Arch Linux – a distribution for enthusiasts

For some time now I’ve been meaning to upgrade the system on my old and trusty IBM Thinkpad T42. It’s had Suse 9.3 on it from pretty much when I bought it about four years ago, and as that particular Suse version is no longer supported, it was effectively unable to be upgraded. For example, I couldn’t compile some software, because my gcc was too old. And upgrading gcc would have been a right royal pain. Solution – scrap the lot (after an appropriate backup) and start afresh!

Originally I intended to install OpenSuse 11.0 – I’ve been using it on my desktop at work, and it seems fine. And it’s been getting good reviews. I even bought a copy of a computer magazine, whose monthly attached DVD contained an ISO file of OpenSuse 11.0, and I burnt it to disk. However, before doing the installation, I happen to read a few more reviews, and quite a few responses to the reviews lauded a distribution – hitherto unknown to me – called Arch Linux.

So, I started checking out Arch, and from what I read, became very impressed at the idea of it. I do need a fairly lean mean system – my laptop has only 512 Mb of RAM – and most of my work consists of scientific/numerical/symbolic programming, as well as vast amounts of LaTeX.

As a brief aside, my history as a linux user is this: I started with Slackware and kernel 0.99 – those were the days when Slackware was distributed on 1.44Mb 3 1/2″ floppies (remember them?), and getting it all working – especially X – took quite a bit of effort. My first distribution with a graphical installer was Mandrake (in pre Mandriva days), and I was hooked on the simplicity of its installation – put in the CD, boot, answer a few questions and hey presto! – a fully working Linux system with all the bells and whistles. After that I had a fling for a few years with Redhat, and for a while ran a system which was a sort of Redhat/Fedora hybrid. Then I discovered Suse, and I’ve been using that – first 9.3 both at home and at work, then 10.0 and more recently 11.0 at work.

Back to Arch. What impressed me about my reading was that here was a system designed to be simple from the ground up – you installed only what you needed – and which could be as lean and mean as you liked. It had no graphical installer, and required a fair bit of tinkering with configuration files. Well, I certainly didn’t mind the idea of that, so off I went to the website, grabbed the ftp installer ISO image (only about 150 Mb) and went for it.

The installation and beginners instructions are models of their kind – clear, simple, and highly effective.

First good point: The documentation for Arch Linux (at the website) is excellent.

I commandeered a family desktop for the day, so I could have access to the Arch website while performing the installation. In fact I could have managed without this, as all the installation instruction are provided in the form of text files on the installation disk. But, hey, it was nice to be able to refer to them in all their html-ed glory. There was one hiccup: a file was written unnecessarily, which meant that initially I couldn’t install any packages. A quick question to the forums solved that little issue and I was away.

Second good point: The user forums are full of well-behaved, helpful and encouraging people.

Arch Linux works on what’s called a “rolling release” model. Rather than releasing a new version every few months or years, Arch provides for continuous upgrading, using an excellent package management tool called “pacman“.

Third good point: Pacman is everything a package manager should be – even better, in my opinion, than apt-get. Right from the very earliest stages of the installation, the user is encouraged to upgrade (using pacman) to newer versions of the software than might have been on the installation medium. This ensures that the system, once installed, is as up-to-date as possible.

Much installation requires the user to edit some configuration files, of which

/etc/rc.conf

is the most important. However, this important file is both small and easy to understand – it contains a few useful lines providing such things as the network setup, the kernel modules to be loaded, and the daemons to be run. The developers, in their wisdom, provide the option of the user choosing either vi or nano as their editor of choice during installation. In spite of my long Linux and Unix history, I’ve never got comfortable with vi, and I was delighted to have an alternative.

Within a very short time I had a basic system (without X or wireless, but with wired internet) up and running. From there it was a simple matter of carefully reading through the documentation to get X running. This was in fact not entirely trivial – I’d saved my old

xorg.conf

file from my previous system, but the file has changed considerably over the years, and I couldn’t simply drop my old file in place. So I generated a new file (using command line tools), and edited a few things by hand, using my old file as a guide. I also got wireless going without too much trouble. This was a far cry from my initial installation of Suse 9.3, which as I recall involved downloading new kernel source code, compiling it with the modules I needed, and fiddling for about a day to get wireless working.

I also decided to forgo KDE or Gnome as desktop environments, and use Xfce instead. This is a simpler, leaner, environment, and aside from the minor niggle of not allowing different background images on different workspaces, I’m very happy with it. Arch also allows you to install plenty of other window managers.

As well as the repository of packages in the pacman database – these are all packages which have been decreed safe and appropriate for all users – there is a further repository of 13258 (at last count) packages in the ArchLinux User-community Repository (AUR). These are “use at your own risk” packages, provided by users for other users. There is a tool called yaourt (Yet AnOther User Repository Tool) which is designed to simplify the installation of material from the AUR.

My first test of the system was installing Sage. This required compiling a huge amount of source code – it took my little machine about six hours – and it went without any hitches whatsoever. I was delighted.

Arch Linux is generally described by users as not being suitable for “newbies” – and it’s true that some little experience goes a long way, as well as a willingness to get your hands a bit dirty. But from my use of it over the last few weeks, I do believe that this is a distribution which has done it right.

2 thoughts on “Arch Linux – a distribution for enthusiasts

  1. I recently am using Xubuntu 8, also uses xfce, and also less packages by default for less robust systems. I grabbed Sage but yet to use, use Pari/GP mostly. New control system Linux-based, so working on enhancing skills. Have also recently messed with Python, so your comment on Sage related to that makes sense.

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