Slackware is the most venerable of Linux distributions, loved and trusted by hordes of users, sysadmins and programmers around the world for its solidity and closeness to the ground. Slackware comes from an earlier time when Linux users were almost exclusively hackers who walked the command line without fear or prejudice, scorned the world of point and click, and never went out overdressed.
Not that Slack is behind the times - a Slack user can sit behind the same GUI as any SUSE, Ubuntu or Fedora user. Just that Slack comes from a different tradition where the virtues are simplicity, straightforwardness, and lack of bloat. The asset most valued by the Slack user, and most often claimed for Slackware Linux, is system stability.
Slackware is often perceived to be behind the times, because it doesn't necessarily come with the latest and greatest version of every piece of software, which is a deliberate policy of Patrick Volkerding, the one and only maintainer of Slackware Linux, who prefers to include only software that is proven to be mature and stable.
In contrast, most other distributions adhere to the release early, release often, 'bleeding edge' philosophy that has been a feature of many GNU/Linux and other free software projects since the earliest days.
The stripped-down cleanliness of Slackware Linux may explain why there is still a vast user base of loyal and trusting Slack users, despite its lack of apparent commercial appeal. Other distributions may come with a greater range of options - three different database servers, four different music players, five different browsers - but Slackware Linux comes with all the tools that are essential to run a clean system in a production environment, as a server or as a development platform. You don't need the latest and greatest music software to run Apache or Samba. In the world of Slackware less is often more.
A corollary of the perception that Slackware is behind the times, is the much travelled legend that Slackware is hard to use, and not to be touched by first time users. True, Slackware doesn't have a picturesque, simple-choice, resource-hogging GUI installer, but many people would argue that, for all that, Slackware is just as easy to install, that the installer has more clarity than most, is more flexible, and that it is easier to customise a Slackware installation for the precise requirements of more advanced users and system administrators.
The Slackware user would claim that other distributions will install superfluous packages and tools that have to be removed after the installation is complete. What is more, Slackware, more than most other Linux distributions, has a feel that is similar to a commercial Unix, and feels like home to the experienced Unix user, in installation and in practice.
Slackware was the first of the Linux distributions to be employed on a regular basis as an illicit backroom server, as Linux often was, sneaked into the server space under the noses of the management. From this perspective it is possible to claim that Slackware was the first commercial Linux, and for some years, was by far the most popular.
The Master of Slack
So why is Slackware called Slackware? Slackware, after all, is not the most obvious moniker to take Linux into the business world, (and who cared about that then?), however fetching it might have sounded to the odd mix of rebellious youth, technofreaks, and frustrated hackers who, as legend has it, contrived to bring Linux into the world.
At the time that Slackware first emerged as the logical replacement for the Software Landing Systems (SLS) Linux distribution, the satirical Church of the Subgenius, with its slogan "get slack", was still a popular source of humour on the college campuses of the US. Slackware can be taken as a a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Church of the Subgenius, and its charismatic leader, JR 'Bob' Dobbs, 'The Master of Slack', and as an assertion that Slackware was part of the zeitgeist of the youth of America. On the other hand, Volkerding, the true master of Slack, may just have liked the sound and feel of his unlikely choice of name, which is as good a reason as any for choosing a name that both catches the eye and is not easily forgotten.
But there is another story from way back there near the beginning of time, or more precisely, during the first days of January 1994, when Slackware was still in its infancy and GNU/Linux was very young, and Usenet was more or less respectable, a worried user named Garry nervously posted to comp.os.linux.misc that he had "just heard from a friend of mine that has just read a bunch of messages claiming that Slackware 1.1.1 was put together by 'Wiccas' (Satanists)."
"It doesn't help," he wrote, "that by default the three sample users created by the install program just happened to be named 'Satan, Gonzo, Snake-Pit.'"
Apple and Eve
In these days when Usenet is too often a home from home for kerb crawlers and spam traders, it is hard to remember that Usenet used to be fun. Garry's post sparked a classic Usenet debate - on RFC 666 compliance, sourcery and sorcery, the subliminal messages emitted by vi, of Kerberos and the hounds of hell, and of speculation that Pat Volkerding was L Ron Hubbard in disguise...
There were angry Wiccans and earnest, or not so earnest, searches for Satan in the source, and declarations of defiance from the friends of Patrick Volkerding: "I've met the maker of Slackware," one wrote, "and he wasn't wearing pentagrams or drinking blood. There are some hidden things in Slackware but they have nothing to do with Satanism..."
Another told the story of how Satan once tempted Eve with an Apple, and another declared that "the SunOS Pascal compiler came up with 'atan.S' once and the word 'sin' many times. This, for me, is conclusive proof that Sun Microsystems is a company founded on the unholy triptych of devil worship, virgin sacrifice, and proprietary operating systems."
At this time, of course, Slackware Linux was the ultimate in "cool", and in some circles this is still true. Prior to Slackware's emergence in 1993, SLS (Software Landing Systems) was the most established of Linux distributions. SLS had its critics. Ian Murdock, the founder of the Debian project told Linux Journal in 1994 that SLS was "possibly the most bug-ridden and badly maintained Linux distribution available; unfortunately, it is also quite possibly the most popular."
A similar dissatisfaction with SLS was the spur for Volkerding to begin his distribution, which was very different in character to Debian, with its thousands of contributors, who worked on a cooperative development model. Slackware, in contrast, was and is maintained by the efforts of one singular individual, Volkerding himself and, like FreeBSD, was sold on CD by Walnut Creek, and mirrored on FTP sites around the globe.
In an interview in the June 1994 issue of Linux Journal, Volkerding said: "It would be nice to make money from [Slackware], but not from selling the actual package", which can be taken as a declaration that Slackware was seen as a community project, rather than as a commercial enterprise.
As late as 1996, the majority of Linux servers were running Slackware, and it wasn't for another three or four years that Slackware's profile as the best known and most popular of Linux distributions was eclipsed by the success of Red Hat, Mandrake (later Mandriva), SuSE and other commercial distributions, some of which, notably Red Hat and SUSE, had originally evolved from Slackware distributions.
Without the commercial sponsorship and marketing hype available to its rivals, or the community involvement of Debian or Ubuntu, Slackware has disappeared off the radar of many Linux users, but the distribution is still alive and vibrant and, the afficianados will tell you, is the most stable and dependable of Linux distributions for low level server applications, with an enviable reputation for being secure and reliable, easier to configure on older and smaller computers, and with an independence and character all of its own, and all you have to do is get slack...