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What factors contribute to the expense of migrating to Linux? was recently closed. Defending the closure, Michael Mrozek says

This is also totally off-topic as far as I can tell; it's not about Linux, it's about business

Are questions about Linux or Unix in the context of wider society on topic? Or do we only accept purely technical issues? I'm thinking about questions like

  • cost of adoption by business
  • questions about free software or open source philosophy
  • questions related to the open source model ("How does RedHat stay solvent?")
  • historical questions ("Where did the idea of one tool for one purpose come from?")

As an extra note, the FAQ needs to be updated to explain our expectation, since this is not described there.

Edit:

Let me be clear. I have no interest in importing or encouraging extended discussion questions. I agree with the take-home message in Good subjective, bad subjective: questions that are not answerable — discussions, debates, opinions — should be closed as subjective.

The only argument I am making here is this: There is a subset of questions, which are not purely technical, which are about Unix or Linux, which have narrow focus and are answerable. They should be allowed.

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About this specific question

The vast majority of questions asked on this site are technical questions from people who use or manage unix systems. Most of them are “how do I do this”, with a minority of “how does this work” (generally with fairly direct practicality, i.e. the answer leads to better understanding of how to do things).

We do accept a few non-technical questions, for example about the history of Unix and Unix-like systems. Such questions represent a tiny portion of the site. So questions relating Linux and business are not intrinsically off-topic.

Now topic is not the only measure of the scope of a site, there is also audience. The audience of this site corresponds with the bulk of the topic: it's people who use and manage unix systems. The audience is people who do things with unix systems (other than programming, which is the realm of Stack Overflow). While administrators may sometimes be involved in business decisions, the audience is by and large not involved in business aspects.

The expertise for business decision would be in a community of people who make business decisions. For a question that's borderline to begin with, the bar is higher. A borderline question has to work hard to be accepted.

The question at hand is not a good Stack Exchange to begin with: it's broad, meandering, unfocused. On a site about business, such a question might be salvaged into something answerable. On a technical site like ours, this question is widely off the mark. While there is a hint of topicality, this question does not and cannot meet our expectations.

I don't completely agree to call this question “totally off-topic”, but off-topic it is. And it definitely is “non-constructive”.

On the more general issue

  • cost of adoption by business

This is fundamentally a business question, best asked to people interested in business (which the audience here generally isn't).

  • questions about free software or open source philosophy
  • questions related to the open source model ("How does RedHat stay solvent?")

These are off-topic. The site is about unix, it isn't about free software. Besides, speaking by experience, most of these questions are thinly-disguised (if at all) rants for or against open source.

  • historical questions ("Where did the idea of one tool for one purpose come from?")

We do have a few such questions.

As an extra note, the FAQ needs to be updated to explain our expectation, since this is not described there.

The FAQ does not exhaustively list all the types of questions that are accepted on the site, nor does it exhaustively list all the types of questions that are rejected on the site. The F in FAQ stands for “frequent”: the FAQ lists the common cases.

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Let's do a FAQ test:

Unix and Linux - Stack Exchange is for users of Linux, FreeBSD and other Un*x-like operating systems.

If your question is about:

  • Using or administering a *nix desktop or server

That question isn't about either

  • The Unix foundation underlying MacOS (but generally not frontend application questions)

Nope.

  • The underlying *nix OS on an embedded system or handheld device (e.g. an Android phone)

Not related.

  • Shell scripting

Still no.

  • Applications packaged in *nix distributions (note: being cross-platform does not disqualify)

No application involved.

  • UNIX C API and System Interfaces ( within reason )

And no.

So the question doesn't belong to any of the broad categories defined in the FAQ.

The cost of migrating to X (you can put anything in that X) is something that is very hard to estimate even when you know the entire business context, staffing, existing apps & clients, existing contracts with software & hardware suppliers, etc., and the reasons for estimating such a move in the first place.
I sincerely believe there is no good, universal answer to that sort of question (again, whether it's migrating to Linux or anything else), and thus the question doesn't meet the Stack Exchange-wide question criteria.


As for your four question "types", in my opinion:

  • cost of adoption by business

Off-topic (here and on other Stack Exchange sites, except possibly business/startup site if the question was very, very well written and specified)

  • questions about free software or open source philosophy

Mentality/Philosophy-type questions will often lead to debate (sometimes very heated). In general, I'd say no, but specific questions could be answerable.

  • questions related to the open source model ("How does RedHat stay solvent?")

The fact that they produce and sell Linux-related software & services doesn't make that type of question on-topic for this site. Same for "How did SCO fail?" or "Why isn't Debian listed on the DAX?".

  • historical questions ("Where did the idea of one tool for one purpose come from?")

Can be both interesting and on-topic – if answerable, and if the answer would actually help people today some way or other (e.g. in explaining why XYZ works the way it does). Pitfall here is again falling into "Not constructive" territory.

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    I'm quite aware that these questions don't meet the current FAQ criteria. But there's a big difference between "the FAQ is an exhaustive list of what can be asked, and has been carefully constructed over a long time, and we're happy with it" and "the FAQ offers some guidelines, it's a work in progress, and x is a gray area". Policy should be positive, not negative. Let's close questions because we explicitly agree to do so, not because we implicitly didn't think of them back in the day. – ire_and_curses Sep 12 '12 at 17:59
  • The purpose of this question is to explicitly clarify these topics, one way or another. – ire_and_curses Sep 12 '12 at 17:59
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    "I sincerely believe there is no good, universal answer to that sort of question (again, whether it's migrating to Linux or anything else), and thus the question doesn't meet the Stack Exchange-wide question criteria." So my opinion is that the sort of question you pointed out does not belong here. As for the other question types, I gave my opinion more directly. – Mat Sep 12 '12 at 18:05
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I don't believe the questions are on topic (and I voted on both to that effect); but they do appear to be superficially on topic as they are related to Unix and Linux.

Where they do comprehensively fail the criteria for inclusion on the site is that they were both going to lead to non-constructive discussion.

There is very little, if any1, quantitative or qualitative data on the benefits (or total cost) of migrating to a GNU/Linux environment. We all know, intuitively and ideologically, that the benefits are manifest, but that is not going to translate to the format that a wiki requires; it will inevitably lead to anecdote, opinion and endless bikeshedding.


1. I have spent a great deal of my professional time looking at examples in governments for quality data about this—and would be more than happy to be proved wrong...

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    I don't think it's quite that straightforward. While it's true that anecdotal answers might be provided to a poorly phrased question, there is still a good, non-subjective question here. Compare it to Making money with open source as a developer. Lots of anecdotal answers, but still possible to summarise what is known, and produce something genuinely useful to the world. – ire_and_curses Sep 12 '12 at 21:24
  • Even if the top answer was "it's very hard to know the benefits. Here are some major studies, they have these issues. What we do know is that x, y and z switched...", that's still very useful, non-subjective, valid content. These questions are harder to ask and answer well, but I don't know why that means we should just ban them. – ire_and_curses Sep 12 '12 at 21:27
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    The theoretical possibility of constructive answers is not, in my opinion, a reason to encourage what is essentially a web forum-type discussion on a wiki. There are plenty of sites that host these discussions already, I don't see a material benefit in importing that sort of thing here. – jasonwryan Sep 12 '12 at 21:31
  • I have no interest in discussions here either. I agree with the take-home message in Good subjective, bad subjective: questions that are not answerable — discussions, debates, opinions — should be closed as subjective. The only argument I am making here is this: There is a subset of questions, which are not purely technical, which are about Unix or Linux, which have narrow focus and are answerable. They should be allowed. – ire_and_curses Sep 13 '12 at 4:05
  • Yes: I am not disagreeing with your general point; but commenting on the specific questions that were closed. Questions should always be considered on a case-by-case basis. FWIW, in my experience, almost any under your first two bullet points will quickly devolve into bikeshedding. – jasonwryan Sep 13 '12 at 4:21
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In my opinion, all of these questions are on-topic. Unix and Linux don't live in isolation; they are part of a wider context. And *nix isn't just about sysadmin and user questions. Part of their heritage and culture, and the reason for many of their design decisions is their evolution and the way they fit into society and the wider computing world today. If our focus covers only technical issues, I think we are needlessly throwing away an interesting facet of what it means to run Unix or Linux today, and limit a certain kind of *nix enthusiast from participating in our site.

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    This is all very romantic, but I don't see how questions like this are a good fit on a Q&A site, particularly this one. The first bullet in the FAQ is the most important; the site is about "Using or administering a *nix desktop or server". This is neither, this is about the cost savings of deploying Linux at a business (and "how big they need to be", as though there's a fixed answer to that). There's no overlap at all, they both include the word "Linux", but they're completely different; this is a question for managers, not technical people – Michael Mrozek Sep 13 '12 at 2:19
  • @Michael Mrozek - I think this site is about Unix and Linux. Almost all questions here will be technical, and that's fine. Whether this specific question is good or bad is mostly beside the point; good questions in this area can, and (in my opinion) should be asked. Many of us remember the terrible, and terribly popular subjective questions asked in the early days of Stack Overflow. We want to never allow that, and rightly so. My concern is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and leaving all of us poorer as a consequence. – ire_and_curses Sep 13 '12 at 3:55

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