Non-Discussions

There are discussions, some very lively, some even changing to flame wars and non productive in most cases. And there are discussions among grown-ups who have something in common: the goal to improve a non optimal situation. We all know such discussions and we feel best when participating in such because we do it to achieve something for all.

And there are discussions where somebody is in the lead and puts his opinion, his rules and his point of view above logical or technical arguments. “Do as you are told or else..” If this happens at the very start of a discussion I call it a “non-discussion“. It does not solve the problem at hand, it does nothing to improve the situation or fix an issue. The only thing it does is giving the leader a nice warm feeling that he has proven his position and enforced rules.

I’m afraid to admit, today I was part of such a non-discussion. The issue was that the Mandriva mirror at MandrivaUser.de does not contain the “debug” subdirectories. The debug subdirectories in the mirror tree are subdirectories with files which only serve developpers or users interested in development, nothing for the average user, not even for the “power user”. The issue lies in the $MIRRORLIST system Mandriva invented for the software management in Mandriva Linux.

For those not familiar with Mandriva Linux let me explain:
After installation of Mandriva Linux one of the first things a user will do is set the online media for his software management, in other words: configure where his system will look for software packages available for installation. In former times you had to select a mirror from a list and which branches you want to set. Those were /main, /contrib and /non-free for most users, together with their “update” subdirectories. Expert users also chose to set “testing” and “backports”, knowing their way around the system in cases where something goes wrong. Only developpers or users interested in development chose the /debug subdirectories, others would not even know what to do with these packages.

Recently Mandriva changed to a more user friendly system – or so was the intention. The users only click on a single button and everything is done automagically. A full set of media is configured. Then the full list of mirrors is included. The idea is, that when marking a package for installation (via urpmi or in rpmdrake) the system chooses a mirror from this list by geographical distance and availability. Sounds like a good idea – that’s why other distributions like Opensuse had been doing that for a long time before.

But the Mandriva guys did not care to look at the error handling and the necessities.

To not lead the normal user into problematic situations the “backports” and “testing” subdirectories are not activated by default – the user can activate them if needed, which may well be the case as said above. What the normal user will never need and never activate are the “debug” subdirectories. Still they are included in this set, though not activated. What sense does it make to include these media in the first place? Why not leave them out, interested users and developpers should know how to add them easily, otherwise they should go back to Linux school. But including them has the consequence that all mirrors have to supply these subdirectories, although they are seldomly needed. Otherwise the user will get an error message during this automagic setup system!

Which leads to the second issue:

When an automagically selected mirror of an Opensuse system is broken or does not supply the wanted package the system has a fallback function which switches to the next mirror until the selected package is found, the user does not even take notice of this. In Mandriva you only get an error message and are done. You can try again to install the selected package and you may as well be connected with the same mirror, error and abort following. There is no fallback function in Mandriva’s half-heartedly implementation of an automagic system! They missed a rule which is taught in Developping 101! FIRST you implement the fallback function, THEN you implement the automagic system!

In consequence user support forums received a lot of complaints by new users who were using this system and got stuck. Forum helpers such as we at MandrivaUser.de even recommend to avoid this automatic system. We have a user friendly web interface (SmartUrpmi) to select and set up only the subdirectories you really want and the mirrors which are reported as up-to-date and reliable. But this can not be the solution, the automagic system is not a bad idea at all – if carried out right! Unfortunately I ran against this non-discussion brick wall while trying to discuss this.

Consequence is that the German mirror ftp.mandrivauser.de will be taken from the list of official mirrors by the Mandriva mirror list manager. Sad for Mandriva, another mirror gone. Not sad for the users. The main target of this mirror are the users of the German community, and those are already aware of the broken $MIRRORLIST system. They (and everybody else) can still use ftp.mandrivauser.de as reliable mirror as it has been since its implementation.

What remains from this episode is a sour taste in the back of my throat, the feeling of someone who had nothing else in mind than to improve a bad situation but was blocked by a rule enforcing responsible.

Related Link: Mandriva Bugzilla Bug #51183

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