February 18, 2005

My workstation OS: Arch Linux

Author: Thomas Niklas Moran

I started using Linux when SUSE Linux 6.1 came out. I've fiddled with Corel Linux, Mandrake, Turbolinux, and Slackware 9.0, but since I came across Arch Linux 0.7, a.k.a. "Wombat," I've become an avid convert.

I use my computer for school work and gaming. I run the pretty standard KDE 3.3.2 desktop with KOffice 1.3.5, OpenOffice.org 1.1.3, and Firefox 1.0 for Web browsing, and I sometimes play some Enemy Territory or Quake 3. I am a little obsessed with updating my software, but don't necessarily have time to deal with CVS builds or doing beta builds from source. So I wanted a distro that keeps up-to-date, does not patch the packages, stays simple, and is fast. Arch does all of those things.

Arch Linux might be considered a cross between Slackware and Gentoo. It maintains the simplicity and stability of Slackware (not as stringent perhaps as Slackware but stable nonetheless) and the speed of Gentoo.

The philosophy of Arch is to let people have as much control over their system as possible. Nothing is on unless you turn it on. This means that a base install of Arch is very fast. On top of that the boot scripts are very simple, making them easy to edit. The philosophy is evident in Arch's hardware detection tool, hwd. The tool gives information that lets users set up their computers manually, but does not change the system configuration.

While distros such as Slackware and Debian have a much bigger package list, Arch's list is growing daily and is catching up. Arch's package manager Pacman, despite being young, is already quite capable. It checks dependencies and can be set to retrieve packages from "current" so that you can stay up-to-date. It is to certain degree like swaret, the updating tool for Slackware that I used often, but I found that large package sets such as KDE had trouble being upgraded by swaret. The other nice thing is that the packages provided are not patched in any way and are "i686-optimized." Things are put where they should be and, as a result, are easy to find. I used to have to hunt around for a missing library or ask myself why x didn't work, but no longer. Installing plug-ins in Firefox is a good example. I often have other people, unfortunate souls who use Windows XP and Microsoft Word, come to use my printer. Now when they try to download their word document from their webmail, Firefox snaps into action and recognizes that the document probably should be opened with OpenOffice.org, and does so. It's the little things that count.

I was relieved to find that Arch follows in Slackware's footsteps in putting configuration files in places where you can find them. Startup scripts are in /etc/rc.d/. The only difference is that Arch makes a symbolic link to /dev/hda6 as dev/discs/disc0/part6. The naming convention is probably useful if one has many devices plugged in.

Although small, the Arch community is blossoming, and sites such as the Arch Linux Wiki give useful, current information to the user. "How do I get started with Reiser4?" I recently asked. I found a page on the Wiki that provided a detailed guide on how to do it in Arch.

Arch is definitely not for beginners. If editing text files and using the command line are not your idea of fun, then Arch is not for you. That being said, updating is so easy and free from problems that if you were to give a novice a properly set up Arch install and teach him how to update it, everything would run smoothly. So really the audience for Arch is people who like total control but do not have the time to compile all the packages by hand.

Arch is a very capable distro. If you want a fast, lightweight distro that puts you in the driver's seat, Arch is your best bet.

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