Speaking for myself – although I doubt I'm alone – when I am thinking about switching distros, I like to know what the support is like. I typically look for two things: installation documentation and forums. This is important – I recall spending ages deliberating over whether to install SimplyMepis because its documentation was so sparse. The ArchLinux Installation Guide was a decent guide. I imagine its difficult to get the balance right between providing all the information you could possibly require, verses the need to make it actually readable! I was impressed on how good a job the documenters had done producing a relatively concise guide covering a lot of detail (32 pages if printed compared to Gentoo's 113!). Perhaps they were lucky in being able to expect a high level of competency from their readers. The guide could be even shorter as in my opinion the introduction to compiling your own packages using the Arch Build System doesn't really need to be included with installation material. This could easily be made into a separate document.
The forums are very good. At the time of writing there are almost 2800 registered users who have read/contributed to some 58,000 articles. The groups are divided into 4 main sections: General for security advisories, announcements and off-topic discussions; Arch Linux section has the typical boards for installation, Arch Linux general discussion, desktop environments, etc; A Pacman section for boards discussing how to make packages, package requests, etc; and finally a general GNU/Linux section for general Linux discussion. I must admit, I think the boards could be tweaked a bit, for example I have already made a request for a multimedia board since non-hardware related sound/video issues are scattered around in Installation or Workstation User boards – whatever that means. That aside, the forums are now well packed with a wealth of information which should answer most questions already.
There is an additional wiki which I used frequently during the post-install period as it provides lots of handy guides on how to get most aspects of your system up and running, such as X, window managers, sound, compiling your own kernel, etc. There is a general discussion mailing-list, which is archived. There are ArchLinux channels on IRC (in 4 languages) and finally a weekly newsletter to keep you up-to-date with the latest news.“Competence” paradox
When I started using Linux I initially found it difficult. The only way to become knowledgeable was to study the man pages, but the only way you could understand them was to be knowledgeable! And perhaps this 'chicken or egg' situation arises here with ArchLinux (and any distro that expects experienced users).
One thing I think ArchLinux needs to do is spend a bit of time defining what they mean by a “competent linux user”. I would not consider myself as such, but do I become competent by starting off with Linspire, then Knoppix, then Suse and slowly keep graduating towards more 'serious' distributions? Or do you just jump in to the deep end, and get straight on with learning about partitioning, bootloaders and kernels?
It's at this point that I find myself confused as to whether I wholeheartedly support the ArchWay. Let me first start by saying that I do admire ArchLinux. It's not trying to be the perfect distro that appeals to everyone. It's not trying to be the #1 most popular system. It is the result of a dedicated team working from scratch to make their ideal system.
Yet, ArchLinux will always have a get-out clause should users ever have difficulties/issues, e.g., automatic upgrading of kernels. The competence prerequisite means that users have to deal with it themselves, because they're competent, right? I think I'd be happier if the ArchWay was (openly) a little more encouraging towards helping novice users become “competent”, rather than the less appealing 'come back when you're more experienced' vibe that it still gives out.Conclusion
So after that install-athon, what is ArchLinux like to use? And is it worth all the hassle? Well, from my experience, ArchLinux is fantastic! It's streamlined, it's fast and it's robust. If you think about it, most Linux distros are essentially the same core components/libraries/tools and applications. What differentiates distros is how easy it is to get those bits onto your hardware, and then how to maintain and extend your system from then on. And it's the latter where ArchLinux exceeds. Installing new packages is a doddle and takes very little time.
Naturally, the ArchLinux system install will be off-putting to those new to Linux. But, in many respects, despite using Linux for many years, until I took the plunge with Gentoo last year, I was new to installing Linux without the safety net of a GUI installer doing most of the leg-work. I personally found it not to be too difficult at all – providing you follow the documentation. The likes of Fedora/Suse/Xandros are always working towards making Linux simpler, (which is not a bad thing) but it's very unlikely that a similar trend will grip ArchLinux development. It's not anti-GUI per se, merely anti- anything that takes too much control away from the user, and I dare say that this will be their philosophy for a long time.
At the end of the day, the ArchLinux developers have produced a system that I really enjoy. It all works! The package management is simple yet effective. The community is friendly and knowledgeable. I do hope to learn more about Linux and I like that ArchLinux effectively forces me to learn.About the author
Andrew Roberts is a computer science graduate from the University of Leeds, UK. He remained at Leeds to study further towards a PhD in Natural Language Processing. He has been using Linux for almost 8 years.
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