Documentation for Eclectic Systems

Copyright (c) 2000-2001 by Rich Morin
published in Silicon Carny, December 2000

We have a long way to go before searching for and finding information on eclectic systems is quick and easy, at least according to Rich Morin. In this month's Silicon Carny, Rich argues that while many tools exist for proper documentation, we still need better integration, global indexing, and a reliable cataloguing system. Luckily, a few people are working hard to make these changes.

There was once a systems administrator who wanted to find out about the make(1) files on his FreeBSD system. So, he typed man make and perused the output. The FILES entry told him that /usr/share/mk was the system makefile directory and that, in particular, was the system makefile.

But he still needed some help in understanding these files. Fortunately, the man page had a reference to "PMake: A Tutorial." That looks cool, he thought, and decided to look for it.

Unfortunately, neither man, apropos, nor info yielded anything about pmake. apropos make generated quite a list of commands, but none were relevant. locate pmake, however, found a subdirectory of /usr/ports that looked intriguing.

After going to /usr/ports/devel/pmake, he typed make and waited a minute or so while the FreeBSD Ports Collection software found the FTP site, downloaded the pmake tarball, applied some patches, and built the binaries.

He then worked his way down to the work/pmake/doc sub-directory, where he spotted a pair of files named and tutorial.psc. Running file on them, he was told that the first file was troff or preprocessor input text, and that the second was PostScript document text conforming at level 1.0.

Using more on the first file, he eventually worked his way down to the title text and confirmed that this was, indeed, the desired document. No problem, he thought; I'll just print off a copy of the PostScript version on my laser printer.

After studying the tutorial a bit, he was able to understand many of the system makefiles, and felt ready to try making some changes. Now came the big question: which of these files should he edit?

The answer was: none of the above. Looking into /usr/share/mk/, our hero found references to files named /etc/defaults/make.conf and /etc/make.conf.

The comments in the first file identified it as a repository of default makefile definitions. The second file didn't exist on his system, but he was able to figure out that if the file did exist, it would be used by the system makefiles.

So he created an /etc/make.conf file in which to store his local definitions. Finally, he saved a copy in /etc/RCS and went about his business. "Isn't it wonderful", he thought, "how well documented and organized this system is? It only took me about an hour to figure this out!" SUBHEAD: Making life easier

Careful readers may note a smidgen of sarcasm in the above fable. Yes, FreeBSD is a well-organized and, by and large, well-documented system. But no, it shouldn't have taken that much time, effort, and skill for our hero to find the needed information.

Nor is our hero's problem specific to FreeBSD. On other eclectic systems (e.g., Linux, Solaris), the available tools might have differed, but I suspect that the search would have taken roughly the same amount of time and effort.

The problem, as alluded to in my July column, is not a lack of documentation, or even a lack of tools. Our hero had plenty of both on hand; they simply weren't well enough integrated. First, the documentation wasn't globally indexed; second, the system files weren't cataloged.

The apropos command, for instance, only examines the description lines of man pages, so it couldn't look into the tutorial files to see that they might be relevant. Wouldn't an inverted index, covering all of the system documentation, be useful here?

Also, many cross-references were simply missing. Although our hero's system actually had a copy of the document (albeit in an ugly ASCII rendition), none of the tools enabled him to find it. As he didn't know to look for a file named /usr/share/doc/psd/12.make/paper.ascii.gz, he missed this document entirely.

Nor did the documentation mention the existence of /etc/defaults/make.conf, let alone the possibility of /etc/make.conf. Consequently, our hero had to examine some makefiles to find out about these files. Our hero was forced to work much too hard and he still achieved only partial results.

The good news is that folks are working on these issues; the bad news is that any real solution is a ways off. In this particular case, even as our hero was looking for the documentation, it was in the process of being created. Another FreeBSD user, quite independently, realized the need for a man page on make.conf. He created a bug report, kicked some issues back and forth with other users, and eventually generated a man page.

In short, the current technology is quite adequate to let users add useful documentation. At the same time, various projects are working on the larger issues of documentation indexing and integration. ScrollKeeper and Meta are two such projects. SUBHEAD: ScrollKeeper

The good news is that folks are working on these issues; the bad news is that any real solution is a ways off. ScrollKeeper is a "cataloging system for documentation on open systems." It's still in its early stages, but a number of high-powered individuals are involved, so the prospects for real results are good.

The basic notion, as I understand it, is to use XML, and, specifically, the Open Source Metadata Framework (OMF), to create an online, networked catalog for a large variety of documents. Here's the project's precis:

"ScrollKeeper is a cataloging system for documentation on open systems. It manages documentation metadata (as specified by the Open Source Metadata Framework) and provides a simple API to help browsers to find, sort, and search the document catalog. It will also be able to communicate with catalog servers on the Net to search for documents which are not on the local system." SUBHEAD: Meta

The Meta Project is my own thought experiment in this area. Meta goes a bit further than ScrollKeeper, in that it proposes to integrate system metadata in all forms with documentation. Thus, Meta would have an explicit entry for /etc/make.conf, stating its purpose, format, client programs, and relevant documentation.

A Meta-capable browser, equipped with this sort of information, could allow our hero to locate and examine a wide range of relevant files and documents. Knowing each file's type and format, it could use the appropriate display software, saving even more time and effort.

Meta is largely science fiction at this point, but work on a proof-of-concept implementation is under way. A tree characterization filter exists; it can determine a substantial amount of information about every node in a file tree. A set of feature extraction filters for given file types is also in progress.

For pointers to other related projects, check out the ExistingWork and IntriguingIdeas pages in the Meta Wiki. Eclectic systems in general, and open source systems in particular, are powerful, robust, and flexible. Now if we can only make them a tiny bit more comprehensible...

About the author

Rich Morin ( operates Prime Time Freeware (, a publisher of books about Open Source software. Rich lives in San Bruno, on the San Francisco peninsula.