As most distributions have switched to systemd as default "init", some people have asked why we actually keep sysvinit around, as it's old and crusty, and systemd can do so much more.

My answer is: systemd and sysvinit solve entirely different problems, and neither can ever replace the other fully.

The big argument in favour of systemd is integration: when you keep everything in one process, it is easy to make sure that components talk to each other. That is nice, but kind of misses the point: integration could be done via IPC as well, and systemd uses a lot of it to separate privileges anyway.

The tighter integration comes from something else: the configuration format. Where sysvinit uses a lot of shell scripts ("imperative" format), systemd uses explicit keywords ("descriptive" format), and this is the important design decision here: descriptive formats cannot do anything unanticipated, neither good nor bad.

This is important for UI programmers: if there is a button that says "if I close the lid switch, suspend the laptop", then this needs to be connected to functionality that behaves this way, and this connection needs to work in both directions, so the user will find the active setting there when opening the dialog. So, we need to limit ourselves to a closed set of choices, so the UI people can prepare translations.

This is the design tradeoff systemd makes: better integration in exchange for less flexibility.

Of course, it is simple to allow "custom" actions everywhere, but that starts to break the "well-integrated" behaviour. There is an old blog post from Joey Hess about how to implement a simple alarm clock, using systemd, and this shows both how powerful and how limited the system is.

On one hand, the single line WakeSystem=true takes care of the entire dependency chain attached to making sure the system is actually on -- when the system is going to suspend mode, some program needs to determine that there are scheduled jobs that should wake up the system, determined which of these is the next one, program the wakeup time into the hardware and only then allow the suspend to continue.

On the other hand, the descriptive framework already breaks down in this simple example, because the default behaviour of the system is to go to sleep if the lid switch is closed, and the easiest way to fix this is to tell systemd to ignore the lid switch while the program is running. The IPC permissions disallow scheduled user jobs from setting this, so a "custom" action is taken that sets up the "ignore the lid switch" policy, changes to an unprivileged user, and runs the actual job.

So, it is possible to get back flexibility, but this is traded for integration: while the job is running, any functionality that the "suspend laptop when the lid is closed" button had, is broken.

For something simple as a switch on a personal laptop that breaks if the user configures something that is non-standard, that is acceptable. However, the keywords in the service unit files, the timer files, etc. are also part of a descriptive framework, and the services using them expect that the things they promise are kept by the framework, so there is a limit to how many exceptions you can grant.

SystemV init really comes from the other direction here. Nothing is promised to init scripts but a vague notion that they will be run with sufficient privileges. There is no dependency tracking that ensures that certain services will always start before others, just priorities. You can add a dependency system like insserv if you like and make sure that all the requirements for it to work (i.e. services declaring their dependencies) are given, and there is a safe fallback of not parallelizing so we can always play it safe.

Because there is so little promised to scripts, writing them becomes a bit tedious -- all of them have a large case statement where they parse the command line, all of them need to reimplement dropping privileges and finding the PID of a running process. There are lots of helpers for the more common things, like the LSB standard functions for colorful and matching console output, and Debian's start-stop-daemon for privilege and PID file handling, but in the end it remains each script's responsibility.

Systemd will never be able to provide the same flexibility to admins while at the same time keeping the promises made in the descriptive language, and sysvinit will never reach the same amount of easy integration. I think it is fairly safe to predict both of these things, and I'd even go a step further: if any one of them tried, I'd ask the project managers what they were thinking.

The only way to keep systems as complex as these running is to limit the scope of the project.

With systemd, the complexity is kept in the internals, and it is important for manageability that all possible interactions are well-defined. That is a huge issue when writing adventure games, where you need to define interaction rules for each player action in combination with each object, and each pair of objects that can be combined with the "Use" action. Where adventure games would default to "This doesn't seem to work." or "I cannot use this.", this would not be a helpful error message when we're trying to boot, so we really need to cut down on actions and object types here.

Sysvinit, on the other hand, is both more extreme in limiting the scope to very few actions (restart, wait, once) and only one object type (process that can be started and may occasionally terminate) in the main program, and a lot more open in what scripts outside the main program are allowed to do. The prime example for this is that the majority of configuration takes place outside the inittab even -- a script is responsible for the interface that services are registered by dropping init scripts into specific directories, and scripts can also create additional interfaces, but none of this is intrinsic to the init system itself.

Which system is the right choice for your system is just that: your choice. You would choose a starting point, and customize what is necessary for your computer to do what you want it to do.

Here's the thing: most users will be entirely happy with fully uncustomized systemd. It will suspend your laptop if you close the lid, and even give your download manager veto power. I fully support Debian's decision to use systemd as the default init for new installs, because it makes sense to use the default that is good for the vast majority of users.

However, my opening statement still stands: systemd can never support all use cases, because it is constrained by its design. Trying to change that would turn it into an unmaintainable mess, and the authors are right in rejecting this. There are use cases that define the project, and use cases that are out of scope.

This is what we need sysvinit for: the bits that the systemd project managers rightfully reject, but that are someone's use case. Telling these users to get lost would be extremely bad style for the "universal operating system."

For example, if someone needs a service that asks a database server for a list of virtual machines to start, runs each in its private network namespace that is named after replacing part of the virtual machine name with the last two octets of the host machine's IP address, then binds a virtual Ethernet device into the network namespace and sets up a NAT rule that allows devices to talk to the public Internet and a firewall rule to stop VMs from talking to each other.

Such a beast would live outside of systemd's world view. You can easily start it, but systemd would not know how to monitor it (as long as there is some process still running, is that a good sign), not know how to shut down one instance, not know how to map processes to instances and so on. SystemV init has the advantage here that none of these things are defined by the system, and as long as my init script has some code to handle "status", I can easily check up on my processes with the same interface I'd use for everything else.

This requires me to have more knowledge of how the init system works, that is true, however I'd also venture that the learning curve for sysvinit is shallower. If you know shell scripting, you can understand what init scripts do, without memorizing special rules that govern how certain keywords interact, and keeping track of changes to these rules as the feature set is expanded.

That said, I'm looking at becoming the new maintainer of the sysvinit package so we can continue to ship it and give our users a choice, but I'd definitely need help, as I only have a few systems left that won't run properly with systemd because of its nasty habit to keep lots of code in memory where sysvinit would unload it after use (by letting the shell process end), and these don't make good test systems.

The overall plan is to set up a CI system that

  • tests sysvinit -> systemd transition
  • tests systemd -> sysvinit transition
  • tests debootstrap with systemd
  • tests debootstrap with sysvinit
  • tests whether service start works for a list of services, so we can catch regressions
  • scans packages that have systemd unit files for init scripts, and vice versa

Ideally, I'd like to reach a state where we can actually ensure that the default configuration is somewhat similar regardless of which init system we use, and that it is possible to install with either (this is a nasty regression in jessie: bootstrapping a foreign-architecture system broke).

This will take time, and step one is probably looking at bugs first -- I'm grateful for any help I can get here, primarily I'd like to hear about regressions via bug reports.

tl;dr: as a distribution, we need both systemd and sysvinit. If you suggest that systemd can replace sysvinit, I will probably understand that you think that the systemd maintainers don't know project management. I'm reluctantly looking at becoming the official maintainer because I think it is important to keep around.