April 2, 2010

Help! Finding Community Linux Support

You've installed Linux, things are looking great, but you've run into a snag and need a little helping hand. You're in good hands. The community is here to help, if you know where to look. Once you do, you'll find that community resources are every bit as good as the commercial counterparts for Linux support.

Numerous paid support options exist for Linux. If you're running a largish business with Linux and really need to tap into professional support services that are available 24/7, then it's a good idea to look at one of the many commercial vendors that offer support subscriptions for Linux. But if you're a home or hobby user learning your way around, the community often provides top-notch Linux support with a smile.

Many Linux.com readers are looking at this article and thinking, "hey, I already know all of this stuff." If so, that's great — but every day hundreds, if not thousands, of people try Linux for the first time. The roadmap to finding info on Linux isn't quite as clear as it is to commercial OSes with a single vendor. So this is for all the folks getting started with Linux and looking to learn more.

Read The Fine Manual (RTFM)

Your first stop when searching for help should be the written documentation. Community contributors have spent a great deal of time putting together material that ships with distributions and/or is available online. Check the Help menu of any program you're having problem with or look for the distribution help. Most major Linux distributions include help icons directly on the desktop, but it's surprising how many users never look at the docs!

You'll never lack for online documentation, either. Most distros have wikis or sites with lots of documentation. For example, you'll find very comprehensive online docs for Debian, Fedora, Linux Mint, Mandriva, openSUSE, and Ubuntu. Remember, Google is your friend. If you're having a problem or trying to do something with Linux, odds are someone else has been there before you and put something online to document the experience.

You should also become familiar with using man pages and the man command. If you haven't used man before, pop open a terminal and run man man and you'll get a somewhat terse but useful reference for that command. If you're not familiar with the format, it might seem a bit cryptic. OK, it will seem a bit cryptic.

Man pages are references, not guides. They start with a short description of the command you want to use. Then a "synopsis" of the command and its options and arguments. Next is a longer description of the command and then (in many cases) examples and explanations of the options. Longer man pages may have additional details, but you should at least get enough information to understand the basic syntax of using a command and its options.

Once you've exhausted the written docs, tried Google, then it's time to start turning to the community for help.

Getting Ready

When looking for help from other Linux users, it's important to remember that the folks you're talking to are helpful volunteers, and not trained support staff. This means that you should be respectful of their time and try to find answers on your own before asking for help in a forum, on a mailing list, or in person. Try to Google any errors that you receive before asking for help from others. It's entirely possible others have had the same problem and have already posted a fix to the same problem on a blog, on a mailing list, in a forum, or some other place that will be indexed by Google.

Also remember that while most Linux users are helpful and courteous, any group is bound to have a few folks who are less than sunny. Don't be discouraged if you ask a question and someone is less than polite in response. It's not the norm. If you stumble onto a forum where it seems to be, look for a new one. But you'll definitely get the best possible responses if you ask good questions politely.

In addition to doing some research on your own, try to gather as much information about the problem as you can. Phrase your question as specifically as possible. For instance:

Bad: "My computer is broken after installing Linux 10.04. What's wrong?"

Good: "After I installed the latest updates, I noticed that my sound card wasn't working properly. I have an EarSplitter 2010 USB sound device, attached to a ThinkPad T61 running Ubuntu 9.10."

One of the better guides to asking questions online is Eric Raymond's "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way," though he oversells the acceptability of rudeness on public forums. The advice that actually pertains to asking questions, however, is spot on and should be bookmarked and read frequently.

Forums and Mailing Lists

Most Linux distributions with a sizeable community have Web-based forums and mailing lists for discussion and technical support. You should be able to search all of the forums without registering, but if you want to post questions and provide help, you'll need to sign up for an account. The mailing list policies differ depending on the community. Most require people to be subscribed before posting, but some communities are very liberal in accepting traffic to the lists.

Remember that it's good etiquette to search the mailing lists or forums before posting a question, to make a good faith effort to see if your question has been asked previously. If you can't find a response, then ask away!

A word of caution: Be sure to send questions to appropriate lists. Almost every community will have lists for developers and for users. For example, let's look at some of the Ubuntu lists. They're broken up into lists for community support, development, bug lists, localization, and other categories. Assuming you want to get help with something, you want to ask on community support lists, not one of the developer lists.

If you're having any trouble finding resources on your chosen distro's Web site, check out DistroWatch. The site has pages describing hundreds of active Linux distributions. Each page has a summary including the home page and links to mailing lists, documentation, forums, and other resources related to each distro.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the forums on Linux.com. The Getting Started with Linux thread is always a good place to start.

Finally, one of the largest independent forums is LinuxQuestions.org. You're likely to find a lot of helpful responses on LinuxQuestions.org.


If you're looking for something a bit more immediate, you can always try Internet Relay Chat (IRC). If you're using any of the major Linux distributions, you'll be able to find lots of other users who are willing to provide real-time help.

Fire up an IRC client of your choosing and head to your distro's support channel. The most popular networks for Linux on IRC are Freenode and OFTC. If you're not overly familiar with IRC, you can use webchat to connect on Freenode.

The advantage to IRC is, of course, getting real-time help. The disadvantage is that it's in real time. That is to say, you may or may not find someone online who can and will answer your question at the time that you're looking. If you log in and find that no one is responding, give it a reasonable period of time (like a few hours) before asking again. Don't assume that all the people logged into the channel are paying attention to you or even that channel. Odds are, many of the people who are logged in are in another channel or off doing something else entirely.

Linux User Groups

Many areas have local Linux User Groups (LUGs) that can help provide in-person support. As Linux has become more mainstream, LUGs have actually died down a bit in many areas, though some regional LUGs are just as active (if not moreso) as ever.

You'll find LUG lists online, but they are often outdated. If all else fails, Google for your area and "Linux User Group," and you should be able to turn something up. Note that you don't need to be local to a LUG (at least usually) to participate in its mailing list. If you don't live in an area with an active LUG, most LUGs will be happy to have new users on the list.

You can also find active LUGs in Groups here at Linux.com.

If you do live in an area with a Linux User Group, by all means show up for a meeting or Installfest. The fun of running Linux isn't just basking in software freedom and great applications, it's in being part of a larger community, and we're here to help.

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