Long live Gentoo!

January 13th, 2004

The reason I wanted to try Linux in the first place was that I was doing some websites and needed to mess around with cgi scripts in perl. I thought since the servers run linux, it would make sense to emulate that environment at home. The first thing I tried was Slackware, I think v3. Well that was a little much, I had a book that I borrowed from a friend but it was quite involved and I didn't really know what I was doing. I tried a couple versions of Red Hat in the years following that but there was no easy way for me to find out what exactly I needed to do to get an up and running install of apache and perl. I didn't try looking on the net because I didn't want to spend that much time on it. I also got the impression that without a thick book on Red Hat, I was totally lost. Then I heard something about Gentoo. I didn't really want to try it because I knew there are so many distros out there that trying them all doesn't make a lot of sense. The reason I did was that someone had mentioned FreeBSD and how great the ports system is, and apparently Gentoo had something similar. I don't think I would have given it much time if it wasn't for that install document. Sure, it was tough to get everything to work the first time but having this forum as well to ask questions, I succeeded in the end. By this time it wasn't really about perl anymore, I wanted to get into Linux because Windows was quite dull. So I had a working install of Gentoo, indeed I found out that portage is delightfully convenient. Apart from the time lost in compilation, packages get installed with no effort, dependencies are handled nicely and there is no issue of failed dependencies. Another thing that I really liked was the colors in the console. It's a simple detail but it makes a difference, it makes the shell less intimidating. I also felt that the documentation was not merely trying to explain how to do it, but also briefly explain why you're doing it. This is brilliant for someone who doesn't know what is what.

Since then I've been running Gentoo on a server with various services like apache, samba, cvs, mail, mysql etc. Lately I've also started thinking about using it as a desktop OS. I still rely on certain things like Dreamweaver but

the list of missing software is getting shorter. I've stuck with Gentoo for a couple of reasons.

Number one is this forum. Whenever there's a problem, chances are the issue has already been noted and fixed by someone else. Now people will say that you can get support for any distro, there are websites, mailing lists, irc channels etc. I have to say I'm not a big fan of the latter two. I happen to like fora, they're convenient, they have a certain atmosphere to them and they're easily searchable. I have tried finding fora for Suse but I haven't found any, the links were either 404 or the fora were deserted.

Reason #2 is portage. In the past year or so I've tried a bunch of different distros. After all, if there is something better, why not use it? I've looked at Red Hat, Suse, Mandrake, Lindows, Xandros, Debian and Knoppix. I've come to realize that none of them work as well for me as Gentoo does. The main reason is always portage. I've heard people say rpm is easy, there's a simple set of commands to use and you can compile from source if you want to. That very well may be, but for some reason I have never succeeded. Perhaps I'm not fit to understand but I can never figure out where to get the packages and how to install them smoothly. Whenever I try, I always have a list of dependencies missing and chances are that along the way one of them is incompatible with something else or a previously installed version of itself. Even when I succeed at installing something, I feel locked down because I know that should I want to upgrade it or remove it, I may have to go through another long session. And while compiling does take a long time, it's effortless, everything is done for me. Even though I don't have to compile rpm, it always me over an hour, sometimes more, to find the right package, solve dependencies etc. I prefer to leave emerge running while I do something else. Then there's the option to compile, well I've tried that as well, a couple of weeks ago I was trying to install ntop on Red Hat 7.3. I have barely compiled anything in my life save watching portage and I tried for hours without succeeding. I thought everything was in order, but autoconf wouldn't stop complaining about a failed dependency.

So that's rpm, and unfortunately most of the biggest distros are rpm-based. They're not very good at keeping your system up-to-date, Red Hat had that RHN service but apparently it would stop working after a short while unless you register for it. Mandrake lets you define an ftp path as a source of updates but I could never get that working evenso. And Suse takes ages often, to just figure out what packages are new and the selection is limited. This is how portage really excels, the sheer volume of packages available is stunning and unmatched in any easy-to-use distribution I have seen. So then Debian. Well, Debian is not as nice as Gentoo. And I didn't know where to look for documentation. So as long as I have Gentoo and I don't mind compiling everything, there is little incentive to use Debian. Xandros and Lindows are Debian based but they don't make Debian that much easier, they just give you a nice desktop.

And some people say the builds always break, I can't compile anything because it won't finish. Perhaps I have been exceptionally fortunate but from all the packages I've installed, very few builds have failed to complete. Even when they don't, all you have to do is try the older or the newer version of the ebuild, and if you're stuck check the forum/bugzilla and that's it.

Thus I've found out that most distributions are fine if you're satisfied just using whatever they give you on the install disc. But if I want to use mplayer, then I'm gonna have to look elsewhere and rarely is it as easy to install as with Gentoo. And it's not that I have to use all the newest software. But as long as I know that I can, I'm thinking there's no reason not to be able to do it on any other distribution.

In the course of these two years, using the Gentoo documents and most importantly, reading this forum, I have learnt a lot about Linux. And I'm still a complete newbie but with a little guidance, I can compile a kernel, I can install a couple of services and sometimes I can even predict where to find something in this cryptic filesystem. As a Windows user for a decade, I'm not used to learning anything because there's not a lot to learn. But I've come to accept that some things take a little understanding and reading documentation before trying to install something can actually save you some time later on when you're trying to find out why this or that.

So thanks a lot Daniel Robbins and long live Gentoo!

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