There are questions that get asked, from time to time, whose answers are fundamental and blindingly obvious to anyone with a reasonable amount of knowledge about the topic being considered, such as this one:

Using DHCP, is it possible to obtain an IP address & MAC address for a cluster?

These questions are easy to answer, and assuming the asker is willing to learn, provide substantial value to the person asking as well as to anyone trying to learn how things all get put together later. The answers will explain a fundamental concept.

On the other hand, they might also conflict with the broken windows theory, and could often be answered in a moment's researching the topic.

Is it really appropriate to close these questions? Or, is it sufficient to simply downvote them but allow them an answer? Or should we not even downvote them?

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    I'm not convinced that people in our target audience should be asking such basic questions and react appropriately. – user9517 May 6 '14 at 8:28
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    @Iain and OP: Can't professional sysadmins still be green in some areas? I agree that basic research should still be done, but when making the jump from one technology to the next, questions some consider basic may be a necessity, especially if an admin was trying to do research by asking the question. – MDMoore313 May 6 '14 at 11:42
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    @BigHomie: I believe I can spot the difference between someone in that position and the truly clueless that we mostly attract. As such I am comfortable with my position and voting record. – user9517 May 6 '14 at 11:56
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    Notwithstanding the many and varied answers - good question, Falcon! – MadHatter May 7 '14 at 5:10
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    I have contributed to and been helped by this site, I would hate for it to get a negative reputation because of a few arrogant or impatient individuals. – rahrahruby May 14 '14 at 20:21
  • Punish? Wow, it really takes a certain kind of "sysadmin" to fit in at this site, doesn't it? – usedTobeaMember May 21 '14 at 2:45
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    I asked "Should we" for a reason. – Falcon Momot May 21 '14 at 2:55

11 Answers 11


Everyone has a different definition of what is "blindingly obvious". We all have huge gaps in our knowledge. The smarter you get, the more you realize how much you don't know.

There are plenty of questions I've asked that were obvious to someone more experienced with the particular software/hardware/whatever than I was.

And there are plenty of questions I've answered where I've had to take a step back and say "Ok...if you're asking me if I can do X with Y...you clearly have no idea what Y is for...lets explain that first."

That's the whole point of this site. I'm an expert in some areas. You're an expert in other areas. And if we all get together and share that knowledge, we become experts in a lot of areas.

That said, there are a lot of questions (and I'm far too lazy to dig up examples at the moment) of questions where I could safely say "If you don't know that already, and couldn't find the answer for yourself, you don't know enough to be charging someone money for your work." With many of these questions, they show absolutely no effort to find the solution on their own, and I vote to close them as "demonstrate a minimal understanding..."

My cutoff point for those questions is typically something along the lines of "could I type that question into google and get the answer in under 5 minutes".

The example question is on the better side of bad questions, but I would have voted to close it, and recommended the asker read up on how IP and MAC addresses work.

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    After struggling with it on someone's question tonight, I think I've found a succinct and polite way to explain the demark to people. Asking to have a concept explained to you is fair game. Jumping into the deep end before you know how to swim in the shallows is not. We're here to solve specific problems, but often times the problem is not the one they're asking us to help them with: understanding the basics. – Andrew B May 8 '14 at 6:29
  • I think this is (sadly) just one more excellent example of this problem. – user9517 May 13 '14 at 14:19
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    I am of the opinion that when someone googles a super basic question, it's not a bad thing if the top result is an answer here on ServerFault. A huge portion of the value of stackexchange sites is helping not just the one guy who asked the original question, but the thousands of googlers who found the perfect, edited upvoted answers he got. Don't lose sight of the bigger picture. – MGOwen May 16 '14 at 3:37
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    My first question in Server Fault has been closed before someone could ever reply, just becouse someone thought that it was a not proffesional one. I think that if someone takes the time to ask (helping that way to improve the content for search engines, and many times making an effort writing in english not beeing its first language), it should at least be allowed to be replied. I think this sould be a basic netiquete for politeness, and a good thing for SF, as MGOwen says. – tomasofen May 16 '14 at 19:50
  • @MGOwen The bigger picture is that ServerFault is not here for just about anyone who can log into a VPS - this does not make you a Professional System Admin. – user9517 May 18 '14 at 9:22

Not on that alone. This might be obvious to a network administrator, but in a highly compartmentalised IT department, if you've spent your entire life dealing with a mainframe connected to dumb terminals, and you're suddenly thrust into setting up a cluster, you might have no idea.

But what you will be smart enough is to take a few clues and figure the rest out on your own.

You can't just go around closing questions that are simple, or dumb. That's a slippery slope. Are you going to vote a question closed because "No shit bcrypt is a better hashing algorithm than md5 for passwords - every security person knows this!"

We have answers outlining the fundamental concepts of TCP/IP, so why not have a fundamental answer outlining DHCP?

Obviously someone out there didn't understand the relationship between Ethernet and TCP/IP. And that's OK. At some stage, you didn't either.

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    I might not have known it, but Wikipedia (minimal research effort) would tell me this in no time – MichelZ May 6 '14 at 8:56
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    If someone were bothered to look we probably do have a question that outlines the fundamentals of DHCP already. However, as is too often he case few people who ask questions bother to research either on the wider internet or on SF.The rest is history and a river of shit. – user9517 May 6 '14 at 9:00
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    @MichelZ - and Server Fault could have had a canonical answer to supplement it, but now it doesn't. Now it has the equivalent of a head on a pike at the town entrance. – Mark Henderson May 6 '14 at 9:13
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    We have lots of heads on pikes, they don't stop people throwing themselves at the walls. Similarly we have lots of (canonical) questions that just never get read because people don't do their own research or read. – user9517 May 6 '14 at 9:28
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    That doesn't change the fact that you don't close a question just because you think it's too simple – Mark Henderson May 6 '14 at 9:32
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    Additionally, just because it's a bad question, doesn't mean that it has a bad answer – Mark Henderson May 6 '14 at 9:40
  • What then is (your interpretation of) the purpose of the minimal understanding close reason ? – user9517 May 6 '14 at 9:42
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    Pick a topic that's in your area of expertise, think of the simplest possible question, and decide whether you'd close it as "you haven't researched this, go ask Google / read some books". – Andrew May 6 '14 at 13:48
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    @Iain I don't like that close reason. I never have. I don't like it, because I think it is mis-used as an excuse for people to close things that they don't like without really having to justify why. There are a handful of times I've thought it's appropriate, but that's all. – Mark Henderson May 6 '14 at 16:25
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    @markhenderson I find myself using that close reason a lot...I interpret it as a slightly nicer way of saying "you didn't even TRY to google this, did you?" – Grant May 6 '14 at 20:51
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    @Grant - I know we've had this discussion before but I'm too tired right now to look for it. Just because something is easily googlable is not a reason to close it. We would prefer that when users google for easy things, they end up here, rather than on some random unverifiable blog. – Mark Henderson May 6 '14 at 21:25
  • @markhenderson good point. – Grant May 6 '14 at 21:36
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    @MarkHenderson Good point indeed. So I should start asking questions like "What is a NIC?" "What is a processor"? "Why do I need a network?" All very basic things... Do we really want to litter SF with stuff like that? – MichelZ May 7 '14 at 11:39

I see I'm one of the guilty parties. I suppose that puts on me some onus to explain.

Take a look at this question, which is also a total newbie question, and attracting downvotes and close votes as we speak (and it probably doesn't help that the author chose the username "nobrains"!).

But I think this is a good basic question. I've upvoted it, and I won't be voting to close (at least, not on the grounds of "minimal understanding" or "professional sysadmin").

Why the difference? Because the DHCP/MAC question betrays utter ignorance. There's no subtlety underlying the right answer, just spoon-feeding basic information to satisfy the OP's total failure to have read anything about the field. The www. question, on the other hand, skates around a genuine subtlety in the DNS which can catch people out big-time down the road.

Mark, you have a diamond, so you really do get to speak for the community. Nevertheless, when you write "This might be obvious to a network administrator, but in a highly compartmentalised IT department, if you've spent your entire life dealing with a mainframe connected to dumb terminals, and you're suddenly thrust into setting up a cluster, you might have no idea" I get very nervous. Are you suggesting that SF is available for people who are professionals in one aspect of sysadmin, so they can ask n00b cross-training questions, but not to people who are, say, developers, who also want to cross-train in exactly the same way? Because I can't follow you there, I'm afraid. For me, the "minimal understanding" close reason (which you say you don't like - but nevertheless it exists) means that on the subject on which you have chosen to ask a question, you are expected to have acquired a firm grasp of the basics already.

Once, when a newly-fledged sysadmin, I was listening to Eric Allman talk about some of the subtle gotchas in SMTP (he's a very good speaker, by the way). In response to his rant about the problems caused by envelope-recipient vs. header-recipient mishandling, I asked why we had to have both recipients. For my query, I got only a withering look. Once I had admin'ed a mail server, and understood why we need both kinds of recipient, I understood the look, and wholeheartedly approved of it. The check it gave me has helped remind me many times since that I need to line up my ducks before invoking "big gun" assistance.

If SF is not to sink into the mire if general ignorance, I feel it needs to maintain in all its users an attitude of "I'm going to a wellspring of experts here; I need to treat it with basic respect". Otherwise I'd just go and hang out at YvahkDhrfgvbaf.

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    s/not to sink/not to sink further/. The history of SF is littered with talented people who could make a great contribution but have walked away because of the poor quality of questions. We are all worse off for this. – user9517 May 7 '14 at 5:33
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    There are plenty of questions where the author is clearly out of their depth and needs to either receive a minimum amount of training or hire a professional. We cannot help these people. It's one thing to answer a simple, "obvious" question...it's another when it's clear the person you are working with doesn't have any grasp of fundamentals whatsoever and really needs to buy a book. – Andrew B May 7 '14 at 14:46
  • And yet another still when you point that out, and they claim that their question is still valid. – MadHatter May 7 '14 at 15:11

I would have no problem with a total beginner question like "What is a MAC address?" Sure, it's extremely basic and lots of us could answer it in some detail (and Evan would probably crank out an award-winning book about it in 10 minutes or so), but at least if someone asks it you know where they're coming from.

By contrast, there's no way to be sure what the person asking, "Can DHCP hand out a MAC address?" does and doesn't understand. Do they not know that MAC addresses are h/w serial #s? Do they not grasp physical vs. higher network layers? Are they just stringing buzzwords like paradigm and cloud together?

Unlike Mark, I think the "must demonstrate a minimal understanding" close reason is perfect for lots of the questions I consider "bad." I don't mind a question that's basic and google-able, but if the person doesn't really know enough to know what the basic question is that they should ask, then I'll downvote and VtC w/out hesitation.


I'm as green as they get and I ask questions outside of my shallow knowledge pool all the time. I think the answer to Why use a converged network design in Hyper-V? is probably blindly obvious to a lot of people here but (I hope) there is a qualitative difference between my question and the one used as example (Using DHCP, is it possible to obtain an IP address & MAC address for a cluster?). There is a professional way to approach a question outside of your immediate knowledge field even if is a fundamental or basic question. It is hard to quantify this professionalism - it is one of those I know it when I see it kind of things.

I think the community is pretty good at detecting crap. Vote to close crap. Upvote the good questions, even basic ones. Profit.


Given that the ServerFault audience is IT professionals, I'm not sure that a question and answer explaining a fundamental concept is useful in the context of this site. Professionals should already have the fundamental concepts down.

So, as a result, I'd say that both a downvote and a close vote would be appropriate, though at the discretion of the voter. I'm not sure if I'd personally elect to downvote that example question or not, but I'd definitely close it for lacking minimal understanding. And I think everyone with the requisite privileges should be free to make the same determination.

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    Not sure about the downvote, but definitely agree to close it. – MichelZ May 6 '14 at 8:41
  • Oh, this little Server Fault! You closed my question with a generic message of "Not Proffessional", and i still can't imagine why. This don't help people (me or future people searching in the net) nor Server Fault. If someone thinks something is bad, i think he should downvote. – tomasofen May 16 '14 at 20:00
  • @tomasofen Well, lucky you... you did get what you wanted, after all. I downvoted your question in addition to voting to close it. – HopelessN00b May 16 '14 at 20:27
  • @tomasofen You're using Plesk and PHP on a windows server 4+ OS revisions out of date. – Jacob May 16 '14 at 20:33
  • Stay patroling, Robocop. You know... to protect and "server"... – tomasofen May 16 '14 at 20:33
  • @Jacob Yes, Jacob, i know. Not all clients can afford the latest tecnologies nor migrate a full server, specially in the middle of an economic recesion. Yes, sometimes professionales must deal with problems, like Pulp Fictions's Mr Lobo. – tomasofen May 16 '14 at 20:36
  • @tomasofen I'd consider PHP on windows to be unprofessional to start with honestly. – Jacob May 16 '14 at 20:37
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    Sorry, Jacob, but absolutelly NOT. – tomasofen May 16 '14 at 20:38
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    @Jacob PHP on Windows is perfectly fine. Web control panels (an old version, no less) on ancient versions of Windows, running old versions of PHP... not so much. – HopelessN00b May 17 '14 at 16:52
  • @Hopeless You are NOT right. Web control panel is not related at all with PHP on Windows nor with my question. W2003 with PHP 5.2 beeing an ancient system is not the point (Jakob is 18 so perhaps he can think so, but you??). Anyway, beeing ancient doesn't mean be less professional. But the point is that you close my question as not professional, when it is related with upgrading the system! If you don't like the system of my client, that's ok. Don't answer the question, or downvote it, but let other people think diferent than you and help people. By the way, this should be in my post not here. – tomasofen May 18 '14 at 3:48

If you don't want to answer basic questions then don't answer them, or better yet, don't read them in the first place. IMHO those who are willing to downvote (or "punish") a well thought out and well articulated question just because there's a basic answer to it need to take a long hard look at why they participate here and perhaps take a few days/weeks/years off.

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    The question is about to what extent, if at all, we should actively discourage such questions (re. the broken windows theory, and to retain the interest of professional users), and what criteria we might use. I'm not entirely in disagreement with your criteria but you could probably stand to go a bit deeper than that instead of attacking people for cleaning up. – Falcon Momot May 13 '14 at 0:44
  • @FalconMomot what I see in your question is the commonly found attitude in the open source community of RTFM and only ask if you put in 40 hours trying to figure it out yourself first, to me that approach makes little sense, the opportunity cost of reading but not replying to a basic question is minimal, don't want to answer it then don't answer it, no need to ragedownvote. I am not an expert, I have certain keywords filtered and answer when I can while ignoring questions which are too hard/easy. The current system works fine unless people feel like powertripping. – Reality Extractor May 13 '14 at 4:38
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    I actually expressed the opposite view, if anything, in the question, from that which you attribute to me. Perhaps there is something to reading before you type? ;) – Falcon Momot May 13 '14 at 7:59
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    @FalconMomot good point, I got caught up in my own rage about people who rage about simple questions. +1 comment for you. – Reality Extractor May 15 '14 at 6:01

Personally, I think the only stupid question was the one you never ask. I would therefore be quite reluctant to penalise the blindingly obvious - mostly because I recognise that (as an IT professional) there's been a few occasions where I've had to ask them myself - when straying from the 'stuff I know' to the stuff I don't know.

If it takes negligible time to answer, then it did me no harm to answer it.

Although I might differentiate with lazy questions - once which require a significant amount of brainwork for the person answering, but without a similar degree of (indication of) effort on the part of the asker.

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    You are new here and I guess it's still exciting. You will eventually get just as irritated with the $cluelessness as the rest of us. Most likely just stop playing (in the not too distant future) because you are entirely bored with the daily stream of crappy questions. – user9517 May 16 '14 at 17:08
  • I think this viewpoint is totally defensible. – Falcon Momot May 16 '14 at 17:52
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    @lain that's exactly what we want to avoid - all the knowledgable people leaving because there are no good questions to answer. I answer questions because I like a good puzzle. If all the questions are crap and show no effort, the knowledgable people all leave, and this turns into yahoo answers. – Grant May 18 '14 at 0:06
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    @Grant I'm very familiar with the problem, it's getting worse and is unlikely to get better. The time taken from talented people arriving at the gate and them running away is unfortunately shortening all the time. Sadly though there are an unending stream of people who think that being able to buy a VPS makes them part of our target audience and entitles them to our help. – user9517 May 18 '14 at 10:16

All of us seen cases when even mostly obvious questions are hard to find right way of understanding. Say, DHCP server won't assign MACs, but magic word "cluster" may make it a bit unusual for some novice (and not dumb!) person to figure out that. Moreover, person may made a mistype trying to ask "Using DHCP, is it possible to obtain an IP address for MAC address if we deal with a cluster?" which is a less obvious for some novice.

Then, all of us were novices at some point. We'll also be able to call our today level of knowledge a bit novice in 10 or 20 years, won't we?


The following is my own point of view and relates more in general to the stack exchange websites than this one specifically.

I have asked questions a few times that may fall into the blindingly obvious category and have received some RTFM replies.

The thing is though, at that point in time it was never blindly obvious to me. I had spent countless hours trying to resolve the issue (with my fairly limited knowledge). Without the help and support of the stack exchange community it would have surely been quite a few more hours/days until I finally realized the error in my thinking. Sometimes all it takes it someone to look at things with a different mind set or point of view.

I find this aspect of stack exchange the most useful and to punish me for asking questions that would not have been asked if they were "blindly obvious" to me seems a bit unfair.

It's all about opinions and I can see the people with more experience (the RTFM guys) looking down on me for this one but honestly... Looking back at some of my blindly obvious questions now, they are sitting with thousands and thousands of views and I am sure they this in turn has helped countless people to resolve their own issues...

Isn't that what these website are about?

  • We have quite a specific target audience you can read about it in our tour. – user9517 May 19 '14 at 14:18
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    I think basic questions fall quite naturally in our topic matter, as long as they are actually basic questions about sysadmin (i.e. not "how 2 cpanel"). – Falcon Momot May 19 '14 at 19:45

How is it that server fault is only for "Professionals" and who decides at what point a person is allowed to be determined they're "Professional" enough to be part of the club and write questions in a perfectly worded fashion so as to be accepting of the label "Professional."

Instead everything will just get deleted and locked if it doesn't perfectly match the ideals of a few moderators? Did comcast take over server fault or something?

The internet used to be open for everyone, if you guys are going to close off server fault, then good riddance.

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    It's usually helpful to cite the moderation you disagree with when bringing it up on meta. This is the topic in question. – Andrew B May 12 '14 at 23:46
  • It's not about closing off the Internet. This particular utility, we like to use because it is for professionals and not full of basic or nonprofessional content. Superuser exists for that stuff; this is not there. – Falcon Momot May 13 '14 at 0:42
  • Neither of these comments address the issue, @AndrewB I'm discussing this in the global picture, not just one case. If you guys feel that you are above having to deal with loosely defined "nonprofessionals" and you are closing off the site to anyone you deem not fitting that definition, then you are in fact closing off part of the internet. Just because you can't see how a question might be relevant does not make the question irrelevant. Why should this not be a resource for everyone, and if you don't want to answer a basic question then YOU don't answer a basic question. – Fred May 13 '14 at 17:25
  • Furthermore those of us who spend most of our day writing code, or doing other work aren't always going to know/have the time to understand what the latest trend on serverfault might be, perhaps serverfault could be understanding that the community as a whole might be more diverse than the power users who spend hundreds of hours on the site. – Fred May 13 '14 at 17:31
  • @Fred The subject of "professionalism" has been pretty well decided (we link to this meta post from the about page which pretty well details our expectations). If you disagree with those expectations you may open another discussion on the subject, but frankly I think our expectations are quite reasonable - There are other SE sites which cater to "enthusiasts". – voretaq7 May 13 '14 at 19:21
  • We are not "the internet" here. We are a site for professional system administrators. We do not answer questions related to how you download a game on your iPhone, and we do not answer questions about how to shave your beard. We answer questions that relate to professional system administration. This in fact ONLY applies to a VERY SMALL part of the internet. So in this sense you are right, we are "closing off the internet", and are only open for professional system administrators (which happen to use the internet as well!) – MichelZ May 21 '14 at 10:38

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