My personal view of OpenBSD

July 13, 2015

I have nothing against OpenBSD in situations where it works well; we run it for firewalls and a few other narrow purposes which it does well at. But I have no love for it either and left to my own devices I probably wouldn't use it for anything. Certainly I can't imagine running OpenBSD on a personal machine.

Some of this is an extension of my pragmatic and technical views on FreeBSD versus Linux, with a bit of the cultural bad blood thrown in as well. Some of it is all of the sober, calm impacts of OpenBSD's culture, since I have good reasons not to run systems where I don't think I'm going to have very much fun trying to get support or help or report bugs. But that's the easy to write about and incomplete version.

The core truth is that I don't want to associate myself with the OpenBSD culture that I described. I no longer want to be anywhere near a community that is abrasive in general and hostile to newcomers (either openly or simply by being 'clever'), one where people abusing each other on mailing lists is a perfectly okay event, and so on. My hands are not clean here, because I have been one of those clever people in the past (and part of the appreciative audience of such clever people, too). But looking back at that part of my past conduct now mostly makes me wince. Today, I try to be better and do better.

(I'm not entirely consistent, given that Linux has its own issues with this. But I feel that they are less pervasive because Linux is a much more split up system; there is no one group of people that is the entire main system the way there is with OpenBSD.)

Even if I never experienced or even saw the dark side of OpenBSD, I would know that it was there. And these days I simply don't want to hang around that sort of a place; it's not something that I find pleasant any more. And in turn that taints OpenBSD itself, because it is the heart of that culture.

PS: I don't know if what I hear about OpenBSD's culture is actually true (or if it's still true). That's why I've called it folklore. But if it isn't true, well, the OpenBSD people have a problem, because it is very pervasive folklore (and does historically clearly have some basis in fact) and I'm not sure people are going to easily believe that it's false.

(Not that I expect that the people in the OpenBSD community care about this issue or my views. Rather the contrary; it would be surprising if they were not perfectly fine with the current state of their community, and maybe rather enjoy it just the way it is.)

Comments on this page:

By Chris at 2015-07-13 07:18:29:

Just wondering. Have you read lkml? Linus does a lot of the same things you are writing about here, yet few people speak up about it.

By rjc at 2015-07-13 08:02:24:

I have already commented on the previous article - only here you have actually mentioned that you hadn't actually experienced it first-hand. From where I'm sitting, this looks very much like spreading rumours ;^)

In all seriousness, though - I highly recommend OpenBSD and it's technical mailing lists. misc@ is full of people who are sometimes louder than the devs themselves.

P.S. I am also using OpenBSD on my personal machines :^)

The University of Toronto has an OpenBSD mirror, and not unsurprising: It's operated by the long standing maintainer of the OpenBSD official FAQ and website, Nick Holland.

It's no secret that mailing lists are hostile places, I have never seen a new user flamed by a developer without provoking the reaction, by my observation this behaviour is often from trolls or "self-appointed community experts". It's easy to mistake these people as being authoritative due to years of continues posting. Banning is not a good deterrent, and you see similar users on forums, Linux lists. All the time.

OpenBSD's bugs@, tech@ and ports@ lists are generally free of this noise, and if you send in a report that is clear you've spent more than 5 minutes researching, it will get a reply.

By cks at 2015-07-13 12:42:34:

I've read lkml in the past, which is one reason I alluded to Linux having its own issues here. People in the broad Linux community do seem to be speaking up about this, and eg interviewers ask Linus about this periodically (the results are not particularly helpful, of course).

I'm afraid that from an outsider's viewpoint, misc@ is part of the OpenBSD culture. It is an official project mailing list and the official project people take part in it, and the flaming is coming in part from inside the circle of core developers. As for rumours, well, you can start with the search results for [Theo de Raadt abrasive]. If these are only rumours they are quite pervasive and often repeated, and stories of 'this guy routinely flames people' does not encourage first-person research.

(You can say that Theo is only one person. Yes, and he's the project head.)

'Me' wrote:

It's no secret that mailing lists are hostile places, I have never seen a new user flamed by a developer without provoking the reaction, [...]

This is a major disincentive to be a new user (at least on a mailing list), because as a new user you do not know what will provoke a developer to flame you. The developer may be tired of the Nth uninformed person who shows up to ask an obvious question that can be answered with a little bit of thought or whatever, but that is not the experience and viewpoint the target of the flames has. To an honest new user everything is new and unfamiliar and well, they just got flamed out of the blue. If you cannot necessarily speak safely without a great deal of advance research, well, it's much easier to not speak at all. And if you can't speak, everything I said about the impact of culture applies.

But that's all calm logical stuff about quantifiable impact. What it comes down to for me is that I do not want to hang around places where newbies get flamed. Or really, where anyone gets flamed, or where flaming people is an approved spectator sport. OpenBSD appears to be such a place (in that it condones and actively engages this in at least misc@), so nope.

It's easy to write a disparaging article about a community you're not a part of. You were saying something about spectator sports?

By billy larlad at 2015-09-05 23:00:34:

What surprises me about OpenBSD is that there are so few rude replies on the mailing lists. A good many of the developers are patient and polite beyond what can reasonably be expected of them.

Put another way, I'd say that a lot of the worst attitude comes from non-developers. Does it matter who's being rude? I think so. We can't get rid of the developers, but we can tell our peers -- other end users -- to cool it.

Can you cite even one example of just one of your rumors?

I’m genuinely curious because you’re casting a lot of aspersions that don't comport with any of my own firsthand experiences nor those I've directly witnessed -- in fact, they're completely opposite. And if even one of these newcomers you’re so admirably concerned about reads misinformation you perpetuated, you’d ironically be doing them a greater disservice with the demonstrable culture of dishonesty you’ve created than the pretend problem culture you ascribe to OpenBSD.

Written on 13 July 2015.
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