posted by Bob Minvielle on Wed 17th Jul 2002 19:18 UTC
IconThere have been many articles as of late about the so called "source" distributions of Linux. Articles about "rpm hell" and how to get out of it. While I have been using Red Rat since the first release (and do have some things for and against it) there is no distribution that will please all of the people all of the time. Then again, that is what makes an OS like Linux nice, in my opinion. Choices. Today, Gentoo Linux is my choice.

I was told some time ago of a new distribution. One unlike RedHat with its redhat package management (rpm) system. One unlike Debian with apt-get. One that takes some time to build, but is worth it. Well, as the old adage goes, hard work pays off in the end, so I decided to take Gentoo Linux for a spin and see what it was like. I will describe the install, breifly, which can take quite some time, the performance of the running system, and then contrast that slightly with ports of Gentoo.

I note first off that this distribution is not for the faint of heart, but does have some advantages (which in some cases are disadvantages) right from the get-go. The install image is small. The release I downloaded (1.0) was a scant 16MB. Now that is a small image. Those of you tired of grabbing RedHats 2 CDs or SuSes 7 might be glad to hear that, but wait. The install CD is just that, like an install floppy, it has enough to "get you going". Then the installer will download the packages it needs for your system to build itself, then after that (and a reboot) if you want any other packages you can download them also. Of course, I am leaving some things out for now, but that is the basic concept. Now onto the things I left out...

Click for a larger version
The command line Portage system and one of its GUI front ends (there are 3 GUI efforts), KPortageMaster.

Gentoo (until recently) does not install packages as one would expect (ala RedHat, Suse, etc). The install process actually grabs the latest source from the Gentoo server and builds them right on your machine. This serves many purposes, some of which are: small install disk, packages are built for the machines CPU type, the process itself takes care of dependancies, you get the latest snapshot of the tree. These few I have listed are pretty big pluses. The CPU optimization alone is a good thing. With most other distributions one has a choice of perhaps x86 compatibility or an i686 build. As noted in the preamble, this also solves the "package-dependancy-hell" problem.

The Gentoo install, for the first part, is quite envolved from the user perspective. First off the user should be familliar with installing linux and doing good old command line operations. I can see that someone following the instructions to the tee (with small amounts of intuition) should be able to install Gentoo, but if they run intro trouble, or are not familliar with say, linux networking, it could be sligltly frustrating. A running machine on the side with internet access to search or read FAQs would be a big plus for those not so familiar.

Booting the CD brings you into a running kernel, just as most other Linux installs do, but the similarity ends there. The user is dropped to a stripped shell prompt and must begin preparing the system by hand. Then they must load any kernel modules needed, startup networking, partition the drive(s), set up the partitions, format them, mount them, mount the CD, unpack the stage they want to use and whamo, they are in a small Gentoo environment!

Backing up a moment, the small install CD is sort of a "you get nothing, please build everything" distribution. It is called stage1. There are now Gentoo CDs with stage2 and stage3 tarballs. The stage2 tarball is one that has bootstrapped for you already. This takes quite some time on older machines (it took an hour and a half on a Dell Precision 330 1.4Ghz machine with 512MB ram and SCSI-U160, it takes hours and hours on say a AMD K6-200, the other x86 based machine I installed gentoo on). The stage3 tarball is one that has bootstrapped and has the snapshot of the latest portage tree. To summarize, stage1 takes the longest as the install builds everything after it grabs it, stage 2 cuts that about in half (roughly) and stage3 is basically a running system that needs to get up to date and perform a kernel compile. It is the "fastest" install type.

I will not get into the gory details of an install. The install notes for x86 based machines are pretty good, and if the person performing the isntall is slightly familiar with linux, all should go smoothly. A few personal comments about the install: Its slow, even on a "fast" machine (the 1.4Ghz machine mentioned above was a work machine, my personal machines are in the 200Mhz range, and installing gentoo on them is a war of attrition to say the least). You need a decent connection to the net, or at least to the gentoo server, if performing a install from stage1 or 2. Granted, the install is not huge like some other distros are, but the build will take a long time, and waiting 10mins to grab a big package will just add to the wait.

Keep in mind that after gentoo is installed a lot of "familiar" packages are not there. Users will have to grab what they want, somewhat like a Debian install, after completion. There are cons to this setup, but I think even the casual serious user can see the benefits of this. Nothing is there that one does not want. The user will know what is installed on the machine. It also makes it quite simple to seetup a stripped down customized server. Lightweight, and optimized for the machine, gentoo has the makings of a serious server optimized distribution.

Table of contents
  1. "Part I of the Gentoo Review"
  2. "Part II of the Gentoo Review"
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