Thursday, February 11, 2010

Roll Your Own

I've become quite the avid distro hopper over the past few months, not necessarily because I was looking for something a particular distro couldn't offer, but more out of an idle curiosity. I originally started my Linux journey with Mint 6, and since then have toyed around with various *buntu's, DSL, Puppy Linux, Knoppix, Backtrack, Debian, et cetera; They all had their own strengths and weaknesses. I've gotten to a point where I wanted to build my own distro, from the ground up, without having to actually make a distro... That is to say, I wanted a minimalist install with a light footprint like Puppy, with the stability of Debian, vast customization potential, and the availability of packages and a coherent package management system on par with aptitude and the Ubuntu repositories. It seems like a tall order until you consider Arch Linux.

Arch is a VERY minimalist install, to give you an idea of how minimalist I'm talking, it doesn't even come with sudo, openssh, python, or a GUI. It is absolutely perfect for older machines and package management is a breeze, but I'll get to that in a minute. The installer is very simple and straightforward, certainly one of the most simple CLI installs I've ever done. The installer pretty much configures the network for you, then asks which packages you'd like to install, then it further fine-tunes those categories allowing you to select individual packages for installation as opposed to hundreds of them that you will probably never use in a default Ubuntu install. After the install is done you do the obligatory restart and begin to configure the system to your liking using pacman, Arch's package manager.

Now I am very, very fond of my beloved apt, but pacman won me over. In keeping with Arch's philosophy of designed simplicity, it is just that: A very powerful, yet very simple and easy to use system. My second concern when initially trying Arch was that there may not be a large number of packages available. With Mint/*buntu I was never at loss for packages, the repositories had everything. Debian's repos were good as well, though due to their snail's-pace release cycle everything is hopelessly outdated. So far I have found everything I needed through pacman, and it is all bleeding-edge in terms of software-version. Arch is a rolling distro, meaning there are no main releases just one update after another. This rolling-release model, combined with the speed at which the packages are updated provides the most cutting-edge OS I have ever seen. When I installed Firefox from the repositories, it gave me version 3.6, some distros are still working off of the 3.0 series (I'm looking at you here Debian). Even the more obscure packages are unbelievably up-to-date such as d4l, et cetera.

Pacman also made installing gnome a breeze, and I quickly got media/networking set up as well. It's a little more command-line-kung-fu than I'm used to, but for the most part it was a really good learning experience. Some might consider this a detriment, but getting hands-on with configuration files, setting up xinit manually, and specifying which modules to load when, and what daemons to start on start-up gave me a whole new insight into the undercarriage of Linux, something I could never have seen with Mint/Ubuntu which makes everything very easily usable.

In short, after less than 12 hours of using Arch, I believe this will now become my distro of choice. I've been looking for this distro for years, I just never knew the name of it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Windows 7 & Debian Dual Boot

Quite a long day today. My school is enrolled in MSDNAA, which is basically free software from Microsoft, which as a CS student I am entitled to. So I woke up this morning, checked my student e-mail and read the account activation letter I'd received from them, and followed the link to their site where I discovered a venerable treasure trove of Microsoft software. Granted I wouldn't use most of it to save my life (the Office '07 suite is just indescribably horrendous) but also available for download was Windows 7. Now my Desktop is running Win7 so I've used it and despite my obligatory scorn for all things Microsoft, I have to admit it's the best OS they've ever put out. It's certainly better than Vista (from which there is nowhere to go but up). It's more stable than XP, and (obviously) more updated. Let's face it, XP's felt antiquated for quite some time.

What bothered me though was that you were not able to just download the .iso. You had to download an 'installer' (windows format .exe of course) which would download the file for you. I can't think of any reason for this other than to restrict the downloads to people already running a Windows operating system. At this point it doesn't get them any more customers, it certainly doesn't make them lose any, so why limit the availability of the software all students enrolled in the MSDNAA are entitled to based upon their current operating system? That would be like an electrician refusing to work on your house after you've already payed him because the wiring was put in by another company. It is an absurd ideology and quite frankly I don't see how consumers can tolerate it to the point where Microsoft's stock is selling at almost $30 a share.

I did wind up getting their pseudo-installer to run in wine, and then burned the iso all without ever having to leave backtrack, but it was still an unnecessary annoyance... But I digress. With the new Windows 7 (x64) disk in hand, I set about wiping my laptop clean and installing Windows. It went of without a hitch and everything's working fine. A rather rare occurrence. That being said, I only spent about 20 minutes in the OS until I had accepted one license agreement too many which, in turn, drove me to download and burn a Debian disk (Lenny main x64). I have never had a Linux install give me this many problems.

Apparently the kernel that Debian 5 ships with doesn't play nice on this particular build. For a distribution so well-known for stability, I was rather surprised. After an install that seemed to go off without a hitch, when I would boot into Debian it would hang on several different items. After 20 minutes I gave up, boot wasn't happening. At first I thought the install disk was faulty so I MD5'd it and compared it to the MD5 on Debian's site: they were identical. After two more installs with the same result I logged onto the IRC channel to see if anyone else had ever experienced this. After spending some time in #debian, the nice folks there pointed me to, where I was able to obtain a newer version of the kernel that worked with my box. Aside from a few minor hiccups that were later ironed out, I was now able to boot properly. After booting into the OS, it took me a while to figure out that the reason apt wasn't working properly was because I didn't have the right repositories in my /etc/apt/sources.list. After adding them, I went about configuring the OS. The wireless card works out of the box, but the network manager did not, so after creating a shell script that would launch netapplet, and throwing it in /etc/init.d/ that problem too is rectified.

The result of the day? Laptop wiped, dual boot with Windows 7 x64 and Debian 5 Lenny x64. I originally wanted to do a multi-boot with those OS's and BSD as well, but it's 10:00 and after spending about 8 hours doing this I simply don't have the energy. Maybe tomorrow If I get around to finishing all the other tech-stuff I need to do.