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|SUBJECT ||Subject: [hangout] Dispelling the myths of Gentoo Linux, an honest review
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From: "Inker, Evan"
Subject: [hangout] Dispelling the myths of Gentoo Linux, an honest review
Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2004 13:25:12 -0000
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Dispelling the myths of Gentoo Linux, an honest review
Posted by dave on Mar 22, 2004 11:07 AM
By Dave Whitinger
This long-term Red Hat Linux user has given an honest look at Gentoo, and
has concluded that the stereotypes surrounding this distribution are false.
After all these years, I have finally found my new distribution: Gentoo
I started my Linux journey in 1995 with a pile of "A" and "N" Slackware
diskettes. It was a real thrill to run X-Windows on my 386 machine with 16MG
of RAM. In 1997, when I was hired to work for Red Hat Software, Inc, I was
brought kicking and screaming into the world of Red Hat. As the old adage
goes, I stuck with what works. The nice thing about Red Hat is that it hides
the complexity of Linux behind binary RPMS, but the downside to Red Hat is
that is hides the complexity of Linux behind binary RPMS. Nevertheless it
works, and I, like millions of others, have continued to use Red Hat through
When Red Hat dropped Red Hat Linux in favor of Fedora, I switched to Fedora
and continued to be happy with the software that came out of Raleigh.
A few weeks ago, however, I purchased an Opteron machine with the intention
of playing with Linux on it, seeing what all the 64-bit fuss is about, and
perhaps making it my new server. I sampled several AMD64-based
distributions, including Gentoo 2004.0, and was delighted with what I found
in this powerful distribution.
I had purchased an ASUS SK8N motherboard, an AMD Opteron 142 processor, 2
gigabytes of DDR333 memory, and a 150G Serial ATA hard drive. The ASUS SK8N
motherboard includes SATA onboard, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to
test this new and improved hard disk standard. I purchased the case and
cheap-o video card locally, at the only computer store I know of in
small-town Kerrville, Texas.
Having previously downloaded and burned the Gentoo 2004.0 LiveCD for AMD64,
I was ready for action. I inserted the CD into the drive and booted up the
computer. Now, the installation of Gentoo 2004.0 is wildly different from
other installation programs. It reminds me of Slackware from 1995, but a
little less friendly, and no pile of diskettes. :) The installation is
insanely different, and I absolutely loved it. This installation method is a
breath of fresh air to me, and I think that those of you experienced
Linuxers would also find it quite attractive. Let me describe the process
When the CD boots up, you are dumped straight at a root prompt, with no
clues as to what to do next. Thankfully, the Gentoo folks have written an
excellent handbook that holds your hand and walks you through the whole
process. The first thing to do is boot up your CD, and once at the root
prompt, activate the networking. For me, that meant doing an 'ifconfig eth0
192.168.1.7' and then '/etc/init.d/sshd start'. Once the network was up and
I could ping other machines on my LAN, I changed the root password, and then
went back to my desktop, opened an xterm, and ssh'ed into the
to-be-installed machine. The rest of the installation was done through an
ssh connection in an xterm. (!)
The next step was to partition the disks, and I was happy to see my old and
trusty friend fdisk was the recommended tool. Oddly, however, fdisk /dev/hda
returned "Unable to open /dev/hda". After examining the output of dmesg, I
discovered that the new SATA drives are accessible by /dev/sda instead of
/dev/hda. Checking my kernel source revealed that, indeed, SATA is part of
the SCSI system of the kernel. Having passed that obstacle, I was able to
fdisk /dev/sda with no trouble. My disk is a 150G drive, and I chose a 32M
partition for boot, 2G for swap, 30G for the system, and 130G for /dev/sda4
to contain my files.
Now, at this point, I have to make a decision. Do I go through the long
complete compile for which Gentoo is so famous? I was actually expecting
that I would, since any alternative approach was unknown to me. Imagine my
delight to learn that Gentoo includes what are called "stages", which are
precompiled binaries that you can install in lieu of doing the compile
yourself. You can choose to do one of three "stages". In the first stage,
you compile everything yourself. In stage 2 you get more compiled binaries
but you still compile some applications, and stage 3 appears to be a much
more complete binary installation of the whole system.
So, Gentoo's reputation as being a distribution that requires you to spend
days (or weeks, months, years, as the jokes go) compiling is simply
unearned. Nothing could be further from the truth - it can be a binary-only
distribution, or a source-only distribution; it's your choice.
I chose to do every kind of installation available, to see the difference
between them all. First I tried a stage 2 installation, which saved me from
the bulk of the compilation process. Installing the system at this point was
a simple untarring of the stage 2 file, and I was done. Not very exciting,
but it does get the job done.
Unsatisfied, I started at the beginning and did a stage 1 installation. This
is the step that compiled GCC, glibc, and a variety of other necessary
system applications. In the stage 1 installation, bootstrapping the system
from scratch took 53 minutes. The next stage took 42 minutes. I was
wondering if I'd ever see these famous month-long compiles. Having passed
all three stages in an afternoon, I was ready to move on to compiling my
Gentoo includes a nice utility called 'genkernel' which, should you choose
to use it, compiles the kernel for you (yes, I've gotten lazy over the
years). The .config file is the same that was used to build the LiveCD, so
it'll support everything imaginable (and takes quite a long time to build.
At least a couple minutes on my Opteron). The kernel compilation was
joyfully easy and quick.
Next up, setting up the system. Before proceeding, you will want to install
your favorite text editor. For me, 'emerge vim' and I was ready to go. The
default editor 'nano' (some sort of pico clone) that comes installed on the
LiveCD is fine for newbies, but vi it ain't. There are several files that
you'll be editing by hand, including creating your own /etc/fstab and
/boot/grub/grub.conf by hand, so you'll want to be comfortable in your
In addition to some sundry and easy steps that are outlined in the handbook,
there are some steps here that separate the men from the boys. This part of
the installation is the most involved - you have to do a lot of the work
yourself, and this is the area in which I believe Gentoo could improve the
most. Really, manually creating files like fstab is fine if you've been
sysadmining Linux for years, but for newer folks, it just isn't acceptable.
I appreciate the power and control that Gentoo gives me, but there is no
good reason to have to create your own grub.conf and fstab.
The Smoke Test
Having created my grub.conf and fstab, I held my breath and rebooted the
box. Unfortunately, the bootup process failed as it was unable to load the
Promise SATA driver, and thus I was not able to mount my filesystems. In
other distributions, at this point you'd be best served just starting from
the beginning, but thankfully, recovering with Gentoo is easy. I just booted
back up with the LiveCD, remounted my system partitions, and went back to
work on the kernel. This time I modified
/usr/share/genkernel/x86_64/kernel-config-2.6 and changed
CONFIG_SCSI_SATA_PROMISE from "m" to "y". While I was in there, I disabled
some things that I won't need, like USB, IEEE1394, etc. I re-ran genkernel,
rebooted, and this time my system booted with no problems.
Thoughts on the booted distribution
The first thing you notice about the system is its emptiness. The bareness
of the distribution is absolutely thrilling to minimalists who don't prefer
the kitchen-sink approach to Linux distributions. As you need things, you
install them with a single command. If a program has dependencies, those
dependencies are automatically downloaded and built along with the
application you requested. When I needed to download something, and 'ftp'
returned 'command not found', I ran 'emerge ftp' and less than 60 seconds
later I had an ftp client. This is how everything works on Gentoo and I love
So, besides the ease of use, the main advantage of Gentoo is the control it
gives you over the binaries you produce and run. Before beginning any
compile, you can customize the compile through an /etc/make.conf file, as
well as "on-the-fly" environment variables from the shell. You can tell it
to avoid SSL, QT, and GTK+ libraries, run GCC with -O2 (or -O3, etc), and so
forth. Just setup your make.conf with exactly the flags that you desire, and
everything you build will be compiled with those preferences. It's a real
joy to know that the binaries you have on your system were compiled by you
with exactly the libraries you wanted and the optimization flags you
Additionally, as with most other distributions, handling updates is simple.
When the vendor releases a security alert or bugfix update, all you have to
do is run 'emerge sync' to download the list of updated software packages,
and then 'emerge packagename' to update your package. It's as simple as
The customization and optimization does make a difference and gives you
fine-tuned control over the final product. If you rely on a lot of
third-party applications, however, you may be best served sticking with Red
Hat Enterprise Linux or Fedora, but if all you want is a solid Linux system
to operate your standard internet enabled services like LAMP, you can't do
better than Gentoo Linux. I have not yet tried Gentoo out as a desktop, so
currently I am only recommending it for server use. I hope in the next few
weeks (or months) I will try X and see how I like it. I expect to be
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