Opinion: Get online for (free) Linux support!
June 17, 1999
(IDG) -- Linux is famous for its non-traditional form of tech support. Famous among those in the know, at least. People who have yet to try Linux, for one reason or another, might buy into the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) rumors they hear about Linux not having tech support. This week I want to not only dispel that marketing myth, but to take a closer look at one of the many channels of tech support which Linux does have, and try to puzzle out exactly what it is that makes it so good.
Almost all Linux tech support is online. That can mean email, documentation on websites, messaging conferences and forums, mailing lists, and/or IRC (Internet Relay Chat).
Use of any and all of these tools is as natural and native to the Linux community as the Internet itself. How could it be otherwise? The Internet begat, fostered, and continues to nurture Linux. It provides -- nay, it is the infrastructure which houses the bazaar.
It is truly ironic that, from the great unwashed barbarian hordes which populate the IRC networks and channels, come the same people who are restoring pride and dignity to the field of tech support. Just as the Linux community is well known for its tech support, IRC is often thought of in terms of cyberporn, pirated software, and as a giant cracker clubhouse. It is all that, to be sure. But there is much more to it than just that. People helping people, for example.
It is not by mistake that tech support in the PC world has sunk to the level of contempt normally reserved for marketing folk and PHM's (Pointy Haired Managers).
You old-timers out there may remember the Golden Age of Personal Computing, when tech support was not just good (or great, depending on the severity of your problem and the urgency with which you needed a fix), it was free.
Well, free as in cost was usually included with the purchase price of the product. Although, in the case of Word Perfect, you didn't even need to be a registered owner. All you needed was to have a problem with WP. Believe it or not, the phone call was free, too.
Microsoft didn't care for that model. Sure, it resulted in satisfied users and customers. But it was too expensive. It didn't quiet the beast: the unbridled greed which demands profits at any cost. So they simply destroyed the model.
Another irony is that, in this age of MS domination of the personal software industry, not only do users have to pay extra for tech support - and pay for the phone call - they must suffer further indignities at the hands of incompetent support personnel. And more often than not, tech support will have been out-sourced, so those providing the support are even less likely to care if you're happy with them. You don't even know who them is!
This is not to say that you won't be treated rudely or given bad information trying to get support for Linux (or anything else) on the Internet as well. Indeed, the "attitude" of those providing assistance on IRC is too often arrogant or downright unfriendly. But at least you don't have to pay for it.
And it's not all like that. Helping you to find the the places where you can get the best help on the IRC is what this column is all about.
The history of the Internet and Linux and IRC are all intertwined. We know that Linux came to life in 1991. IRC was born at the University of Oulu in Finland in August, 1988.
Just as Minix provided part of the inspiration -- and perhaps some of the code or early design -- of what was to become Linux, BitNet Relay Chat was "a good inspiration" for IRC.
Even if you are still a Windows user - or are in the process of moving to Linux from Windows - you can still use IRC. The most popular IRC client is an excellent shareware product called mIRC. You can find it for download all over the 'Net. Another nice Windows client is Pirch, also shareware, from Northwest Computer Service.
If you're already using Linux, then you have your choice of several clients. BitchX is a popular one. KDE has ksirc and there are three clients listed on the GNOME software map: irssi, X-Chat, and yagIRC. But even if you don't have one of those, you probably do have ircii, a CLI client.
Even if you are not normally a CLI kind of guy/gal, spiritually it would do you good to get in touch with your Linux roots and give ircii a try. It's a standard offering on most distributions.
Assuming that you have ircii installed and living in a directory along your current PATH, all that it takes to begin your journey is a terminal screen (or window) in which to enter the command irc.
This normally connects you automagically to the MIT chat server at irc-2.mit.edu, on the default port of 6667.
The MIT server used to be part of EFNet, but for one reason or another they have become independent. That's OK, the first place I want to take you is onto the Undernet anyway.
But first we have to get you looking the part. Your nick (IRC nickname) when you logged in to MIT was taken from your user name on the system you're using. If I was at work, for example, my nick would be jbarr or something similar. Not cool.
I always change mine to "WaRtHaWg." It just seems to match my looks and personality. Like the A-10 jockeys say about their own beloved Warthog, I am "Ugly but effective."
To change your nick, simply enter the command "/nick BlackHatd00d" (or perhaps something more or less formal). As long as it's unique to the server, you are now known by whatever nickname you've chosen.
Our first visit is going to be to the #linuxhelp channel on the Undernet network. There are dozens of IRC networks, and new ones appear all the time. The Undernet is not the oldest or the largest, but it's the one I know best. To get there we are going to need to change servers.
According to their web page: "The Undernet is one of the largest realtime chat networks in the world, with approximately 45 servers connecting over 35 countries and serving more than 100,000 people weekly."
The last time I logged onto the Undernet, there were over 45,000 people chatting on its 45 servers. Not all on the same channel, of course. There were over 17,000 channels.
A channel in IRC is the equivalent of a "room" on AOL. Actually, I hate comparing IRC (or anything else on the Internet) with AOL. There are already enough confused souls out there who think that RedHat is Linux and AOL is the Internet.
Allow me to withdraw that analogy. Instead, I will say that a channel in IRC is an area someone has set up for chat about a particular subject. But I'm not the only one around who took the easy way out and compared channels to "chat rooms." Check the top of page 264 in the Installation Guide for RH 6.0.
Where did I leave you? Oh, yes. We are going to the Undernet. To get there, all you have to do is change from the server you originally connected to (presumably irc-2.mit.edu) to one of the 45 servers that form the Undernet. Enter the command "/server dallas.tx.us.undernet.org" to get there.
Assuming your nickname is still legal on the new server (if it's not, just use the "/nick" command again to try another one), we are almost home. To get to the #linuxhelp channel, enter "/join #linuxhelp".
Now that you've found a decent place for Linux support on IRC, let's stop for a moment and gather our wits. Are we in the right place? The best channel for the help we need? Do we know how to behave? How to ask for help in a way that won't bring a flood of abuse down upon us?
That depends on the issue that you need help with. In general, the more specific you are in channel selection the better results you will get. If there is an "official" IRC channel for the product you need help with, go there.
Enlightenment, for example, has its official channel(called #e) on EFNet. If you're having a problem installing, setting up, or using E, this is the place. Ask mandrake or raster or one of the other E developers or helpful folk who hang there how to solve it.
The first IRC network started in Finland, but it soon spread to the states: first to MIT, then to the University of Denver, and then to Oregon State. IRC was off and running.
In 1990 that first network split into the Eris Free (EFNet) and Anarchy (Anet) networks. Today, EFNet has dozens of channels devoted to Linux and its apps (as do most other IRC networks).
So if you are having a problem with GNOME instead of Enlightenment, no problem. Just visit the #gnome channel on the same network. I could go on, but you get the idea. The best help will generally be found on the channel that most specifically matches your problem.
So far I've only talked about the technology, the networks and the software which provide the means for online, real-time help with Linux. But that's not what makes Linux support the best available. It's the people.
People like Rob Levin, for example. Rob went looking for Linux support on EFNet in 1993. He wasn't really satisfied with what he found. Rob said "It seemed to me that there was a strong need for friendly support that wasn't being met, and meeting that need could have a positive effect on the growth of the Linux community. Pauline Middelink and I and several other #linux users started #linpeople to try and help meet that need."
Over the years, #linpeople has migrated first from EFNet to DALNet, then to Undernet, then to their own network, in 1996. But that wasn't the final move. That move didn't occur until last year.
Rob said "irc.linpeople.org had begun attracting a fairly diverse set of projects, including the Mnemonic browser project and Debian GNU/Linux, and I realized that we needed to broaden our focus to encompass open source and free software generally." That led to #linpeople joining a new umbrella group, the Open Projects Network.
Rob is a "people" person. I know from personal experience that tech support under the best of circumstances is a demanding, often frustrating chore. I thought he would be a good one to ask about how folk seeking help on IRC should behave in order to avoid flames and get the assistance they need. I was right.
Here are five suggestions Rob provided to do just that:
If you visit #linpeople these days (one of the servers making up the Open Projects Network is provided by the new Linux site at irc.linux.com), you will almost always find it busy. As I type this, there are 60 people in the channel.
The channel topic is set to remind the helpers what their role is: "You've been appointed admin -- your job: (1) Make the channel a friendly, useful place (2) learn to change the subject unobtrusively. (3) Never refuse help from an unexpected source. (4) Don't sweat the little things. (Everything is a little thing. ;)"
If you've ever felt insulted or talked down to on IRC help channels for Linux, you'll really appreciate the attitude on #linpeople. And guess what? It's contagious.
Once you've found high-tech help heaven and gotten past your ppp connection problems (or finally have your sound card configured just right, or so on), what can you do to help the helpers and/or folks who come after you?
I asked Rob that question, too. Rob replied that they have several needs at the present: they always need calm, friendly folk to help answer questions, they need programming assistance for new IRC server software, and they need design and graphics help for their web site.
Rob then spoke to one issue he considers the most important:
"I'd be very interested in corporate sponsors, preferably more than one, to help pay a salary or two and expand our facilities. We currently have relationships with several organizations in the community, and have plenty of IRC server host accounts, but if we're going to continue to expand we'll probably need some additional facilities of our own."
So there you have it. Rob's and #linpeople's story is just one of the stories that explain how Linux has come to enjoy the finest technical support available. Now the next time that you hear FUD from the Dark Side about there not being any support for Linux you can counter it with the truth. And now you also know how you can help it continue to be true.
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