While the use of systemd by most Linux distros remains a subject of controversy, the recent vote by Debian members to support systemd while exploring other alternatives seems to indicate the init system is gaining acceptance.
The Debian distribution does not speak for the whole of Linux. However, it is the source of many popular distros, including MX Linux, Linux Mint, and Ubuntu. For that reason, there is a sense of finality in the news that Debian has resolved to focus on systemd as an init system — the first process to run on the system, and the manager of all the others – while exploring alternatives. Six years after Debian’s Technical Committee decided to use systemd, in effect the experiment has been declared a success, although a qualified one.
The decision to use systemd was revisited in December 2019 because of the proposal to include elogind, which forks the systemd-logind daemon, but does not require all of systemd. The members of Debian voted on seven proposals, which I paraphrase here as:
- Focus on systemd.
- Support Systemd, but support exploring other alternatives.
- Support portability without blocking progress.
- Support non-systemd without blocking progress.
- Support portability and multiple implementations
- Support for multiple init systems is important.
- Support for multiple init systems is required.
The winning option was to support systemd, but to explore other alternatives. By contrast, officially supporting multiple init systems was the first to be dropped in the multiple rounds of Debian’s complicated Condorcet voting system, no doubt because it would seriously complicate packaging many applications.
Clearly systemd has reached a level of acceptance that would have been unimaginable when it was first introduced eight or nine years ago. In fact, probably no other application had been so reviled since Mono, the Linux version of Microsoft’s .NET Framework. Critics claimed systemd’s centralized controls violate the Unix philosophy of using one small program for a single, limited purpose. Since systemd was developed by Red Hat, others viewed systemd as part of a ploy to dominate the Linux desktop.
On the technical side, many considered systemd as an unnecessary overlay of existing functions. Systemd was also condemned as making the entire system easier to crash, and acting on different assumptions from the rest of the system. Others praised elements of systemd like the systemctl command while objecting to the binary logging system. The wide-ranging debate was often venomous, and the venom often spilled over into personal attacks on Lennart Poettering and Kay Sievers, systemd’s original developers, who sometimes responded in kind.
Today, systemd is regarded differently. Arguments about the true Unix philosophy have proved moot, and the worst case scenarios have not materialized. Probably, too, the fact that most distributions use aliases to integrate systemd keeps non-administers unaware of its omnipresence.
In proposing the winning option, former Debian Project Leader Martin Michlmayr argued foremost that, “Cross-distribution standards and cooperation are important factors in the choice of core Debian technologies. It is important to recognize that the Linux ecosystem has widely adopted systemd and that the level of integration of systemd technologies in Linux systems will increase with time.” For Michlmayr, the technical benefits of supporting multiple init systems do not justify the efforts required.
Michlmayr went on to say, “Debian can continue to provide and explore other init systems, but systemd is the only officially supported init system. Wishlist bug reports with patches can be submitted, which package maintainers should review like other bug reports with patches. As with systemd, work should be done upstream and in cooperation with other Linux and FOSS distributions where possible. The priority is on standardization without the reliance on complicated compatibility layers.” In effect, the vote was a decision to keep the status quo into which Debian had drifted into during the last few years, while leaving room to respond to changes in technology. Since, as Mchlmayr states, other distributions are in a similar position, there are few reasons to think that many of them would decide differently.
The resistance to systemd has not died with this decision, of course. Distrowatch continues to list one hundred distributions that do not use systemd — a minority, but a large and determined one. Those opposed to systemd still have plenty of choice, including Debian derivatives like Devuan and Knoppix. But if cautious, ultra-democratic Debian can opt to retain systemd, then it seems here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Bruce Byfield has been involved in FOSS since 1999. He has published over
2000 articles, and is the writer of “Designing with LibreOffice,” which
is available as a free download at