On System Complexity

I appreciate how one can often draw a parallel between life sciences and computer sciences. For instance, complexity has similar features in both fields. Although many aspects like the transition from aquatic to terrestrial life are still largely disputed, it is reasonable to believe that complexity is born out of a necessity to adapt to environmental changes or novel needs. This concept can be translated to technological development quite smoothly. Let us consider evolution of telecommunication devices as an example. In the past people were pleased to be able to communicate with fellow humans without the need for letters, which often took weeks or months to be delivered (telegraphs). With time expectations grew, however. Nowadays, it is more or less a norm to not only call and text, but also browse the Web through mobile devices. Though bold, it is fair to claim that the drivers of progress/evolution were in this case the growing needs of the elusive end-user.

Technical savvy is considered a blessing by many. It’s like a catalyst or facilitator of ideas. It’s also a curse, though, because it creates a rift between the ones who can (makers) and the ones who depend (users) on the makers for their prosperity. A quasi-feudal system is formed, linking both parties together. The makers may (if personal ethics suggest) aid users, as they have both the power and moral obligation to do so. This in turn drives progress, which would otherwise be stunted, because makers often do not require elaborate tools to express themselves (assumption!). Alas, with growing needs, inherently grows the complexity of created tools.

It is important to note that the user is a bit of a decisive factor. The system should be complex enough to satisfy the needs of the user deftly, though also simple enough to allow easy maintenance on the side of the makers. A certain equilibrium needs to be reached. In a perfect scenario both parties are content, because the makers can do something good for the society and express themselves in more elaborate ways, while the users live better lives thanks to the technological development sustained by the makers.

Moving on to operating systems, the “complex enough” is usually minimal and many GNU/Linux distributions are able to cover it. What the users expect nowadays is the following:

  • an ability to do to a “test run” of the operating system without installing it; after all, the installation might fail and no one wants to lose their data
  • easy means of installing the operating system, without the need to define complex parameters like hard drive partitioning or file system types
  • out-of-the-box support for internal hardware like graphics cards, wireless adapters, auxiliary keyboard keys, etc. 
  • a reasonable selection of software for daily and specialized needs, clearly defined and documented with optional “best of” categories 
  • straightforward use of extra peripherals like printers, USB drives, headphones, etc.
  • clear, accessible and easy to learn interface(s)

Unfortunately, the same GNU/Linux distributions then go out of their way to tip the balance and make the system not “simple enough” to be reliably maintained. For instance, does every single main distribution require official support for all of the desktop environments? What for? That doesn’t really help the user if he/she is left with too much choice and suddenly has to decide which desktop environment is “better”. Do all of the desktop environments provide the same complete array of functionalities? In terms of “too much complexity” this is not the only problem, of course! I think there are some Unix-like operating systems (including the BSDs here, too) which do better than others in terms of satisfying the expectations of users:

  • Linux Mint caters to the needs of an average user perfectly. All of the above requirements are fulfilled and the selection of officially supported desktop environments is so that the user should not get confused. In addition, they’re similar in their looks and functionalities.
  • Fedora Linux also does a great job by offering a very streamlined and appealing working environment. It’s geared more towards software developers, though even regular users should find Fedora attractive.
  • Arch Linux (and per extension Manjaro Linux) and FreeBSD (per extension TrueOS/PC-BSD also) do NOT cater to the average user, but offer many possibilities and a good initial setup. Building a full-blown, user-friendly system is a matter of minutes.
  • Debian was always good with the out-of-the-box experience and this has not changed since. Granted, the installer has to be prompted to automagically produce a GNOME3-based system.

Ubuntu and its derivatives didn’t make it to the list, because they often break in unpredictable ways, causing headaches even to more technically-inclined people. The lack of consistency between Ubuntu flavors and general over-engineering often prove troublesome. Well, at least to me.

To sum up (and for the TL:DR folk), complexity is an inherent feature of both biology (evolution) and computer sciences. When building operating systems one should remember that the balance between “complex enough to be easily usable” and “simple enough to be easy to maintain” needs to be kept perfectly. Otherwise, we get instabilities, broken packages, lost data and other horrible scenarios…


3 thoughts on “On System Complexity

    • Very nice article, I liked it :)! I feel like some of our problems come from the fact that we developers often preemptively approach end-user needs. People need a .pdf reader in the browser? We should instead show them a better way of doing things not instantly comply with their “demands”. Everything nowadays is “bigger, faster, better”, though the Internet is a horrid mess to me. HTML code pushed into a corner and smothered with layers of glue code and hackish interfaces between snippets of JS. We should really do better at picking “the right tool for the right job” ;).

      Liked by 1 person

      • css/w3c undid so much of what wouldve made html easier to standardize, in the name of standardization, that js was the only glue that couldve made all the silly pieces work.

        some things absolutely require js, but some people came along and said to use css instead of html for layout and style– and trying to use it for layout and style leads to cheating with js frameworks. the whole specification at this point is a lie, and js is the (heavy) curtain to hide the truth. “separation of content and layout” really means “everything needs js to display custom fonts.” lets sack the whole committee.


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