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Distro Testing

In answer to some questions about possible Arch replacements, here is what I’ve been up to.

I’ve been gradually experimenting with both FreeBSD and Gentoo. I have some extra partitions I use to test new setups, so I can take my time and always boot back into my primary partition when I’ve had enough. I highly recommend this approach, especially with distros like these.

FreeBSD is pretty slick package-wise – can install from source (ports) or packages. Reminds me of Arch in many ways, and was one of the inspirations for Arch’s design. But it isn’t Linux, even though it can run most Linux software – there are some differences, particularly the filesystems. But nothing huge and it’s well documented. It’s still a candidate for me. I got X, Openbox, and Firefox running without much trouble. I am next getting ready to try my printer with it, which is non-trivial.

Gentoo is also Arch-like, but seems to require a little more finesse. Because everything is built from source, you have to set ‘USE flags’ which tell it what you do and do not want/have on your system. It’s a little confusing determining what USE flags to use, but you pick it up as you go. The handbook resembles the Arch wiki, although it’s more out of date in some places. Mostly I have been very successful thus far – I got X, Openbox and Firefox running in about a day without any major hassles. Security seems very good and they have regular updates. Everything compiles from source, so it takes more time, but since I run a light Openbox desktop, it wasn’t bad. X and Openbox downloaded and compiled in under 10 minutes each, and Firefox (known as one of the larger builds) took about 20 minutes (including download on my connection, which isn’t blazing fast).

The biggest challenge for me is usually my Brother laser printer/scanner, which uses a binary blob in the driver. It’s also a 32 bit blob, and I run 64 bit. Still working on that when I have the time free. Gentoo won’t run it at present – I think I’ll need to try their forums to get a solution. I think it’s doable.

Other distros that interest me but which I haven’t tried yet include:

Slackware – Not as up to date as Arch, but is supposed to be quite vanilla and stable – Linux the old-fashioned way. Has many devoted fans. KDE by default, but you can do a minimal install and put on what you want. If you don’t need bleeding edge and don’t mind compiling some things from source (their repos aren’t as thorough), I think this has good potential to Arch users, who will know how to handle it under the hood.

Aptosid – Debian’s bleeding-edge, which is supposed to be quite stable. Packages are also supposed to be more vanilla than Debian/Ubuntu (where they mod and usually break things), but there are still some mods. Looks promising though – one Arch user told me I would love it but miss the AUR.

All of these are rolling release (except Slackware), can be minimal, and have good security protocols. Of course every distro has its plusses and minuses. Arch’s package system + AUR is very convenient – the devs put a lot of work into making it rolling release and fairly stable, dealing with the library versions, etc, so we don’t have to. Except for some of the Arch-derived distros (some of which use pacman or a modified version of pacman), I don’t think you’ll find anything just like Arch in that area. But Gentoo has advantages too. You build your own kernel in Gentoo (pretty easy), so that opens up promising opportunities. I like what I see, and if I can get my printer happy, I think it could grow on me. I’ve learned a lot from Gentoo already that I never learned on Arch – the setup procedure is a neat experience. FreeBSD also has advantages – I think the kernel is more secure as is the system overall, lots of software available as both source and binary, and BSD is a new world to explore. It’s growing in the desktop area.

There’s nothing like experimenting and trying a few of these out for yourself, even if you don’t stick with them. More to come…

UPDATE: Also now on my list: Gnuffy. Also, Gentoo may suffer some of the same security ills as Arch according to some of the comments to the LWN article on Arch Linux.

UPDATE 2: My Move From Arch To Aptosid

(Also, for those interested, I contributed a brief review of Arch Linux to LinuxQuestions.)

March 18, 2011 - Posted by | Tips


  1. I don’t know how old you are, but it’s interesting to see your reasoning about distributions. A few notes:

    – I’ve nothing bad to say about Gentoo, and what I here write isn’t criticism, still it becomes a coincidence that the Gentoo community went through really rough times not so long ago. I would even say that it took bigger proportions, since the conflict was quite deep among developers.

    – Slackware was my first distribution, and I still have a sweat spot for it. In view of its long history and wide adoption Slackware is however more of one man than any other distribution. If something isn’t approved by Patrick Volkerding it doesn’t become part of Slackware, accept or leave. It’s a perfectly fine model, and has protected the basic ideas of Slackware well.

    – BSD distributions have a different development philosophy with several advantages. I suspect however that the kind of liberal openness toward suggestions from all directions – that’s the way I interpret your philosophy – won’t be approved. BSD distributions are stricter and move cautiously ahead.

    Personally I like them all, even though Arch fits me better at the moment. I’m not so sure however that you’ll become a happy camper in any of them, unless you change your approach a bit.

    A tip about the review: it’s not really a review but some kind of summery. You also do good in re-evaluating the balance between subjective opinions and what’s informal. I’m trying to look at it as if I’m not an Arch user, which in a sense is impossible for a human, but I still can’t read it without distinguishing personal disgruntle. You probably should first of question whether you’re in a state to write a proper review at the moment. The risk now is that it all become another, but external, blog post.

    Maybe unintentional, but you contradict previous blog posts and comments by as criticism write that the forum is “a very serious corporate-like environment”. Excluding the emotional beginning, I didn’t really get what was bad about the forum being “a very serious corporate-like environment”; is that by definition bad? I doubt I look for a cosy social atmosphere when troubleshooting a malfunctioning network. So in this regard you should first of all ask yourself: do I see a Linux distribution as a technical tool or also a part of my social needs? Depending on the answer certain forums will suit you better than others. This has nothing to do with bad or good, but personal taste. I’m pleased that there are more social forums for the ones looking for such ones.

    Another interesting passage is about developers, when you write “in some cases their way is great, in others not”. Wouldn’t it be possible to say the same about the “dictatorship” of Slackware? If you’re a person who likes to get involved and change stuff, then depending on your willingness to yield, there’s a great risk you run into the same conclusion; it’s bad for your ambitions but good for its sustainability. Could that be true about Arch? It’s not a new distribution, and it has never tried to attract big numbers of users, and still it’s one of the strongest none corporate distributions out there. Arch if of course not perfect, has several flaws, but it still makes you wonder if such harsh criticism of it is justified.

    Comment by KimTjik | March 18, 2011

  2. I use and highly recommend Slackware.
    Its -current development tree is the most stable and reliable rolling release you’ll ever use ;)

    Comment by chris | March 19, 2011

    • Thanks good to know. I’ve been impressed with the way long-time users speak of Slackware – I know that means something is done well there. I look forward to trying it out.

      Comment by igurublog | March 20, 2011

      • Slackware was and is a very good distribution. Notice though that it’s a totally different beast though, in that Slackware by itself doesn’t provide a framework for a community. You find however independent forums for Slackware users. Hence there’s a big difference between for example Arch and Slackware. Slackware is made for Patrick Volkerding, and the result is gratiously shared with others; Arch is made for its evolving group of contributers and the result is gratiously shared with others.

        In a sense Slackware has a more stable organisational structure as long as no unforeseen misfortune occur. Arch has a more open organisational structure with boarders you describe as a “corporate-like environment”, a space for manoeuvring that by its nature might lead to more conflicts. On the other hand there’s another side of the coin…

        In view of that I think Slackware fits you better; boarders are set and there’s nothing to really discuss (no irony or sarcasm). As I already wrote I’ve a sweet spot for Slackware.

        Comment by KimTjik | March 20, 2011

        • I think you’re being pretty generous toward Arch’s open structure – I don’t find it to be much of an open dev community at all. Arch’s ‘owner’ is Aaron Griffin – he decides what changes are made and what developers are used.

          I don’t really have a problem with the BD (benevolent dictator) model if the BD has a bit of common sense (like signing packages). It’s a take it or leave it proposition – Slackware and Arch are both BD, only Arch pretends to be something its not in this regard, and its leadership is out to lunch. No responsible leadership would have left user security hanging like this for years (and don’t tell me it’s a lack of contributors again – I’ve already covered that in detail and that’s not it.)

          Nor am I usually interested in fundamentally changing a distro – I’m just a user for the most part. This only arose with Arch because of their blatant stupidity and disregard for users security. However since trying to work with the Arch devs, I see it’s not feasible (and other devs have related similar encounters to me).

          I’m more of maverick – I don’t enjoy working on projects with others for the most part. It slows me down and involves too many hassles. But I’m also not working on huge projects – sometimes that level of structure and teamwork is required. I have little patience for the politics, BS and endless talk-not-action. As with paccheck, I’m more inclined to just get the job done with whatever scraps are available.

          I also find that the most valuable contributions at least start as one man projects, like Linux itself. Committees usually can’t get much accomplished. They are good at maintaining the status quo for long periods of time (because they work so slowly and resist change). Sometimes that is valuable, unless changes are indicated, then it is detrimental.

          Comment by igurublog | March 20, 2011

          • I’ve no reason to be generous, but I’ve seen over the years how new members gradually have taking on more responsibilities and some becoming developers. The difference about how Slackware by choice doesn’t provide a framework for a community and how Arch does is a fact, independent of our differences in opinions. You could even say Slackware is even more corporate since it directly direct users to professional company support. Arch might have a more corporate-like environment, but I think this is an inevitable result of how many of its users are working in some kind of IT-related profession.

            I actually think you’ve reached a dead end. You honestly admit that working on projects with others isn’t your cup of tea. That combined with little patience doesn’t make up for an ideal combination if you wish to cooperate with a team of developers. Why not focus on stuff that suits you better, like projects manageable by you alone or as a hired worker for a specific task? Nothing wrong with that, and it might allow you to maximise both productivity and well being during work.

            Don’t forget that Arch soon reaches its 10th anniversary. I started to use Arch while its lead developer was Judd Vinet, who’s also its founder.

            Some few new users made a lot of fuzz some years ago about why Arch doesn’t change its minimalistic approach. When as a response it was stated that Arch isn’t a democracy some of these critics went bananas; I remember especially one who seemed to for some years take any chance to publicise his anger about this not-a-democracy-idea. Developers have changed, users have changed, but it’s still here. What’s change, in my opinion as a long-time user of Arch, isn’t a decline within the community with its developers, but how the workload has increased since the Arch community has increased significantly in recent years and also because of development of Linux software has been speeded up and grown.

            Sure, developers are moderate in making suggestions about new developers, but that can also be interpreted as a struggle to maintain sustainability. My conclusion is that Arch has proved to have at least some qualities that protect it during progress. In view of the challenge a lot of things have to be right, while there always will be room for progress. Maybe it’s time to appreciate that some have the ability to “work on projects with others”?

            Comment by KimTjik | March 20, 2011

  3. KimTjik indeed has a point about Slackware. Those things can often be very irritating.
    I find it good for my own sanity to dual boot Slackware with another distribution. Slackware is not perfect & certainly not for everyone. But IMO its the most reliable OS there is. Full stop. I suggest you read http://www.linuxquestions.org/linux/articles/Opinion/WHY_SLACKWARE_WILL_ALWAYS_MATTER

    Comment by chris | March 20, 2011

  4. TOPIC: “Distro Testing”
    I’ve been following the “Arch plight” for a while now and have also tested other distros due to this and various other reasons. I can say that I sympathize with you on a lot of aspects, also slightly disgusted at how you’ve been treated, though I can say you seem to be pushing the issue at every corner but I understand why. Regardless, my own distro hopping has led me to a few places: I tried (in order) CRUX Linux, Slackware, Lunar Linux, SourceMage GNU Linux, and Gentoo. I won’t go over my opinion of each of them in detail, just Gentoo, as I have to say Gentoo is extremely nice compared to the others IMHO. With regards to Arch; I found myself compiling most packages with the ABS due to[, and not limited to,] security reasons; also because I didn’t like most of the default package configurations and dependencies. This is one field Gentoo seems to excel; USE flags. I was able to set up a basically complete system (compared to my Arch) in as little as a day, with the exception of SBCL (which I have troubles compiling even on Arch), with only the depencies and options I needed/desired.

    I am also quite enamored with Gentoo’s `emerge’, and the gentoolkit, also the package.use, package.keywords (etc.) files for extra tweaks and version freezing. Although I can say I found it all a little disconnected, especially getting information for packages as far as searching installed, looking for details, dependencies, etc, and realized I needed to use `qdepends’ and `equery` instead of `emerge` for some things– this is where `pacman’ seems more appealing. I still like Arch Linux a lot but feel I have to go out of my way to get things the way I want, also the package signing (but don’t wish to argue this point with anyone), and realize it just makes more sense for me to be on a source-based distro, even if I do dislike Gentoo’s ebuilds right now, compared to PKGBUILDs, but I’m sure the more I deal with them the more I’ll be willing to appreicate them in regards to how they’re set up. One thing I can say is that Arch’s package versions are definitely newer than Gentoo’s, which is what got me into messing with their ebuilds in the first place. This is one aspect of Arch I really like; the rolling release.

    Anyway, not trying to rant (even though I know I am), just wanted to share that you’re not the only one looking for alternatives (for various reasons). I do really like Arch and have learned a lot setting up my various Arch boxes, also thoroughly enjoying the Wiki pages, but I’m also the rightfully paranoid, need-to-cover-all-the-bases, know-and-protect-my-system-inside-out-and-remotely type and with Arch I feel I cannot achieve that [right now]. Arch, to me, seems like an all-in-one package-manager revolving around a hard-working packaging team. While I applaud and enjoy the speed of package relases (and accompanying PKGBUILDs), I feel there’s a lot to be desired. Gnuffy seems to address some of these issue (as they seem to have some good ideas and improvements, also USE flags??), so if I am to stay with Arch I may have to go for Gnuffy for now. As a side note, and it may be just me, but I could never get their website to load. I disabled iptables, privoxy, dnsmasq, nfblockd, etc, also using different agents such as wget, curl, gecko or webkit but could never get it to load. Maybe I’ll ask on #gnuffy about that. I was interested, specifically, in the Arch2Gnuffy script. Anyway, that’s it for now and I apologize if it seemed disconnected and ill-founded, just wanted to share.

    Comment by mouse | March 22, 2011

    • Hi mouse, I really appreciate your detailed report on your experiences. I think Arch users feel pretty comfortable on Gentoo – I know I did. There are certainly some differences but the approach seems similar. I haven’t had a chance to work with Gentoo further, but if I can get my printer driver happy with it (my next task) I may end up there as my primary distro. The USE flags were challenging for me a bit, maybe because I have an atypical system, but I suppose atypical is typical for Gentoo. It looks promising in many aspects. They also certainly seem to have a good security team, and I like the way emerge gives you little news bulletins – very smart.

      Odd you can’t reach Gnuffy’s Wiki – maybe try a proxy. My posts probably raised the traffic there a bit but it should settle down, if that was the cause. The Arch2Gnuffy script is here.

      Yeah I do tend to push the issue of Arch’s security, because now I feel irresponsible if I mention Arch without detailing the problem, partly because I have lauded Arch in the past and encouraged people to use it. This is especially true because the forum censors info on the issue.

      I just got word from a large Linux news organization that they’re doing a story on Arch’s security problems for their next issue. If they give me the okay to post advance notice I’ll put a post up with details, or otherwise I will do so when it’s published (later this week I think). At least people are becoming more aware of the issue, which I think is for the best. It’s one thing to choose Arch knowing this, another to be left in the dark.

      Thanks again.

      Comment by igurublog | March 22, 2011

      • “At least people are becoming more aware of the issue, which I think is for the best.”

        This is the part I never understood in your blog. I’ve known and so have others for years. Nobody dropped a bomb, as if this was big news, or a surprise.

        Furthermore it’s not a secret either that despite signing you have a risk of mirrors getting high jacked. In that case signing only serves as false comfort.

        No argument that signing should and will be part of Arch’ package management, but it’s for sure not a surprise for me and probably most, if not all, long-time users. Discussions were never a problem until some decided that this matter deserved a Desert Storm II.

        Comment by KimTjik | March 22, 2011

  5. Quote:”This is the part I never understood in your blog. I’ve known and so have others for years. Nobody dropped a bomb, as if this was big news, or a surprise.”
    Strange that people take their own experience a standard. I had been using Arch for a year without knowing this and discovered thanks to IG posts. This should be great on the Arch Beginnersguide, Distro’s compared, and echt relevant security page and have a wiki page on its own just to explaning the workings , implications and dangers because of package singing.
    I only found it in basic pages between other mockery arguments against installing Arch on the FAQ page, but no link provided to where it all about.

    Comment by Pablo | March 29, 2011

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