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 Debian's repos were good as well, though due to their snail's-pace release cycle everything is hopelessly outdated.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.

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