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Why is the OpenBSD documentation so good?

Written by Solène, on 18 August 2022.
Tags: #openbsd #documentation

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1. Introduction §

The OpenBSD operating system is known to be secure, but also for having an accurate and excellent documentation. In this text, I'll try to figure out what makes the OpenBSD documentation so great.

The OpenBSD project website

2. A multi medias documentation §

Here is a list of supports used to distribute information:

  • first email upon installation
  • man pages
  • website
  • Frequently Asked Questions on the website
  • Examples
  • Commit history
  • Newsletters for announcement

Let's study them one by one.

2.1. The first email §

After you installed OpenBSD, when you log in as root for the first time, you are greeted by a message saying you received an email. In fact, there is an email from Theo De Raadt crafted at install time which welcomes you to OpenBSD. It gives you a few hints about how to get started, but most notably it leads you to the afterboot(8) man page.

The afterboot(8) man page is described as "things to check after the first complete boot", it will introduce you to the most common changes you may want to do on your system. But most importantly, it explains how to use the man page like looking at the SEE ALSO section leading to other man pages related to the current one.

The afterboot(8) man page

2.2. Man pages §

The man pages are a way to ship documentation with a software, usually you find a man page with the same name as the command or configuration file you want to document. It seems man pages appeared in 1971, the "man" stands for manual.

Wikipedia page about the man page

The manual pages are literally the core of the OpenBSD documentation, they follow some standard and contains much metadata in it. When you write a man page, you not only write text, but you describe your text. For instance, when we need to refer to another man page, we will use the tag "cross-reference", this rich format allows accurate rendering but also accurate searches.

When we refer at a page in a text discussion, we often write their name including the section, like man(1). If you see man(1), you understand it's a man page for "man" within the first section. There are 9 sections of man pages, this is an old way to sort them into categories, so if two things have the same name, you use the section to distinguishes them. Here is an example, "man passwd" will display passwd(1), which is a program to change the password of a user, however you could want to read passwd(5) which describes the format of the file /etc/passwd, in this case you would use "man 5 passwd". I always found this way of referring to man pages very practical.

On OpenBSD, there are man pages for all the base systems programs, and all the configuration files. We always try to be very consistent in the way information is shown, and the wording is carefully chosen to be as clear as possible. They are a common effort involving multiple reviewers, changes must be approved by at least one member of the team. When an OpenBSD program is modified, the man page must be updated accordingly. The pages are also occasionally updated to include more history explaining the origins of the commands, it's always very instructive.

When it comes to packages, there is no guarantee as we just bundle upstream software, they may not provide a man page. However, packages maintainers offers a "pkg-readme" file for packages requiring very specific tuning, theses files can be found in /usr/local/share/doc/pkg-readmes/.

Online OpenBSD man pages reader: the rich format shines here

2.3. Website §

One way to distribute information related to OpenBSD is the website, it explains what the project is about, on which hardware you can install it, why it exists and what it provides. It has a lot of information which are interesting before you install OpenBSD, so they can't be in a man pages.

The OpenBSD website

2.4. FAQ §

I chose the treat the Frequently Asked Questions part of the website as a different support for documentation. It's a special place that contains real world use cases, while the man pages are the reference for programs or configuration, they lack the big picture overview like "how to achieve XY on OpenBSD". The FAQ is particularly well crafted, it has different categories such as multimedia, virtualization and VPNs...


2.5. Examples §

The OpenBSD installation comes with a directory /etc/examples/ providing configuration file samples and comments. They are a good way to get started with a configuration file and understand the file format described in the according man page.

2.6. Commits history §

This part is not for end users, but for contributors. When a change is done in the sources, there is often a great commit message explaining the logic of the code and the reasons for the changes. I say often because some trivial changes doesn't require such explanations every time. The commit messages are a valuable source of information when you need to know more about a component.

2.7. Announcements by email §

Documentation is also keeping the users informed about important news. OpenBSD is using an opt-in method with the mailing lists. One list that is important for information is announce@openbsd.org, news releases and erratas are published here. This is a simple and reliable method working for everyone having an email.

2.8. No wiki §

This is an important point in my opinion, all the OpenBSD documentation is stored in the sources trees, they must be committed by someone with a commit access. Wiki often have orphan pages, outdated information, duplicates pages with contrary content. While they can be rich and useful, their content often tend to rot if the community doesn't spend a huge time to maintain them.

2.9. One system as a whole §

Finally, most of the above is possible because OpenBSD is developed by the same team. The team can enforce their documentation requirements from top to bottom, which lead to accurate and consistent documentation all across the system. This is more complicated on a Linux system where all components come from various teams with different methods.

When you get your hands on OpenBSD, you should be able to understand how to use all the components from the base system (= not the packages) with just the man pages, being offline doesn't prevent you to configure your system.

3. Conclusion §

What makes a good documentation? It's hard to tell. In my opinion, having a trustful source of knowledge is the most important, whatever the format or support. If you can't trust what you read because it may be outdated, or not applying on your current version, it's hard to rely on it. Man pages are a good format, very practical, but only when they are well written, but this is a difficult task requiring a lot of time.