The Things We Do For Love

Posted on Wed 08 March 2006 in Dispatches • 4 min read

I haven’t posted in a few days, in part because I’ve been pretty busy, and partly because I’ve been overhauling my system with a brand new Linux distribution.

I’m now running Gentoo and I absolutely love it. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Gentoo is special flavor of Linux that gives all the control back to the user. Absolutely every detail of your environment can be optimized for your hardware and configured to your taste. In addition, Gentoo uses a brilliant and practical approach to package management: Portage. With Portage, all packages are downloaded and compiled from scratch in order to ensure compatibility with your system. Best of all, Gentoo provides an environment variable called USE, that allows you to define what options Portage should use when compiling, which allows you to avoid needing to download a lot of excess dependencies that will only bog down your system if you have no intention of using those features. For example, if I set part of my USE variable to “-gnome kde”, my software will not be compiled with any Gnome support, which is just fine by me as I hate Gnome and never use it. Only the KDE components of the package will be compiled which saves me a lot of time and space in the long run.

Of course, like all good things this flexibility comes at an intimidating price. In order to install Gentoo, you need to manually install and compile your whole system from source. Certainly a non-trivial task, and it scared me away from it for a while. I actually attempted installing Gentoo a while ago, and successfully wrote my configuration files, compiled my kernel and was able to boot successfully into my new environment. Unfortunately, the automated configure scripts for my X server were not able to identify my graphics card and after a couple days of frustration as I tried to manually write my xorg.conf file, I gave up and went back to SuSE 9.3. I had projects I was working on and couldn’t afford the time away from my graphical desktop to fiddle with it. Oh, but it haunted me.

You see, I knew that Gentoo was what I really wanted, and it frustrated me that I gave up on it. My inner geek was emasculated by my failure to complete the installation. It ate at me day after day, and I found myself idly surfing the Gentoo forums debating to try another seven hour installation process.

The final straw was when Gentoo released their graphical LiveCD installer disk. The graphical installer is still experimental as is the dialog based command line installer on the disk, which is fine as those application are designed to make the process faster NOT easier. If I hadn’t had experience with the Gentoo manual install I would have had no idea what I was doing. Now, I don’t say this to scare you all away, but I just want to make sure no one goes and downloads the LiveCD iso thinking that it will do it all for them. I cannot stress enough how important a solid understanding of the manual install process works (which you can still use the LiveCD for). The graphical installer certainly did speed up the process quite a bit, but the best part of the new LiveCD is not the installer, it’s the embedded Gnome environment with sample applications. During the long compilations I was able to browse the web, chat on Gaim and play a few games, which made the installation time fly by. In addition, if you are using the graphical installer and instruct it to install Xorg then it will copy its dynamically generated xorg.conf file to your new system configuration, which you may need to tweak later, but it will be functional.

Since then, I’ve been playing with Gentoo, adding programs and tweaking my configuration. I did have some initial trouble getting my OpenGL acceleration working, which turned out to be a hardware problem with my computer’s chipset. Simple solution: I picked up an ATI Radeon 9250 video card, which I really should have gotten a while ago anyway. I recompiled my kernel (which is really no sweat once you’ve done it once or twice and gotten past the intimidation factor), installed the new drivers from Portage and ran the configuration script. It works beautifully!

Gentoo is certainly not for weak of heart, and you have to be willing to spend some time getting it all set up. However, once it is up and running it is one of the fastest and most stable distros I have ever used. If you work for it, you will be rewarded. :)