Linux Knowledge Base Proposal

(05-08-1998)

One of the main complaints about Linux is the state of tech
support. Often based on empyrical, rather than scientific knowledge,
and in a state of disorganization, troubleshooting information
regarding Linux is hard to find and, often, hard to use.

What we’d like to do is provide the worldwide Linux community with a
tool similar to, for instance, Microsoft’s Knowledge Base (the name
has been shamelessly stolen). Visit the MKB to see what I’m
talkin’ about here.

It’s probably superfluous to provide scenarios, but this just happened
to me today; I upgraded my home computer to Red Hat 5.0 and I have two
problems. They involve AfterStep and diald, both very commonly used
programs, yet I searched the web for a solution and found nothing.

It happens very often, you have a problem with Linux and the solution
isn’t handy. A lot of problems can be solved by digging through news
articles at dejanews, or actually perusing newsgroups, or doing
exhaustive searches on Altavista.

I can imagine, if I were new to Linux and someone told me “answers are
there, but you’ll have a hard time finding them when you have a
problem”, I’d probably back off from using Linux and ending in the
evil clutches of NT. Or maybe even Solaris. A major point in choosing
any of these is that support is readily available from
manufacturers. Even more so, Microsoft’s KB, the inspiring idea for
this proposal, is a free resource. I’ll probably get killed for saying
this, but even if I don’t legally own Word (don’t look at me, I use
LaTeX), if I have a problem I can visit the MKB and, quite likely, get
a solution to my problem.

So the proposal is as follows: create a free resource on the Web which
contains solutions to problems in Linux. Notice I’m not constraining
it to most commonly seen problems; we want this to have as wide a
scope as possible. So it can range from such trivialities as “I killed
LILO with Win95, how do I get it back?” to very specific things, or
even really difficult and guru-like questions.

How is this different from the current crop of (excellent) FAQs,
HOWTOs, and other resources? first of all, this is, specifically, a
problem-solving resource. It’s not tutorial-like the way howtos
are. In fact, for a given problem, we can give a quick, 5-step
solution to get things back up and running and then say “now that your
system is working again, relax, and go read the pertaining HOWTO so
that you learn what happened, how it was solved, so that it won’t
happen again”. It’s meant to be very specific. A lot of people get
discouraged when they say “i’ve got a problem” and are sent to read
documentation for 5 hours.

Second, and most important, it’s centralized. Despite the efforts of
the LDP and others, resources are still scattered all over the
net. LKB centralizes and consolidates a search engine and a catalog. A
lot of our answers might contain pointers to external resources, but
the LKB contains at least a minimum amount of info to send the user on
the right track. No “go read the howto” answers, but “a quick solution is to
blah blah blah blah, and if you need full details on all the stuff you
did, go visit the howto at blah blah”.

Here are some thoughts on implementation.

Taking on our role model again, I can think of a search engine that
can look for information based on different criteria: article number
(so people in mailing lists could just refer a troubled poster to
“article a45f334 on LKB”), troubled subsystem/program, topic
(administration, X, configuration, installation, plain_kewl_tips),
keywords, and so on.

This will obviously start out from a few topics we can collect from
current FAQs and mailing lists. The idea is to make it very easy to
both post a help request and answer a request, via forms.

We could have a place where a user submits a help request. The user is
asked to provide as much information about his problem as possible:
versions of all programs involved, specific error messages, what
exactly is the user trying to achieve, and so on.

help requests would be “moderated”. A fella (or group of) would have
to check all incoming requests, basically rejecting stuff like “pppd
doesnt work, what do i do?”. These are returned to the sender with,
possibly, a generic “give us more info plz” message. This way we
educate users into this particular bit of netiquette.

All approved help requests go into a place where they can be checked
by other people. If someone knows the answer and feels like posting
it, they are welcome to do so. All answers are also checked for
completeness; we don’t want to “hey, I think if you twiddle this it
might work, I dunno”. For that kind of “trial-and-error” we should
encourage potential helpers to contact the troubled user by email,
work out a solution in private and then, if they feel like it, post a
completed solution into the KB.

A nice feature would be like a “message board” where interested users
could exchange oppinions on solving the problem.

The idea is that when a full solution is posted, the original troubled
user is notified via email.

Another nice feature would be “signing up” for an unanswered question,
so that you can get the solution when it’s posted.

Anyway, after this, the answer gets added to the database. This way
the thing grows. It’s entirely user-supported; some might think that
“hey, why should I share my problem-solving skills for free when I can
charge for that”. True, however the LKB is a free resource for anyone,
so even those gurus will probably use it some day too. To me it fits
well into what’s considered “kewl” on the net; all we get is the
satisfaction of having helped someone solve a problem. That would be
another user who will be happy using Linux, instead of cursing at the
damn thing, fdisking and installing NT. Ain’t that what we want? 🙂

Here’s another point I think is both interesting and important. I’m
currently maintaining the FAQ document for Mexico Linux Users Group. A
problem we have is that a lot of the answers are somewhere, but are of
little use to a lot of the group’s members because reading english is
not easy for them.

I’d like to see the LKB contain translations of answers to several
languages. This would make it a useful resource for more people, and
would be unique because I don’t think anyone else has something like
this.

The way I think this could work is by having the main “articles” in
english and having volunteers who would translate them into other
languages (spanish and french come to mind, there are others I’m sure
;).

Of course submissions in other languages are accepted. We would then
need to have a volunteer translate from language into english, and
from that all the other language versions would be obtained.

This multilanguage thing involves a lot more work so I’m thinking we
could develop all the required infrastructure but not start doing the
translations until we’ve ascertained the whole LKB idea is functional.

OK so does this spell the end for commercial support providers? I
don’t know, you tell me. It’s about the only reason why I think this
might not be a good idea. But I think not; there’s a big difference
between an inherently free and no-guarantee resource and a commercial
provider with a full commitment. Even more so, the LKB is a free
resource, so nothing stops commercial support providers from getting
help from the LKB.

This is a proposal, as such it’s subject to changes and ideas and
shooting-at. Here are some ideas I’ve received.


A suggestion I received calls for reducing the amount of “moderation” the
LKB should have. His idea is basically to let everything through, but
provide the necessary infrastructure so that anyone can post
questions, browse through pending questions, provide new answers and
modify existing answers. He bases this in a pair of important
assumptions. First, not a lot of people will want to maliciously use
these facilities to sabotage the LKB. Second, “expert” users who
peruse the LKB will “educate” beginners who post inappropriate
questions, which will eventually lead to better “netiquette” from
these beginning users. A lot of these “expert” users will probably do
the job better than a few “moderators” who might quickly become tired
and take on a negative attitude towards “beginning” users. I’m at roadmr@entropia.com.mx


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