I’m a computer science student, so it goes without saying that I know a lot of geeks. All are passionate about their geekery of choice, and none so than the Linux (ahem, GNU/Linux) geeks. Every one I’ve met has had a different favourite distribution they want me to try, but I never really had the setup to make it work. Enter VirtualBox, a nice virtualisation suite I first picked up working as an open source ambassador for Sun. With it installed and ready to go, there’s really no excuse not to have a go at some interesting Linux distros. So follow me as I enter the mad world of Linux Distributions. Each week, I’ll install a new one and use it as much as possible. Each week, I’ll report back on my experiences.
The first one I decided to try was Arch Linux. My housemate Josh, a hardcore Linux geek and fellow computer scientist, claimed it was the best Linux distribution available. It had a brilliant package manager (and a brilliant wrapper in yaourt), it was lightweight, it was cutting edge, and it would make me a man. I shouldn’t be calling myself a serious computer scientist and be using Ubuntu, oh no!
These seemed compelling reasons, so I embarked on my voyage beneath the marble reaches of Arch Linux.
The first thing I noticed is that installing Arch is quite a big departure from what I’ve been used to ever since I started playing around with Linux: there’s no graphical installer. Instead, you get near monochrome menu system, which encourages you to check boxes and edit text files, most of which I left at the default settings as I didn’t know any better. This, I could tell, definitely wasn’t a dumbed-down rounded-corners Linux distribution. This was going to be fun.
The install was precarious, but without the added thrills of a dual-boot-could-erase-my-windows-partition it wasn’t too bad. Once it was all done, I booted into Arch for the first time, and… nothing. No graphics to speak of. I did expect this, given Arch’s reputation as a stripped down lightweight distribution, so I wasn’t deterred. I decided I might as well go for Gnome this time (as I went for KDE on the last installation I performed, a copy of Kubuntu for my main machine), so I checked out the Arch wiki (which Josh assured me was swell) and followed the instructions, most of which involved downloading and installing new packages via the package manager, cunningly named pacman, and editing text files. Arch, it seemed, was very much a give-you-the-tools-and-stand-back kind of distribution, trusting its users to know well enough how most parst of the whole worked, and providing sensible defaults for those they didn’t.
Now that I had some graphics, I decided I wanted to install some programs – chrome, gnome-do, maybe even something fancy like Wine or Open Office. As I had yaourt installed, finding each package was pretty simple: “yaourt chrome… yaourt wine… yaourt gnome-do.” The actual installation though, was quite different again from *buntu. Instead of getting on with it, for each package it kept asking me things. “Do you want to edit the file? Do you want to keep going? Oooh, what’s this..?” For simple packages it wasn’t too bad, but then I tried installing the new Gnome shell… I got about 20 prompts, then gave up.
I asked Josh if there was a way to just say, “Yes, I accept”? He told me about yaourt –noconfirm, which did the trick, but as the installer ticked away at the gnome shell, he started to look worried. “This might mess up your whole computer”, he warned. I didn’t want to see the gnome shell that badly, so I canceled it. A project for another day, I reckoned. Later, I learned that it’s a bad idea to be using noconfirm on AUR packages, as they’re community-generated and could potentially screw up the system, through accidental or malicious means. Next time, I will tread more carefully.
Looking back over the past few days, it seems Arch Linux is best used by the power users amongst us, who really do want that extra speed and extreme customization afforded from being able to modify package files as you drop them into the system. I do like the size and the manner in which its packages are handled; it does seem years ahead of apt-get as you can see how many users are using a given package and their comments on it right in the package manager. The rolling release cycle also means that you’ll always have the latest versions of your favourite software too, so it really fits users and developers on the bleeding edge. Linux newbies might get cut though, so probably not the best distribution to start. Either way, I’ve having a lot of fun with it and it’ll definitely remain in my Virtual Box for the time being.
Those have been my thoughts… What do you think about Arch? What are its greatest strengths and weaknesses; can it be used by newer users or is it best left to the professionals?
Next week on Linux Distro Madness, Crunchbang Linux.