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Navigating Linux Init Systems
June 5th, 2024

Navigating Linux Init Systems: From systemLinux Init Systemsd to Its Alternatives


As a long-time Linux user, I've found that one of the most intriguing aspects of the platform is its flexibility. You can tailor your system to your specific needs, from the kernel to the desktop environment. But there's one component that plays a crucial role in managing system initialization, services, and daemons: the init system. In this blog post, I'll take you on a journey through the world of Linux init systems, focusing on the widely-used systemd and its alternatives.

Init systems are responsible for initializing the system, managing services, and starting daemons. They're the first process to run when your system boots, and they set the stage for everything that follows. With so many Linux distributions available, each with its unique characteristics and requirements, choosing the right init system is essential.

Section 1: Understanding systemd

1.1 What is systemd?

systemd is an init system and service manager for Linux. It was designed to replace traditional init systems like SysVinit and Upstart, offering a more efficient and flexible way to manage system resources. systemd has gained widespread adoption in major distributions like Red Hat, CentOS, and Fedora, and is now used by default in many modern Linux systems.

If you use any of the common distros, especially if you have an installation on bare metal or extensively use a virtualized distro for whatever purpose, you have probably interacted with systemd as part of turning on or off services. The typical means that this is done with is the systemctl command, which is discussed later in this article so keep reading!

1.2 Features and Advantages of systemd

So, what makes systemd so special? Well, mostly that it is the common choice of most major distros from Ubuntu and Fedora to Arch Linux and NixOS, it is everywhere. This is for good reasons, it provides a lot more functionality than other init systems and even where it is not used, some elements of its functionality stripped out of it are generally utilized.

  • Manage system resources efficiently: it achieves this through the use of cgroups, which allow for the allocation of resources such as CPU, memory, and I/O to specific processes or groups of processes. This makes it possible to prioritize certain services or applications, ensuring that they receive the resources they need to function optimally.
  • Event-driven architecture: This allows systemd to respond to events such as device hotplugging, network availability, and timer events, making it possible to create complex dependencies between services and devices. For example, you can use systemd to start a service only when a specific network interface is available, or to mount a file system when a specific device is plugged in.
  • Provides a journal: for logging and debugging purposes. The journal is a centralized logging system that stores log messages from all services and applications, making it easier to troubleshoot issues. You can use the journalctl command to view and filter log messages, for example:
$ journalctl -u ssh # This will show you all log messages related to the SSH service.
  • Target-based system: for managing system states. Targets are used to define a set of services and dependencies that are required for a specific system state, such as multi-user mode or rescue mode. This makes it possible to easily switch between different system states, which we will go over more in-depth below so stay tuned.
  • Parallelized startup: One of the most significant improvements systemd brings to the table is its ability to start multiple services in parallel during the boot process. This is a stark contrast to the traditional sequential starting of services, which could lead to unnecessary delays. With systemd's parallelization, the time it takes for a system to go from power-on to a fully operational state is drastically reduced. This feature is particularly beneficial for servers and applications where uptime and quick recovery are critical. You can observe this parallelism in action by running the following command during system startup:
$ systemd-analyze critical-chain # This command will display a tree of all the services that were started, highlighting the ones that took the longest time and potentially caused delays in the boot process.
  • On-demand activation: Another powerful feature of systemd is its ability to activate services on-demand. This means that services are only started when they are actually needed, rather than at boot time. This not only conserves system resources such as CPU and memory but also ensures that the system remains as efficient as possible. For example, the networkd-dispatcher service can be configured to only start when network connectivity is established. This is achieved through systemd's socket activation, where the service is activated by the arrival of a network connection. Here's how you might set up a socket unit for a custom service:
[Unit] Description=Example Socket Activation

[Socket] ListenStream=8080 Accept=true


By placing this configuration in a file named example.socket and enabling it with systemctl enable example.socket, the service will only be started when a connection is made to port 8080.

  • Advanced process tracking: systemd's advanced process tracking capabilities allow system administrators and users to keep a close eye on the processes running on their systems. With systemd, you can easily track the hierarchy and dependencies of running processes, which is invaluable for debugging and monitoring. The systemd-cgls command, for example, provides a tree-like view of the processes grouped by the control groups (cgroups) they belong to:
    $ systemd-cgls # This command gives you an overview of how systemd organizes processes into cgroups, allowing for better resource management and monitoring.

Additionallyditionally, the systemctl status command can be used to get detailed information about a specific service, including its current state, main process ID, and recent log entries:

$ systemctl status sshd.service #This output can be crucial when diagnosing issues with a particular service.

These features, among others, make systemd a robust and efficient system and service manager. Its design philosophy emphasizes performance, consistency, and ease of use, which aligns well with the needs of modern Linux systems. Whether you're managing a desktop, a server, or an embedded device, systemd provides the tools and capabilities to ensure your system runs smoothly and efficiently.

1.3 Disdvantages of systemd

Without intending to get caught in the drama quagmire that surrounds this topic, it is worth noting not everything systemd related is all sunshine and roses. rDespite its widespread adoption and numerous features, systemd is not without its critics and drawbacks. Some of the common complaints and disadvantages associated with systemd include:

  • Complexity: systemd is a complex system with many interdependent components. This can make it difficult for new users to understand and troubleshoot. Its complexity can also lead to potential bugs and security vulnerabilities.
  • Monolithic design: systemd is often criticized for its monolithic nature. Critics argue that it goes against the Unix philosophy of having small, modular programs that do one thing well. Instead, systemd incorporates a wide range of functionalities into a single system, which some see as a departure from traditional Unix principles.
  • Lack of customizability: Some users find systemd less customizable compared to other init systems like OpenRC or SysVinit. The use of binary logs in the journal, for instance, can be less flexible than traditional text-based log files for users who prefer to manage logs with custom scripts or tools.
  • Forced adoption: The transition to systemd by many major distributions has sometimes been contentious, with some users feeling that systemd was forced upon them without adequate consideration for alternative init systems.
  • Dependency hell: systemd can introduce additional dependencies, which might lead to situations where a simple task requires pulling in a large number of packages. This can be particularly problematic on minimal installations or in containerized environments where space is at a premium.
  • Boot time: While systemd generally improves boot times, in some cases, its aggressive parallelization can lead to increased disk I/O or CPU usage, potentially slowing down the boot process on systems with slower storage or limited resources.
  • Learning curve: For system administrators and users accustomed to SysVinit or other init systems, adapting to systemd's syntax and methods can be challenging. The transition often requires a significant investment of time to learn the new system.
  • Centralization: systemd centralizes many aspects of system management, which can be a double-edged sword. While it provides a consistent interface, it also means that more control is concentrated in a single system, which can be a concern for those who prefer a more distributed approach to system management.

1.4 Working with systemd

Now that we've covered the basics of systemd, let's dive into some basic commands and operations that you'll frequently use when managing systemd-based systems.

  • systemctl: This is the primary command-line tool for managing systemd services and the system state. Here are some common operations you can perform with systemctl:

    • Start a service immediately:
      $ sudo systemctl start sshd.service
    • Stop a running service:
      $ sudo systemctl stop sshd.service
    • Restart a service:
      $ sudo systemctl restart sshd.service
    • Enable a service to start on boot:
      $ sudo systemctl enable sshd.service
    • Disable a service from starting on boot:
      $ sudo systemctl disable sshd.service
    • Check the status of a service:
      $ sudo systemctl status sshd.service
    • List all running units:
      $ sudo systemctl list-units
    • List failed units:
      $ sudo systemctl --failed
  • systemd units: These are the configuration files used by systemd to manage services, sockets, timers, and other components of the system. Units are defined with the .service, .socket, .timer, etc., extensions, depending on their type. Here's an example of a simple systemd service unit:

    [Unit] Description=SSH Daemon
    [Service] ExecStart=/usr/sbin/sshd -D Restart=on-failure
    • To create a custom service, you would save this configuration to a file named sshd.service in the /etc/systemd/system/ directory and then reload the systemd configuration with:
    $ sudo systemctl daemon-reload
  • Targets: In systemd, targets are used to group together units and represent different system states or boot levels. They are similar to runlevels in SysVinit but are more flexible. Here are some common targets:

    • This target is used for a full graphical login.

    • This target is used for a multi-user command-line environment.

    • This target is used for system recovery and provides a minimal, single-user environment.

    • To switch to a different target, you can use the systemctl isolate command. For example, to switch to the graphical target, you would use:

      $ sudo systemctl isolate
    • You can also list all available targets and their associated units with:

      $ sudo systemctl list-targets

By familiarizing yourself with these basic commands and concepts, you'll be well-equipped to manage systemd-based systems effectively. Whether you're starting, stopping, or enabling services, or configuring systemd units and targets, these tools will help you maintain a well-tuned Linux system.

Section 2: Alternatives to systemd

While systemd has become the de facto standard in many Linux distributions, there are still several alternatives available. Each of these alternatives has its unique features, advantages, and use cases, catering to the diverse needs and preferences of the Linux community. The diversity in init systems reflects the Linux philosophy of choice and customization, allowing users to select the best tool for their specific environment and workflow.

2.1 OpenRC

OpenRC is a dependency-based init system that's used in distributions like Gentoo and Alpine Linux. It's known for its modularity and flexibility, making it a popular choice for those who prefer a more traditional approach to service management.

I've had the opportunity to work with OpenRC on Alpine Linux extensively both in the context of Docker containers and on bare metal, and I was impressed by its flexibility and customizability. Unlike systemd, OpenRC doesn't bundle various system components into one monolithic package. This is helpful in that it enables the user to compartmentize these functionalities more or explore alternative options and implementations more readily. OpenRC focuses solely on managing the init process, allowing other system components to be managed independently.

OpenRC uses a simple set of configuration files located in /etc/init.d/ for service scripts. These scripts are written in shell and are easy to read and modify. Here's an example of how you might enable or disable a service in OpenRC:

rc-update add sshd default

This command adds the sshd service to the default runlevel, ensuring that it starts at boot time. To disable the service, you would use:

rc-update del sshd default

One of the key advantages of OpenRC is its compatibility with the init scripts from SysVinit, making it an excellent choice for distributions looking to transition from SysVinit without a complete overhaul.

2.2 Runit

Runit is a minimalist init system that's used in distributions like Void Linux and is available for Artix and Alpine Linux as well. It's designed to be simple, efficient, and easy to use, focusing on core functionality without additional bells and whistles. In my experience it is also the fastest, most performant of the options discussed in this article.

Runit is particularly well-suited for embedded systems, containers, and scenarios where resource constraints are a concern. Its simplicity also makes it an excellent choice for users who prefer a straightforward, no-frills approach to service management.

Runit organizes its services into three stages:

  • stage 1 for system initialization
  • stage 2 for service management
  • stage 3 for the actual services

This clean separation of concerns makes it easy to understand and manage the boot process and service dependencies.

To start, stop, or check the status of a service in Runit, you would typically interact with the service's symlink in the /service/ directory. Here's how you might manage a service like sshd:

ln -s /etc/sv/sshd /var/service/

This command creates a symbolic link to start the sshd service. To stop the service, you would remove the symlink:

rm /var/service/sshd

Runit's approach to service management is straightforward and leverages the file system for control, which can be a refreshing change for those who appreciate a more Unix-like philosophy.

2.3 SysVinit

SysVinit is one of the oldest init systems still in use today. Originally the default choice for all Linux distros, there is a considerable history of use behind this init option, even if it is an uncommon choice today. It's used in some distributions, although its popularity has declined with the rise of systemd and other alternatives.

SysVinit is known for its runlevel system, which allows users to define different system states and manage services accordingly. A runlevel is a state of the machine where only a selected group of processes are running. For example, runlevel 3 is typically used for a text-based multi-user mode, while runlevel 5 is used for a graphical multi-user mode.

The configuration of SysVinit is primarily managed through scripts located in /etc/init.d/. These scripts are used to start, stop, and manage the status of services. To switch between runlevels, the telinit command is used, as shown below:

telinit 3

This command would switch the system to runlevel 3, which is the multi-user text mode.

While SysVinit may lack some of the advanced features found in newer init systems, it remains a reliable and well-understood option for those who appreciate its straightforward script-based configuration and the fine-grained control it offers over system initialization and service management.

2.4 Upstart

Upstart is an event-based init system that was designed to handle the starting and stopping of tasks and services in a more dynamic manner than traditional init systems like SysVinit. It was the default init system for Ubuntu until it was replaced when Canonical decided to use systemd in Ubuntu instead.Linux Init Systems

One of the key features of Upstart is its ability to start services on demand, rather than during the boot process. This is achieved through its event-driven model, where services are started in response to events such as the availability of a filesystem or network interface.

Upstart jobs are defined by configuration files located in /etc/init/, and they can be easily written and managed by the system administrator. Here's an example of an Upstart job configuration:

description "My custom service"

start on started networking stop on shutdown

script exec /usr/bin/my-custom-service end script

This job will start the my-custom-service when the networking service is up and will stop the service during system shutdown.

Upstart's compatibility with SysVinit scripts means that it can be a drop-in replacement for SysVinit, providing a bridge between the old and new ways of managing system initialization and services.

2.5 Other Init Systems

There are several other init systems available, each with its unique features and niches but with much smaller communities surrounding them then the already niche communities around OpenRC and runit. Some notable mentions include InitNG and Shepherd.

  • InitNG: InitNG (Next Generation Init) is designed to be lightweight, fast, and modular. It aims to overcome some of the limitations of SysVinit by introducing parallel processing of startup scripts and improved dependency handling. InitNG uses a simple configuration file located at /etc/initng/initng.conf, and service scripts are placed in /etc/initng/. Here's a basic example of how to enable a service in InitNG:

    ngctl enable my-service
  • Shepherd: Shepherd is an init system developed by the Guix System and is part of the GNU project. It is written in Guile, a Scheme implementation, and is designed to be highly configurable and scriptable. Shepherd's service definitions are written in Guile, which allows for powerful and flexible service management. Here's an example of a Shepherd service definition:

    (define-service my-service
     (lambda (service)
        (service-type-builtin 'oneshot)
        (start #~(exec /usr/bin/my-custom-service))))

These alternative init systems cater to users who have specific requirements or preferences, whether it's for speed, simplicity, compatibility, or the ability to deeply customize their system's initialization process. Each system has its own community of users and developers, ensuring that there is a viable alternative for those who choose not to use systemd.

Section 3: Comparing Init Systems

Now that we've covered the basics of each init system, let's take a look at how they compare in terms of performance, resource usage, ease of use, and community support. This comparison will help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of each init system, allowing you to make an informed decision based on your specific needs and preferences.

3.1 Performance and Resource Usage

Performance and resource usage are critical factors, especially for systems with limited resources or those requiring high efficiency. Here's a more detailed comparison of the init systems we've discussed:

  • systemd: systemd is engineered to boot the system as quickly as possible by parallelizing service starts. It also uses cgroups to manage system resources, which can lead to more efficient CPU and memory usage. However, this efficiency comes with increased complexity and a steeper learning curve. Benchmarks often show systemd leading in boot time and responsiveness, but it can be more resource-intensive on minimal systems due to its all-encompassing nature.

  • OpenRC: OpenRC is designed to be both fast and resource-efficient while maintaining a high degree of flexibility. It starts services in parallel, similar to systemd, but does so without the overhead of additional system components. OpenRC's simplicity and modularity can result in a lower memory footprint, making it a suitable choice for systems where resources are at a premium.

  • Runit: Runit excels in providing a minimalist approach to service management, which typically translates to lower memory usage and faster execution times. Its simplicity means there's less overhead, which can be particularly beneficial in containerized environments or on systems with limited resources. Runit's process supervision ensures that services remain running, which can contribute to overall system stability and reliability.

  • SysVinit: SysVinit, with its sequential service startup, can be slower compared to the parallelized approach of systemd and OpenRC. It may also consume more resources due to its lack of advanced features like cgroup management. However, SysVinit's straightforward nature can be an advantage on systems where stability and predictability are more important than raw performance.

  • Upstart: Upstart's event-driven model allows it to start services on an as-needed basis, which can lead to performance improvements, especially in environments where not all services need to be started at boot time. Its ability to work with SysVinit scripts means that it can potentially offer a performance boost over a traditional SysVinit setup without requiring a complete rewrite of init scripts.

3.2 Ease of Use and Configuration

Ease of use and the simplicity of configuration are also important considerations, particularly for new users or those managing large numbers of systems.

  • systemd: systemd offers a unified toolset for system management, which can simplify administration tasks. However, its complexity and the sheer number of features can be overwhelming for new users. The learning curve is steeper, but once mastered, systemd provides powerful capabilities for managing services and system resources.

  • OpenRC: OpenRC strikes a balance between ease of use and flexibility. Its configuration files are shell scripts, which can be easier for users familiar with shell scripting. The syntax is straightforward, and the init system is well-documented, making it accessible for those transitioning from SysVinit.

  • Runit: Runit's simplicity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's very easy to set up and manage for users who prefer a minimalist approach. On the other hand, its minimalism means that some features taken for granted in other init systems (like automatic dependency resolution) are not present, requiring more manual intervention.

  • SysVinit: SysVinit's script-based configuration is familiar to many veteran Linux users, which can make it easier for them to manage. However, for those unfamiliar with shell scripting, writing and maintaining init scripts can be a daunting task. Additionally, SysVinit lacks some of the modern features found in newer init systems.

  • Upstart: Upstart aimed to improve upon SysVinit's shortcomings while remaining compatible with existing init scripts. Its event-based approach can simplify service management by reacting to system events dynamically. However, with Ubuntu's transition to systemd, Upstart's development has slowed, potentially affecting its long-term viability.

3.3 Community and Support

A vibrant community and ongoing support are essential for the longevity and reliability of an init system. The size and activity level of a community can be indicators of the init system's stability, the frequency of updates, and the availability of help and resources. Here's a closer look at the community and support surrounding each init system:

  • systemd: systemd has a large and active community, with many developers and users contributing to its development and support. It is also maintained by Red Hat, being part of their commercial, supported offerings that insures that development activity and critical fixes are being proactively worked on. As the default init system for many major Linux distributions, systemd benefits from widespread testing and a vast ecosystem of documentation, forums, and tutorials. This makes it relatively easy to find solutions to common problems and to stay up-to-date with best practices. However, the passionate debates surrounding systemd can sometimes be intimidating for newcomers.

  • OpenRC: OpenRC's community is smaller than systemd's but is nonetheless active and supportive. Since OpenRC is the defaullt for Alpine Linux and was recently for Gentoo, it has a solid user base that contributes to its ongoing development. The OpenRC project is known for its responsive maintainers and a helpful user community, which can be a significant advantage for those seeking assistance or looking to contribute to the project.

  • Runit: Runit's community is tight-knit and dedicated, comprising users who value simplicity and efficiency. While it may not have the same level of support as systemd, the Runit community is knowledgeable and welcoming to new users. The minimalist design of Runit means that the learning curve can be less steep, and the community often steps in to fill the gaps with unofficial documentation and guides.It is worth noting that Runit is considered completed, it has no active development work on-going on its codebase, which since it has a limited scope of intended function and well written code is not something it needs. I would suspect, nonetheless, that it will eventually be rewritten in Rust as the Linux community moves that way with the kernel itself.

  • SysVinit: SysVinit's long history means that it has a well-established community, although it is less active compared to the communities surrounding newer init systems. Despite this, there is a wealth of documentation and resources available, given that SysVinit was the standard for many years. Users transitioning from SysVinit to other init systems can often rely on the accumulated knowledge from the SysVinit era to ease the transition.

  • Upstart: Upstart's community was most active during its tenure as Ubuntu's default init system. Although its development has slowed since Canonical's shift to systemd, there is still a body of knowledge and resources available for those who continue to use Upstart. The community around Upstart may be smaller, but it remains a valuable resource for users who appreciate Upstart's event-driven model.

When choosing an init system, considering the community and support can be just as important as evaluating technical features. A strong community can provide invaluable assistance, whether you're troubleshooting an issue, seeking advice on best practices, or simply looking to learn more about the init system you're using. Each init system's community brings its own flavor and strengths to the table, so it's worth exploring the forums, mailing lists, and chat channels associated with each to find the one that best aligns with your needs and preferences.


In conclusion, the landscape of Linux init systems is as diverse as the Linux community itself. Each init system we've explored—systemd, OpenRC, Runit, SysVinit, and Upstart—brings its own set of features, performance characteristics, and philosophical approaches to managing system initialization and service management.

When choosing an init system, it's essential to consider factors such as performance, ease of use, and community support. Are you looking for raw speed and parallelization capabilities? Do you prioritize a lightweight and minimalist solution? Or are you seeking an init system with a rich feature set and broad community support? The answer will depend on your specific use case, system requirements, and personal preferences.

I hope this blog post has provided a comprehensive overview of the different init systems available for Linux. Whether you're a seasoned developer, a system administrator, or a new user, I trust you've found this information helpful in making an informed decision about which init system is right for you. Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all solution in the world of Linux, and the freedom to choose is one of the platform's greatest strengths.

Further Reading and Resources

If you're interested in delving deeper into each init system, here are some resources that can help you on your journey:

By exploring these resources, you can gain a deeper understanding of each init system's inner workings and best practices. Whether you're looking to optimize your current setup or simply satisfy your curiosity, the Linux ecosystem has a rich array of documentation and community support to guide you along the way.