Distros, documentation, and support

Distro Walk – Documentation Support

© Photo by Roland Lösslein on Unsplash

© Photo by Roland Lösslein on Unsplash

Article from Issue 238/2020
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Contrary to popular belief, free software does offer support. Depending on the distro, this support can be found in a wide range of documentation formats. Here's what to expect from a sampling of distros.

A common criticism of free software is that it comes with no support. That is not entirely true, since most projects maintain man pages and, in the case of the GNU Project, info pages. However, man and info pages are mostly for developers. To compensate for the lack of more general documentation, many projects, including distributions, have resorted to a wide variety of media for support, including blogs, online manuals, FAQs, how-tos, forums, and IRC channels.

These methods of documentation can be an important factor in selecting a distribution, especially for beginners. Although all sorts of documentation are available online, a distro's docs are a handy place to start. This allows users to avoid sorting through the glut of information on the Internet, much of which may be obsolete. Sometimes, other distros can also be a source of useful information, although much depends on how that information is maintained and organized.

Which distributions provide the most useful information? What follows is a sampling of distros' documentation (including Bodhi Linux and openSUSE, both of which you'll find on this month's DVD).

Arch Linux

Arch Linux tends to go its own way in installation, package management, and other features. Perhaps that is why Arch has always emphasized documentation. In fact, Arch documentation goes far beyond the distribution itself and also covers Linux in general. If your own distribution fails to explain a topic, you may very well find useful information on the Arch website.

Arch Linux's homepage is mostly for developers, listing changes in packages. By contrast, documentation is listed on ArchWiki [1] (Figure 1). For Arch Linux itself, the wiki links to a comparison of Arch with other Linux distributions and an installation guide, both of which are essential reading for those considering installation. In addition, under General recommendations, the wiki links to tutorials and a list of packages. Scroll down to find links to general information, such as the project's code of conduct and the best way to use the wiki.

Figure 1: Arch Linux's wiki includes information that users of other distros often find useful.

Arch's user forums [2] contain an Arch-centric section. Otherwise, most of the forums concern general Linux issues, making the forums a place to start searching if you are using another distribution.

Bodhi Linux

Bodhi maintains a wiki [3] with general information to get users up and running, including a guide to Moksha, its graphical interface, and some links about how to customize an installation. The first time you log into Bodhi, the landing page opens with a quick start that summarizes basic tasks (Figure 2). Its forums [4] are small, and their traffic is usually limited to several messages a day. For more advanced help, users should go to Ubuntu, from which Bodhi is derived (see below).

Figure 2: Bodhi includes an online quick start.

Debian

Debian probably offers the most documentation of any distribution. That is good news, in that you can probably find information on any topic. The bad news is that you have to sort through a massive amount of loosely organized information, some of which is obsolete. It often seems that, once a link is posted, no one ever reviews it.

The Debian website has separate pages for developers [5] and packages [6]. However, most documentation resides on yet another page [7]. The documentation page starts with links to an installation guide and FAQ and then suggests printing out a reference card if you are new to Debian. A massive number of manuals are available: 12 for users and 9 for developers (Figure 3). A support page goes on to list other places to get help, such as IRC channels, Usenet groups, and the bug tracking system. There is even a consultants page, although there is no guarantee of the quality of support.

Figure 3: Debian documentation is extensive, including numerous manuals.

Debian's user and development forums are equally massive [8], both in number and in traffic. General users might want to begin with the debian-user list, which has especially heavy traffic, and usually generates responses within 20 minutes.

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