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why do we care about configuration files?

On Thu, 2003-04-17 at 21:56, Colin Walters wrote:

> Debian has a long, hard-earned reputation for doing things "right".  We
> shouldn't toss that out the window in a mass of "manage /etc/foo.conf?"
> with debconf prompts.

Perhaps I've been overly strong with the rhetoric.  Let me give two
realistic scenarios where this "manage foo with debconf?" fails.
1) Hardcore Unix guy
   This person installed Debian because (among other reasons) he heard it 
   didn't force him to use "wimpy tools" to configure his system.   Hardcore 
   Unix guy likes to edit configuration files.  He doesn't like using 
   "redhat-config-network" or whatever.  Now he installs Debian, and gets the 
   first Debconf prompt about setting his debconf level.  He recoils, but then 
   notices that he can set it to "noninteractive".  There, now he won't ever 
   have to have be asked inane questions; he can just edit the configuration 
   files and be happy.  He gives Debian the benefit of the doubt on this.

Now, Hardcore Unix guy's needs should be especially important to us as a
project, because he happens to account for a relatively significant
fraction of our developer base (in my experience), as well as our user
base.  Hopefully the problem in the above scenario is obvious: Hardcore
Unix guy will have, unwittingly, agreed that some of his configuration
files in /etc/ can be overwritten.  He has no idea which ones.  He has
no simple, consistent way to stop it, or to change the default. 
However, he might not know this, and he might edit
/etc/texmf/language.dat or whatever.  Then on his next upgrade, it's
gone.  No warning.  Nothing.  Hardcore Unix guy says "screw this Debian
crap, it's just like SuSE"[1].

2) Semi-experienced Newbie
   This person doesn't know very much about GNU/Linux, but he heard this Debian
   thing has some advantages over other systems, so he thought he'd try it.  He
   has a friend who knows a lot about Red Hat help him set things up, and it
   mostly works.  He and his friend kept the default Debconf priority of 
   "critical".  Then later, he decides he needs to write a paper, and so he 
   calls his friend, who tells him to install a package named "tex".  He finds
   tetex-bin, and installs it.  Now, the hyphenation pattern is wrong, so he
   calls his friend again, who tells him to add a certain line at some magic
   place in /etc/texmf/language.dat.  He does that, not knowing anything at all
   about how the file works.

We need to support this kind of person and this kind of usage. In fact, 
Semi-experienced Newbie is exactly the kind of person I'm trying to have Debian 
support more with Debian Desktop.  Again, the problem here should be clear; on
upgrade, Semi-experienced Newbie's hyphenation fixes will mysteriously stop 
working.  He will have completely forgotten about those one or two mysterious
lines he added to some configuration file way back when.

There's other use cases too, but if we're not supporting the two big ones above,
we have completely failed.  I hope this makes things clearer.  There *is* a 
problem, and we need to fix it.

Incidentally, I should say here that this whole problem has almost nothing to do
with Debconf, really.  Debconf just happens to be the most popular way to ask
for permission to preempt people's configuration files.

[1] Not to bash SuSE, because I really don't know anything about it.  I've just
heard that it's particularly bad at this configuration file thing.

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