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Arch Linux for Power Users

February 2, 2005

This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar

Since its humble beginnings in early 2002 Arch Linux has been growing in popularity, occasionally even winning over users of more popular power distributions, such as Slackware or Gentoo. What are the reasons behind its success? We installed the recently released Arch Linux 0.7 on a Pentium 4 test machine to find out.

The first point where Arch Linux is ahead of both Slackware and Gentoo is the system installer. Although similar to Slackware's own installer in that it is a curses-based, menu-driven installation program with several sub-screens for fine tuning of various installation options, we were pleasantly surprised by the number of choices the installer provided. As an example, it let us choose a preferred kernel (2.4 or 2.6), X window system (XFree86 or X.Org), boot loader (GRUB or LILO), text editor (nano or vim), and it even went as far as to provide an option to compile a custom kernel prior to completing the installation. For configuring the basic system, we were dropped right into well commented configuration files in /etc/ to make any changes (e.g. to enable networking with DHCP). The availability of choice was what made an excellent first impression; contrast that to the Slackware installer where the only available bootloader is LILO, or to Gentoo, which forces you to edit text files in nano (at least until you get to the point where you can install alternative text editors).

The recommended way of installing Arch Linux is to select a base system only for initial installation, configure it, then reboot. Additional packages can be installed later - either from the installation CD (note, however, that in terms of desktop environments, the Arch Linux installation CD only provides IceWM, WindowMaker and XFce, but no GNOME or KDE), or over the network. The tool to install packages on Arch Linux is called "pacman", written in C++.

After spending some time perusing the fairly comprehensive Arch Linux Installation Guide, we concluded that pacman, in its basic form, resembles Debian's apt-get in more than one way. With a simple 'pacman -Sy' (equivalent to 'apt-get update') we retrieved the current list of available packages from the master repository, then proceeded with installation of X.Org, followed by KDE and GNOME. If the '-S' switch (short for '--sync') is specified, pacman is capable of resolving any dependencies required by the given package(s). Therefore a simple command like 'pacman -S xorg kde gnome' was all that was needed to turn a very basic Arch Linux system into a powerful workstation with both KDE and GNOME.

Next, we went on to create an xorg.conf file with 'X -configure', then updated the ~/.xinitrc file to start KDE instead of the default WindowMaker, before we found ourselves in a pristine KDE desktop. Unlike Slackware or Gentoo, Arch Linux does include some branding on the KDE splash screen and on the default wallpaper, but the KDE theme, menu items and desktop icons are left in their default states. We noticed the absence of Firefox, so we fired up a terminal and went back to pacman (there is no graphical edition of the package installation tool). Here we used pacman's search capabilities to locate available files with commands like 'pacman -Ss firefox', then installed the packages that we wanted. Besides the usual open source software applications, we also noticed the availability of some non-free packages, such as MS TrueType fonts, NVIDIA driver, Opera and Acrobat Reader. Altogether, there are over 1,800 binary packages available in the current and extra directories on Arch Linux mirrors.

Those of you who read the Ubuntu Hoary story last week will recall our disappointment on not being able to install the beta version of OpenOffice.org 2.0. Luckily, we found this package (version 1.9.74) in the Arch's unstable directory, so we invoked pacman one more time to take a look at this preview of the much anticipated release. It installed and downloaded as expected and we were soon greeted with the OpenOffice.org 2.0 splash screen. At first glance, there are no visible changes in the user interface, but this list of new features leaves little doubt about the extent of the improvements in the open source office suite. We found the package very stable, although not much speedier than the 1.1 series. The developers of Arch Linux tend to provide other experimental packages for interested users - besides OpenOffice.org 2.0, Arch binary packages of the first beta of KDE 3.4 are now also available in a third-party repository.

Comparing this distribution to Gentoo, there is another aspect of Arch Linux that will appeal to power users - the Arch Build System (ABS). ABS was designed to fulfill a role of building Arch binary packages from source code with relative ease - either for packages that do not exist in the official Arch repositories, or to rebuild packages with custom options. This is done by modifying a pre-built template in /var/abs/PKGBUILD.proto, then executing the 'makepkg' command to build an Arch Linux binary package. The resulting file can be installed with pacman. Unlike Gentoo, however, there is no easy way to rebuild the entire system or to optimize it for the processor at hand, and currently there are no plans to support architectures other than the i686.

Arch Linux is a clean, powerful distribution. Apart from the two package management utilities of pacman and pkgbuild, the developers have resisted any temptation to implement package customizations or add new utilities. As such, the system requires a fair amount of post-install tweaking to bring it to a usable level. Security updates are handled in a style of FreeBSD's ports of constantly updating packages to their latest versions. This may occasionally break the system, but problems are usually fixed in a reasonably short time. One area where Arch Linux trails behind Gentoo is documentation; except for the two man pages for pacman and pkgbuild, the installation manual and a sparse wiki, there is little else to guide novice users to configure their Arch Linux system. On the other hand, the distribution has active user forums and mailing lists, as well as several international community sites in German, Italian and Polish.

Next time you find yourself at home during a rainy weekend, give Arch Linux a try - it is one of the more interesting and powerful dark horses among Linux distributions.

Comments (5 posted)

Distribution News

Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu has announced the creation of Local Community Teams (LoCo Teams), to promote the use, adoption, and localization of Ubuntu.

The Ubuntu development team has reached its first milestone in the production of the Live CD version of the upcoming release of Ubuntu codenamed "Hoary Hedgehog." This edition features a completely redesigned system for creating Live CDs. "While some people have tried rough previews, this is the first proper milestone for the live CD version. Anyone, especially folks who are using our previous release (4.10 "Warty Warthog"), are encouraged to try this out."

Ubuntu has issued a call for help for a new kernel team. "The Linux kernel in Ubuntu has, up until this point, been primarily maintained by a series of different individuals. As Ubuntu takes on more architectures and more users, its *needs* a solid team to help maintain this essential piece of infrastructure. Ubuntu will not be able to do this without the community's support."

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Fedora Extras available for download

The Fedora Project has announced, with apologies for the delay, that the Fedora Extras repository is now available with over 500 packages. Click below for the details.

Full Story (comments: 13)

Debian GNU/Linux

The debconf5 organization team has declared that registrations for the sixth annual Debian Conference are now open.

Another Bug Squashing Party has been proposed for February 4 - 6, 2005.

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LBA Reveals Plans For Next Linux Release

SOT Finnish Engineering Ltd has revealed plans for the next version of the Linux Business Alliance's flagship product, LBA-Linux R3. The upcoming release will include new features that focus on security and improved usability. Click below for more information.

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LACommunity goes gentoo...

Gentoo users looking for audio applications may be interested in Arnold Krille's gentoo-portage overlay. "Today I decided to make my little but constant gentoo-portage overlay available for the public. It contains only some apps not in already in portage. Currently available are aeolus-0.3.1 with aeolus-stops-0.1.1, fmit-0.9.[89], museseq-0.7.0, tuneroid-0.9.4 and (not an linux-audio-app) ktechlab-0.1.2." Click below for more information.

Full Story (comments: none)

LNA: Linux Netwosix Virtual World Community

The first Linux Netwosix Virtual World Community is born! All Netwosix users are invited to join the community. "If you have a problem with Netwosix or you just want to talk about Linux, if you want to improve our work or if you just want to help us to grew up, join the first Linux Netwosix Virtual Community at : http://www.netwosix.org/community". Click below for additional details.

Full Story (comments: none)

The Live CD List

Looking for a Live CD? The Live CD List provides a comprehensive, easy-to-search list of Linux-based Live CDs.
Quick instructions:
*click a name to be taken to the project homepage
*click a header to sort
*click a Primary Function to show only Live CDs with that Primary Function

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Announcing The Slackware Handbook Project (MadPenguin)

MadPenguin has announced the Slackware Handbook Project. "The Slackware Handbook is a project co-ordinated and hosted by Mad Penguin in an effort to keep Slackware documentation as up-to-date as possible. This is accomplished by creating a format in which the entire Slackware community can take part in the process by being capable of adding/editing content as they see fit. All of this content is also moderated by peer review system, keeping it as accurate as possible."

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Distribution Newsletters

Debian Weekly News

The Debian Weekly News for February 1, 2005 looks at DebConf registration, Debian installation in expert mode, Debian at FOSDEM, dealing with missing dependencies, library packaging guideline, the transition of MySQL related packages, how to upgrade Woody to Sarge, the new 2005 Debian archive key, and several other topics.

Full Story (comments: none)

Gentoo Weekly Newsletter

The Gentoo Weekly Newsletter for the week of January 31, 2005 is out. Topics in this edition include Trusted Gentoo, a request for EM64T developers, the release of a Gentoo/PPC GameCD, and more.

Full Story (comments: none)

Ubuntu Traffic

Two new issues of Ubuntu Traffic, a newsletter summarizing the goings-on in the Ubuntu community, are out. The Ubuntu Traffic #18 covers the week after the conference in MatarĂ³. Ubuntu Traffic #19 covers the last week of 2004.

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DistroWatch Weekly, Issue 85

Here's the DistroWatch Weekly for January 31, 2005. "Welcome to this year's 5th issue of DistroWatch Weekly! In this issue we will bring you a couple of resources that can help with building a custom live CD, introduce the Debian Volatile project, and present Xandros Desktop OS 3 as our featured distribution of the week. Happy reading!"

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Package updates

Fedora Core updates

FC3: selinux-policy-targeted-1.17.30-2.73 (allow dhcpd to read random devices), procps-3.2.3-5.1 (add support for /proc/slabinfo 2.1), system-config-kickstart-2.5.19-1.fc3 (bug fixes and improvements), elinks-0.9.2-2.1 (bug fixes prevents crashes), NetworkManager-0.3.3-1.cvs20050119.2.fc3 (bug fixes), gaim-1.1.2-0.FC3 (corrects update id), openssl096b-0.9.6b-21 (adds missing fix for CAN-2004-0081), curl-7.12.3-2 (upgrade to 7.12.3), system-config-printer-0.6.116.1-1 (bug fixes), ruby-1.8.2-1.FC3.1 (backported changes from devel), rhgb-0.16.2-1.FC3 (fixes various errors), file-4.12-1.FC3.1 (upgrade and bug fixes), net-tools-1.60-37.FC3.1 (bug fixes), gimp-2.2.3-0.fc3.2 (make desktop icon theme-able), system-config-services-0.8.18-0.fc3.1 (fix off-by-one bug), mc-4.6.1-0.12.FC3 (upgrade to mc-4.6.1-pre3 and many bug fixes), dump-0.4b39-1.FC3 (fixes for unintentional writes to target partition and other bug fixes), selinux-policy-targeted-1.17.30-2.75 (contains the SELinux example policy configuration), policycoreutils-1.18.1-2.6 (merge upstream changes), dbus-0.22-10.FC3.2 (fix for CAN-2005-0201).

FC2: procps (add support for /proc/slabinfo 2.1), elinks-0.9.1-1.1 (bug fixes prevents crashes), zlib-1.2.1.2-0.fc2 (fixes 2 DoS issues), gaim-1.1.2-0.FC2 (corrects update id), openssl096b-0.9.6b-20 (adds missing fix for CAN-2004-0081), dump-0.4b39-1.FC2 (fixes related to possible data corruption, other bug fixes).

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Mandrakelinux updates

Mandrakelinux 10.1 updates: kde (bug fixes), kdebase (fix a problem with the previous update)

Mandrakelinux 10.0, 10.1, Corporate Server 3.0 updates: nut (fixes a bug in the upsd initscript), mdkonline (fixes a permissions flaw), clamav (upgrade to clamav 0.81)

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Slackware updates

Slackware has gotten many updates, upgrades and fixes in slackware-current this week. Click below for this week's slice of the changelog.

Full Story (comments: none)

Distribution reviews

A Week in the Life of an Arch Linux Newbie (OSNews)

OS News has published a review of ArchLinux. "ArchLinux quotes itself as being "an i686-optimized linux distribution targeted at competent linux users." Part of its philosophy is that by not providing you with lots of configuration utilities, you are forced to "learn the ropes" and you will benefit from the additional knowledge acquired. A sensible approach you may think, and is fine for experienced and/or fearless techies. You know that this isn't going to be the distro to recommend to your mother! But, I wouldn't say ArchLinux is elitist as some readers may fear. Sure, you will be frowned upon (to put it mildly) if you ask questions in the forums that are blatantly answered in the main documentation. However, expecting users to actually edit the appropriate config files manually isn't a bad thing in my opinion."

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Ubuntu Linux--Would You Like Some Community With That? (LinuxPlanet)

LinuxPlanet reviews Ubuntu Linux. "This review discusses both Ubuntu 4.10 (AKA "Warty Warthog") and the upcoming 5.04 (AKA "Hoary Hedgehog") release, the latter of which is currently only available in live CD form as a preview but is slated for full release in April 2005 (hence the numbering convention--2005, fourth month). I'd suggest losing the cutesy names, but no one is asking me. Both of these are available and actively supported on the x86, AMD64, and G4 and G5 PowerPC platforms."

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