Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gentoo Linux: bad impressions from an old Arch Linux user

A bit disappointed with Gentoo Linux

I'm an happy Arch Linux and FreeBSD user with several years of experience. Today I tried Gentoo for the first time. I began reading the handbook (a little verbose, but well-written and self-contained even for a beginner) but at a time I realized that installing the base system from source would be too time consuming.

The alternative is to install using GRP (the Gentoo Reference Platform, a collection of prebuilt packages meant for immediate use after a Gentoo installation). For this you must follow the instructions in the Gentoo 2008.0 Handbooks (another handbook!)

You won't have the latest version of the available packages as like installing Arch Linux from network because network installation with GRP is not supported (IMHO I cannot understand why there is such a limitation, it seems to be an arbitrary wrong decision). In other words you cannot use the bootable minimal CD to have a prebuilt&updated Gentoo environment up and running in no time - "the fast way" to install that is stage3 + precompiled packages, cannot be done from network, you will have to download the full Gentoo Linux Installer LiveCD.

I did not try to install on a real machine but on a virtual one hosted by my MacBook equipped with latest VirtualBox (added audio, USB 2.0 and enabled 3D Acceleration for the guest OS).

Note that when I tried to use the minimal install ISO (which, as I stated before, implies to compile the base packages from sources!) VirtualBox NAT networking did not work out-of-the-box during installation (don't know why, works with Arch). Host interface network worked. Try to switch back to NAT after install to see if works, I never got so far.

I booted with the default kernel and boot options. When prompted you have to choose your keyboard layout in 10 seconds, so be sure to attend the booting process (this is not required in Arch).

When perfoming a network installation partitions should be make manually with fdisk. This is well-explained by the handbook and it's not too bad for a beginner to learn to use this command line tool. Easier to use cfdisk (same as used on Arch) is available too, but not mentioned. Since my virtual disk is small (only 8 GB) and this is a test install I only made three partitions: an ext2 50M boot, a 512M swap followed by an ext3 root. There is not need for a boot partition nowadays (unless you use LVM and want it to be accessible with a rescue disk without LVM kernel support), but it seems to be mandatory in Gentoo (not in Arch). Also my virtual disk was not recognized by libata and thus the device was /dev/hda and not /dev/sda (this does not happen with Arch even when SATA controller is not enabled in Virtualbox).

Then I had to manually download and install the stage3 and portage system.

Arch Linux wins here: it can be installed from the command line if you are so inclined or need ad advanced setup, but it also provided a nice and light full-screen text-mode program which covers typical installations (network installation included): easier-to-use and less error-prone for beginners and less time-consuming for experts - the best of both worlds. No one (even experts) likes to type URL's and repetitive or well-known commands. In Gentoo you will have to use the command line and type in many commands. Dialog or GUI based interface is only available in networkless installation.

I know Gentoo supports older processor than i686-based ones, but I don't consider this a big advantage. Who has these machines anymore? I don't think one is willing to invest so much time to install and customize a modern Linux distro on such a slow and old computer.

Also the Gentoo installation handbook or quick install guide is not available on network install CD. Arch official install guide is also available on CD in text format.

The Portage tree alone takes around 600 Mbyte excluding the various sources that are stored in it. And it is mandatory while Arch ABS is optional. You only need to download the makefiles you need.
It seems Gentoo has more documentation and packages than Arch, but Arch packages are easier to make and software upstream documentation generally applies to Arch because of its KISS philosophy. For now I don't see any compelling reasons to switch to Gentoo. I will continue to Keep It Simple with Arch. And be happy.


No comments: