Life on the cutting edge – ArchLinux
October 10, 2008 42 Comments
After a few months of using it, I finally feel I am confident enough to write a piece about one of the best, and I MEAN best, linux distros ever, archlinux. This distro is rather unique, and several things in it make it the ideal distro for the intermediate level linux user. The following is in no way a review or tutorial about arch, THAT part would need another post. Currently, I am focusing on its importance as a distro for the intermediate linux user.
Archlinux has been optimised for i686 architecture to a very high extent. All modern 32bit capable standard x86 CPUs support i686. This is right from the old Pentium Pro CPUs to the new Nehalems. Its also optimised for modern AMD CPUs. For those who need a 64bit distro, there is an x86_64 (commonly known as amd64) variant for archlinux.
Unlike arch, most common distros are designed for i386, i486 or i586 architectures, which are architectures very few existing systems use and are long obsolete. So Arch’s i686 optimisation carries with it several speed boosts, and reviews commonly go that next to Gentoo and CRUX, arch is the fastest distro around.
Arch supports x86_64, which its original inspiration, CRUX, does not. And this makes arch the fastest binary amd64 distro available. Though arch does not boast of a very strong team of developers which large distros like SuSE, Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, etc boast of, its partial geeky nature ensures that a good amount of its users DO use x86_64 seriously. Thus, it happens to be one of the better supported x86_64 distros.
BSD style init framework with rc.conf
Archlinux follows the BSD concept of different init runlevels defined in inittab. It also follows the BSD style configuration concept using .rc fines. The difference here is that arch uses a single rc.conf ALL major system level configurations. This results in simplicity and ease of use. A single text file with a few sections and lots of easy to understand comments can be highly helpful for an intermediate linux user.
High level of documentation
Archlinux has everything well documented. Its wiki is neat and clean, and questions can be asked in its forums or its IRC channel, #archlinux at chat.freenode.net. All its documentation is simple and elegant. For most tasks, there is a simple solution in archlinux. Not just external documentation, internal documentation in man pages and different text files for configuring arch is also vast and easy to use. This results in the next point, ease of use of commandline in archlinux.
Stress on commandline – text mode can actually be easier
One major flaw of newbie distros like ubuntu and opensuse is that they try to deny the existence of a strong commandline in linux. Configuring ubuntu via commandline is a painful task indeed for many novice users. On the other hand, the very nature of archlinux and its doccumentation, along with its install procedure make configuring arch via commandline a breeze. I originally wished for GUI tools when I was considering installing archlinux, but believe me, commandline on arch is AWSSOME. The fact that everything is centrally configured in rc.conf, and there are only a few other files that need configuring makes things even better.
Archlinux has a wonderful exclusive DE based on KDE. Its called KDEmod. Its compiled against an enhanced version of QT, and is quite modular. Currently its based on KDE4 series along with normal KDE, KDEmod is quite quick and zippy compared to classic KDE. Its even faster than Gnome. KDE’s overall neat interface and ease of use coupled with speed boosts from QTmod and archlinux make KDEmod one of the best DEs.
EDIT: Due to recent changes in KDE4 series, the performance difference between KDE4.2 and KDEmod4.2 is next to zero and even QTmod isn’t needed due to an upgraded Qt. And KDEmod 4.2 wouldn’t run on 256MB RAM anyway – it needs atleast 384MB ram for normal running, 512MB for multitasking and 1GB recommended as a minimum if you don’t EVER want to feel that the amount of RAM is less. So people with 256MB RAM are best left with KDEmod 3.5.9 – its much faster than gnome on such systems. Its also fully feature rich and is available as KDEmod-legacy. So in a nutshell: if you got 256MB RAM and want the power of KDE, get KDEmod 3.5.9.
Arch package manager is called pacman. Make no mistake, this is no game. Its one of the fastest package managers out there. Though I personally feel it could have used some more apt-get like features, its still too good. It has insanely fast installation speeds. I could install 700mb of gnome in less than 5 minutes. Compare this now to the 15min windows xp sp3 installation time.
Archlinux has wonderful repositories containing binaries optimised for i686 or x86_64 architecture. You can find most common software here, and they are all pre-compiled for you and compiling again makes no difference since they are already highly optimised for your architecture.
AUR and ABS
Ah… the one thing that stands out here is AUR, or arch user repository. You can install any software in arch with ease, even if its not present in arch repositories. Its because of AUR, where users can submit their own install scripts for misc. software. Before I say how this works, I need to talk about ABS, or arch build system. Its a feature which allows you to run PKGBUILD scripts to compile software. Everything, including dependencies, is taken care of in this script and hence you need to do next to nothing to install a software via compilation. Now AUR hosts lots of these compile scripts. They often contain link to the sourceforge page of the software from where there is a download link to the source tarball, so that this too is taken care of by the PKGBUILD script. You get a binary pacman package in the end, which can be installed the usual way via pacman.
This is an awesome pacman frontend, which has in built support for AUR. So you can install software from aur here directly without visiting AUR website. Its one of the most awesome piece of archlinux exclusive software available.
But personally speaking, getting stuff from AUR can also be fun sometimes. Yaourt is one of those apps which please many (Its especially useful for those who don’t have X and find browsing through a text-browser a pain in the @$$), while others just ignore it. So use it before deciding if you want to like it or not.
An enhanced pacman front-end written in perl, powerpill is there when you need faster download speeds and multi-threaded downloads. I recommend all archlinux users to install this in their /bin directory.
Archlinux is a rolling release distro. Meaning, there are no separate “releases” in archlinux. Instead, the latest snapshot of the[core] repository is offered for download as a live CD every month, and a simple pacman -Syu command upgrades your system to the latest cutting edge software. This means that you don’t need to download and install a new ISO every few months the way you did in ubuntu or fedora or suse. Even CRUX is not rolling release. With arch’s rolling release concept, you can install the distro once, and keep it forever. There are people who installed it the moment it was released and have had it for quite a few years till date without reinstalling.
Last, but not the least, is the raw speed archlinux offers. Compared to most distros, arch is one of the fastest distros around. I recommend you use either ratpoison WM, or IceWM window manager, or Xfce4 for a DE or KDEmod for a complete DE if you want to experience arch in its full glory. Gnome should be replaced by Xfce if you want similar features but at the same time, no bloat and high speed, because that’s the arch way. Archlinux is a boon for users of older PCs like me, since its extremely fast on them. But its also awesome on new PCs, and infact, one of my friends uses arch on a Core2Quad Q6600 and is very happy with its performance.
If you have a decent amount of experience in linux, of say, 9 months to 1 year, or if you enjoy good commandline skills, and at the same time you want a distro with fast software install times and high speed and performance, archlinux is the one for you. I recommend it also for anyone who wants a distro which would help you LEARN more of linux. People who have no idea about linux but have used UNIX, Solaris, or BSD can also find arch impressive and it can teach them linux easily.
So what are you waiting for ? Head over to http://www.archlinux.org right now and download your copy today and install it. Trust me, its definitely worth it.