in many online communities. Not only in the free Linux support but also in online computer games for example (teamkillers) or forums about other topics.

The only defense we have is to ignore the bad peeps and try to stay friendly and behaved to let the internet remain a good and friendly place.

Kinda like "A better enviroment starts with yourself"

-Ted