ArchLinux — smooth and cuddly

[ Friday, 4 May 2007, riklaunim ]


ArchLinux or Arch for short is one of the uprising new distributions. Well, at least compared to old folks like Debian or Slackware it’s still fresh and shining :) . Arch is gaining new users and good reviews every day. Let’s find out why this is happening.

The fun starts here

Arch is a rolling-release distro which means that the repositories are updated regularly and not in a few month cycle like Fedora or Ubuntu. New releases just update the install CDs with recent packages, but the distribution is evolving constantly regardless the releases. In order to install ArchLinux we can use three different ISO images:

  • ftp allows a direct install from repositories, so we have to have a good Internet connection,
  • base contains core packages on the CD allowing a basic install (we get the text mode as a result)
  • full contains more packages, including X.org a some lighter window managers.

I personally recommend ftp or base options as full becomes outdated very fast.

Arch installation is performed by a text/curses based installer which is divided into few parts: partitioning and partitions selection, selecting and installing packages and the kernel and, at the end, configuring the system and installing Grub (the boot manager). The installer requires that you read the docs before the actual installation (unless you are Linus or alike ;) ).

What’s under the arch?

I performed a base install of Arch x86_64 and I got a basic system where I could install everything I wanted later on. I used the opportunity to test kdemod from a fresh install, so I’ve added extra repository in Pacman configuration and started the installation of packages. In my case:

pacman -S kdemod-kdebase kdemod-kde-i18n-pl kdemod-kdebase-kicker kdemod-kdegraphics-kolourpaint kdemod-kdegraphics-kpdf kdemod-kdegraphics-ksnapshot kdemod-kdemultimedia-base kdemod-kdenetwork-kget kdemod-kdeutils-ark xf86-video-sis ttf-dejavu kaffeine gwenview

This resulted in downloading about 160 MB of packages. Update of the core system and installation of kdemod went smoothly. I’ve reused xorg.conf from by existing Gentoo system (oh well…) and booted into KDE with kdemod patches. I’ve noticed no icon for the openSuSE-like KMenu (but it was there). The menu may look nice but for me the original menu is faster and easier to use. In the openSuSE type I had to make a few clicks to get to the application I wanted to launch.

KDE kdemod
Pic. 1 KDE kdemod after start with openSuSE KMenu

As I used ADSL network connection at the time of testing Arch I just reused my /etc/ppp config and firmware from Gentoo, reloaded ueagle-atm module, loaded pppoatm and ADSL worked :) . Arch configuration is easy and doesn’t require any super special config centres. Most of the settings are located in /etc/rc.conf.

So, next used Pacman, the package manager to install e17 snapshot and XFCE4 to see how they look and work under Arch.

Pacman in action
Pic. 2 Installing packages is very easy

Installation XFCE
Pic. 3 Pacman is busy downloading so I’ll just read something…

xfce4
Pic. 4 XFCE 4 in action :)

e17
Pic. 5 AlwaysAlfa-e17 is indeed in alfa stage. The menu has links to non-existing applications.

Arch is flexible — there is no default window manager or applications. You choose what you want. There is no problem with KDE, GNOME, XFCE or other window managers, everyone will find his favorite applications. This is one of advantages that lead advanced Linux users to such distributions. The second one is the package manager. Pacman and the config file(s) are the art of (functional) simplicity.

Houston, we have a problem

Every OS has bugs, especially one of them… But returning to Arch. I don’t like the kernel update system at all. It creates the initrd on the fly and if you have something wrong with the config you may end up with a kernel panic. As uncle Google shows, this isn’t a minor problem ;) It happens as they say. It can be easily fixed but such a complicated system looks like it wasn’t designed for the simplicity of Arch. The next surprise was the naming of my partitions. Old kernel ATA drivers use hda* while new ones in Arch use sda* — not a bug, just a “surprise”.

Arch versus Gentoo

On the ArchLinux forums Gentoo is quite a popular word :) — there are comparisons, distro speed wars and so on. Both distributions are good for me because they use a rolling release type. Arch allows you to set up a full system in about 15 minutes, whereas Gentoo system needs more time, care and love. The difference is in package management — Gentoo has portage with bigger collection of software and USE Flags which allow us to drop features that are not needed. Gentoo also has split KDE ebuilds (which I use and like). No more kdegames for kdeaddons dependencies. Arch is simple and powerful. Gentoo is better for more addicted Linux followers :)

Arch versus Frugalware

Frugalware is a bit like Slackware (similar config) with Pacman manager. Frugal has bigger repositories but it likes to behave in a very odd way as no other distro does. As for the packages. Arch has AUR repository where users share their pkgbulds (which may be broken or old). In Frugalware all frugabulds are send to the developers and if they are OK they go to the main repositories and they are managed by the devs. For me the Frugalware solution is better than AUR/community (at least more packages should go from those two to the base repositories). As for configuration Frugalware has many files which you have to know of. Arch has most of the configs in one file and you don’t have to jump between different /etc files to configure everything (Note: Frugalware has also a curses config tools which cover most of the settings). And last — the repositories. Frugalware has two types – “stable” which is updated from release to release and rolling “testing” which is updated regularly, but it’s “more testing” than arch base repositories.

Wishlist

As usually, here is my wishlist — the things that annoy me, but it may be only me so don’t take it personally :D :

  • More “stable” updates — it breaks rarely now but it still does happen.
  • Alternative split KDE and other applications (for example things like GNOME-python if someone doesn’t use GNOME and plays with pyGTK)
  • As for the 64 bit version — 32bit codecs + mplayer, wine, opera could be useful

Conclusion

Arch is a very good distribution for all hackers, terrorists and even regular users who want to learn a bit more of Linux. Arch was my third distro which I used regularly (SuSE -> old MEPIS -> Arch/Gentoo) and I still like it and use it from time to time (with Gentoo onboard as well, of course ;) ).

About the Author

Piotr Maliński

Programmer, journalist. Creator of the CMS, Linux and PHP libraries. Arch Linux/Gentoo user. Creator of a GNU/Linux distribution based on Gentoo: Plusiaczek Live CD.

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