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Are sysadmins failing Free Software?

Today I attempted to run a simulation on the university’s Beowulf cluster and a simple shell script returned an error saying that mktemp was not present. Really? I have this experience all the time: I go from my Fedora System to the university’s RHEL system and find out that my workstation is a heck of a lot easier to use because on the cluster a package is missing, or there’s some security measure or other sysadmin preference that prevents me from using the system the way I should be able to use it.

To me this is merely annoying, but I think the Free Software movement needs to take notice of this. Here’s the real problem: people view “Linux” (their name for it, not mine) as a workhorse, something that no one would willingly use unless they need “performance.” A lot of people talk about what a pain it is to use “Linux” while I think it is a joy to use, and it’s a pain to use anything else. Perhaps the reason they think so is because they’ve only had contact with systems run by system administrators who keep everything too tightly locked down. I use “Linux” in quotation marks because the experiences these people have is so drastically different from the stable, capable GNU System I use for all my computing.

My first exhibit was the lack of mktemp on this thoroughly outdated RHEL system, but my second is that whenever I’m around system administrators, they talk about having problems that I have never had administering GNU systems on home and office workstations. Last time I was in such a situation, I told this to somebody and she was really nice about it: she said “We might just be doing everything wrong.” I understand she was just being tactful (though more than average), I highly doubt that I have all the answers. Anything that I have done that wasn’t part of a default install was something that was no more complex to figure out than reading the manual. But I’m not going to RTFM a room full of sysadmins, am I?

The problem I see for the Free Software movement is sysadmins are not motivated in any way to promote free software, at least not most of the time. On top of that, their jobs are certainly not easy and they don’t have most of the power. They have the sort of “spit on your french fries” power that unfortunately makes them defend their decisions ruthlessly, even if they’re shown to be wrong.

This becomes a problem for me advocating free software on a personal and minor public level because if I have a room full of scientists, most of them have used “Linux” but very few of them even know it can have a GUI. Even I didn’t know that until 5 years ago! Furthermore if any of them have tried using GNU/Linux and have faced continued frustration because the machine they’re working on doesn’t work, I’m not going to convince them of anything.

I’m not saying that sysadmins ought to put free software advocacy first; what I’m saying is that pretty often they make these machines like old Unix machines, instead of GNU machines — machines with no arbitrary limits, portable tools and an emphasis on enabling users to be active participants. If they could focus some of their energy on that, and their bosses would let them, then we’d all have an easier time telling people the benefits of free software.

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