Arch Linux 2008.06: Overlord

It’s taken some time, but here it is, the spankin new, fresh from the press Arch release, ambitiously called “Overlord”. In this review, I’ll have a look at it, and discuss a bit of the Arch philosophy in general.

Installation

So, when the new release appeared on the ftp servers today, I quickly grabbed the latest iso, burned it on a CD, popped it into the CD tray, booted up, and clicked on the “Install Arch” icon…

No wait, I didn’t. What I did was booting into my existing Arch installation, ran “pacman -Syu” (more on that later), and one minute later, my Arch was as recent as possible. You see, a new Arch release doesn’t mean as much as say, the newest Ubuntu or OpenSuse. It’s a Linux distribution with a rolling release model, which ideally means you install once and then never again. New software will be in a testing repository for a while, and then transferred to the main ones. That means that, if you update your system every day, it stays current. If I installed “Overlord”, I’d end up with the exact same system as I have now.
So then, what’s the new release for? Well, every now and then, the Arch devs are good enough to provide a snapshot with all the current packages, so you don’t have to update too much. That’s pretty much it.

Okay, almost it. There are some changes to previous install CDs, but despite what the announcement says, they’re not major, and they aren’t many (certainly not when you compare them with an Ubuntu release). They’re just very nice. From the announcement:

- ‘base’ category is always installed
– Use of UUIDs for persistent device naming
– Availability of USB disk images alongside traditional ISOs
– True live Arch installation environment
– Inclusion of the beginner’s guide from the wiki
– Documentation updates
– Includes the current stable kernel, 2.6.25.6

The possibility to install from a USB-stick certainly will make some people happy, and the inclusion of the beginner’s guide from the wiki even more. See, no matter what people say, installing Arch is difficult. Yes, I know some people won’t agree. Okay, I know your girlfriend was able to install Arch from scratch. Congrats, mine could never do it. In fact, I couldn’t even do it when I tried it about a year ago, but then again, I had tried it without reading the beginner’s guide. If that means I don’t pass the girlfriends test…great! ;)
Let me repeat, installing Arch isn’t easy. Certainly not the first time, definitely not if you don’t want to spend some time figuring things out, and it’s downright impossible if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want from your installation, or if you don’t know what kind of hardware is in your PC (especially graphic cards). But if you do know all that, and you know what you want, and you have an afternoon off, and you have the beginner’s guide or the official install guide near…well, it shouldn’t be a problem. That’s why I’m thrilled with the inclusion with the guide on CD.

The Arch installer is ncurses based, which means it’s graphical but looks like crap. It works very well though, and asks you the same questions you get from a standard Ubuntu install, but be sure to change your keymap first if you don’t live in the US. It’ll want to know where you want to install and where the swap partition is, what file system you want to use, what packages groups you want to install (hint: all of them, that’s easiest) and then ask you if you want to run hwdetect. There’s a quote about this on the beginner’s guide:

Advanced users who are thoroughly familiar with their hardware, required modules, and who are able to manually configure /etc/rc.conf, /etc/mkinitcpio and /etc/fstab, etc. from scratch may wish to choose ‘no’. (Needless to say, this option is very involved, beyond the scope of this guide, and therefore is not covered.)

To me, that means “you’re a noob, run hwdetect now”. So I did. I must say it’s as reliable as the hardware detection of any major Linux distributions now, and I never had any problems with it.

Then, you have to edit some files, which contain the configuration of your timezone, locale, network, processes that should be started at boot, etc. It’s the hardest part of the installation, but there aren’t many things you’ll have to edit, because most of the defaults are just fine, and you don’t have to worry about processes until later anyway. Again, check the beginner’s guide. Everything you want to know is in there, and a lot of things you don’t want to know are in there too. Everything else is standard fare, like picking a root password, and choosing an ftp-mirror close to you.

The install itself is very fast…ten minutes or less on a decent system. And after those ten minutes, you’re greeted with your new, shiny, slick looking…command prompt?

Configuration

That’s right. You won’t need the install cd any more, but there’s a lot of tinkering left to do. See, when you’ve arrived at this point, you don’t have anything even remotely resembling what most people would consider to be an operating system. You don’t have a user account, just root. You don’t have sound. Most of all, you don’t have a graphic environment. You’ll have to install and configure those yourself.
Many people would consider this a turn-off, but I think it’s one of the biggest advantages of Arch: it’s incredible versatility. Sure, you’ll spend some time getting things just right, but after you have, it’ll be exactly what you want. You want the newest KDE? No problem. Or maybe you want XFCE with some delightful Compiz effects? You got it. Or, you shudder at these screenshots, and you like something a little more sparse. You have it. Maybe something else? Gnome? PekWM? XMonad? Awesome? Fluxbox? Openbox? It’s all there, and it’s all well-documented in the wiki. But you’ll have to do everything yourself, and I do mean everything. Making sure your fonts look good. Install and configure Alsa. Install and configure X, and the right drivers. Install and configure your favourite software. It takes some time, and some effort, and much reading of the wiki, but the payback is that you end up with a system that’s exactly as you like it.

Using Arch

So you see, the normal review criteria don’t apply to Arch. If you want to know what the default application for downloading torrents or burning CDs is…well, it’s the one you choose to install. Does it have a nice configuration center like Yast? Are you kidding me? No it doesn’t! Does it play multimedia out of the box? Er…no. It doesn’t do anything out of the box, except providing you with a very solid base for you to build your perfect desktop system upon.
Now, at this point you may think that Arch Linux is some kind of Linux From Scratch, where you have to do everything yourself, but that’s not exactly true. Arch does provide some very useful and unique features, like pacman and the wiki.

Pacman is Arch’s package manager, and it’s one of the best out there. It has all the features a package-manager should have, and it’s fast. In my experience, faster than apt-get, much faster than any rpm package manager. Yes, it’s command-line only. There are graphical front-ends like Shaman for those who are used to Synaptic or Adept, but command line is faster. I mentioned the command “pacman -Syu” earlier, which is all that’s needed to keep your system up to date. the “y” refreshes your repository databases, the “u” upgrades your system. For everything else, you’ll need to consult the wiki.

Ahh, the wiki. I once read that a distribution’s wiki (and not the forums) should be the first stop for users looking for help. In the case of Arch Linux, that’s certainly the case. The wiki is clear, easy to use, and huge. If you have a problem, chances are the solution is in here.

There are other nice features, like the AUR, the repository of community-driven, unsupported packages. It adds to the already impressive number of packages available in the official repositories. And if that’s not enough, there’s always ABS, Arch’s build system if you want to build packages yourself.

Conclusion

Basically, Arch is a do-it-yourself distro. That’s a totally different philosophy than the one used by Ubuntu, or OpenSuse, or Mandriva, or any other distribution that wants to provide an off-the-rack, works-for-everyone experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes, despite all the effort, things don’t work for everyone. Most of those times, the solution isn’t very hard, but getting under the hood of those distro’s isn’t always simple.

Arch is simple. It’s not easy at first, but it’s simple…and “simple” has the knack of becoming “easy” when you’re used to it. After the install, you end up with a system that has everything you want it to have, but nothing more. That means it’s light-weight, and fast, and unique, and very easy to maintain. After the initial hours of configuration, there’s not much left to be done. Upgrade the system every day. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy. I know I will.

San

PS: All screenshots were found in the monthly Arch Linux Screenshot threads, are used without permission, but because I liked them.

46 Responses to Arch Linux 2008.06: Overlord

  1. [...] Arch Linux 2008.06: Overlord Does it play multimedia out of the box? Er…no. It doesn’t do anything out of the box, except providing you with a very solid base for you to build your perfect desktop system upon. Now, at this point you may think that Arch Linux is … [...]

  2. [...] Daily-Medicine wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt It’s taken some time, but here it is, the spankin new, fresh from the press Arch release, ambitiously called “Overlord”. In this review, I’ll have a look at it, and discuss a bit of the Arch philosophy in general. Installation So, when the new release appeared on the ftp servers today, I quickly grabbed the latest iso, burned it on a CD, popped it into the CD tray, booted up, and clicked on the “Install Arch” icon… No wait, I didn’t. What I did was booting into my existing Arch installation [...]

  3. [...] Go to the author’s original blog: Arch Linux 2008.06: Overlord [...]

  4. [...] If you are new to Archlinux or just want to find more about this distro read the excellent article on the Celletu’s blog.  [...]

  5. Jean Azzopardi says:

    I have to agree with you. I have used Ubuntu for a lot of time, and switched to Arch about 6-7 months ago. I can’t say I’m regretting it. My Sony Vaio can now suspend-resume (couldn’t do it with Hardy or Gutsy), and it’s fast, stable, and quite simple. Not switching again.

  6. Pmac says:

    I first tried Arch a couple of years ago, and used it for a while. I really liked it from the get-go. No, this is not a distro for the average user. It is for the individual who doesn’t mind tinkering around to learn how to make their system better than the average bear. It takes some getting use to, but once everything is configured, updates are a breeze. I am really looking forward to testing out this latest release. If you are NOT the average user, then I suggest giving Arch a serious try!

  7. Vytautas says:

    I used it for ~1 year after Ubuntu and i was happy, but now I moved to Debian. After leader of distribution changed Arch Linux is gradually losing quality. Now it is now same Arch as it was 2 years ago. Now Arch Linux is like that new symbol of it. Damaged remains of nice distro.

    And Overlord is crazy name. Like some kind of alien from video game. hahaha.

  8. GODhack says:

    I suggest to try this “the most up to date” (as they call themselves) distribution for everyone who are interested to know how Linux installation looked 10 years ago.

  9. vennen says:

    Guys, choice is yours. Arch is very nice and useful. Had no problems with it.

    I started with Ubuntu in august 2007 and switched to Arch this spring. Much faster and easier to set up things like you want.

    >distribution for everyone who are interested to know how Linux installation looked 10 years ago.

    Yes, there is no Windows-like eye-candies, but it works very well.

  10. [...] Arch Linux 2008.06: Overlord It’s taken some time, but here it is, the spankin new, fresh from the press Arch release, ambitiously called [...] [...]

  11. Petter says:

    I think pacman misses out on one crucial part: the ability to do tab-expansion. That made me longing for apt-get.

  12. Anonymous says:

    sudo pacman -S bash-completion

  13. wally says:

    Distros like this don’t really seem to be intended for anybody other than other Linux nuts who like to tinker with stuff. For them, however, these things seem to present endless fascination. Saying that the lack of pre-configuration presents incredible flexibility is like saying the same thing about a car that comes in kit form. Cute idea for those that love it, but not useful for 99.9 percent of people.

  14. Eric Hamby says:

    i agree with wally

  15. celettu says:

    wally:

    you’re right, of course. The kit-car analogy is spot on.

    That being said, I notice people who drive their own kit-cars are usually that more enthusiastic about driving…don’t know if that makes them “nuts” :) In the end, it’s all about what you want. I don’t think arch is for everyone, and I’m not looking down on people who prefer their distros a bit more “premade”.

    Edit: Aditionally, I think “Linux users who like to tinker with stuff” is a good description of the people who make linux distributions…all of them.

  16. Archetype says:

    Excellent review. Fair, and concentrates on the correct aspects of what Arch is trying to achieve.
    GUI installers work for some people, but not for all. Personally, curses-based installers have never let me down. I can’t say the same for the eye-candy heavy and buggy installers of other distros. I’d rather stare at the curses installer on Arch for 10 minutes than at a flickering CRT installing a ‘user-friendly’ distro while I play shuffleboard with my mouse, trying to get it to move more than a pixel at a time…for 1 hour.
    At the end of an Arch installation, the user is fully equipped to admin and further configure their system, especially if they can read. If they are illiterate, and need to point to pictures, the buggy noob distros _might_ work for them.
    As a long-time Slackware user, I can only recommend a handful of distros based on quality.
    Arch is one of them.

  17. Amnon82 says:

    Arch-Linux has a good philosophy. If somebody like arch or gentoo they can take a look on Paldo GNU/Linux also. We’ve also a boot-cd where you can install paldo the same way like ARCH but much easier: http://www.paldo.org/wiki/Installation
    Or using the live-cd with gnome-desktop: http://www.paldo.org/wiki/Installation_using_the_LiveCD
    Paldo is also a rolling Distro like Arch but much easier to maintain and using the package-manager we wrote ourself. We are a small group of 4 maintainer btw.

  18. Omari says:

    I once considered trying Arch, but then I read that the distribution summarily strips all packages of any non-manpage documentation. Info pages? Gone. /usr/share/doc? Gone. The explanation I read is that this is “cruft” and you can get it online. What? Documentation is cruft? And I can’t get it online if I’m away from a network, or if my network is not working.

    At least put the docs in separate packages if they are big, as other distros like Debian do sometimes. There’s no way I would use a disto that thinks documentation is “cruft”.

  19. Pmac says:

    One of the things I like about Arch is that it is NOT based on some other distribution. And it is one of the VERY FEW distributions that allows me to learn more about installing and configuring on a 64-bit architecture. And it’s extremely fast (IMO).

  20. Caesium says:

    Celettu ,
    after reading your article, I TRASHED my Arch CD that I’ve downloaded in March 2008 ….

    and now downloading archlinux-2008.06-core-x86_64.iso –

    I’M GOING TO INSTALL 64bit :D

    I’ve done numerous installs with the 32bit CD and intend to do more visits to friends with this 64bit Overlord .. YES !!!

    Only one problem left !!!

    Where can I find the (original) wallpaper that you pointed to http://www.abload.de/image.php?img=snapshot2pa7.png ?

    By the way, I’ve just subsribed to your rss :D

  21. celettu says:

    Caesium:

    yay for the enthousiasm ;) Unfortunately, I have no idea where to find that wallpaper :/

  22. Judd says:

    Great review, San. I think you hit the nail on the head with this statement:

    It’s not easy at first, but it’s simple…and “simple” has the knack of becoming “easy” when you’re used to it.

    Thanks for the well-written article. :)

    – Judd

  23. celettu says:

    Judd:

    Whoa! Coming from you, that’s high praise indeed. Thank you very much :)

  24. Bob/Paul says:

    Ubuntu is also a rolling release model. I reinstalled once since Breezy Badger and that was just because I was completely redoing my partitioning scheme, setting up raid and full AES disk encryption in the process–a reinstall was just easier and cleaner.

    In fact, I think RPM based distributions are the only ones that don’t do rolling releases. All of the others are or are based on distributions with more recent, repository based package managers (apt, pacman, portage, etc).

  25. Dale says:

    @Bob/Paul

    FYI, Pclinuxos is an rpm based distro that also is a rolling release one. Even though it is rpm based it uses synaptic (apt) so it’s familiar and easy.

    Great review on Arch but you didn’t mention kdemod. I know it’s not the standard Arch install, but it has become my favourite of the 9 or so distros I have installed at the moment, including a standard kde Arch install.

  26. celettu says:

    Bob/Paul:

    I don’t think Ubuntu can be called “rolling release” by any stretch of the imagination. Theoretically, yes, one can update every six months without having to reinstall, but that works more often than not.
    And once every six months…that’s not rolling. That’s falling from a stair :)

    Dale:

    KDEmod is great, but I’ll wait with a review until they release their own Arch “spin”.

  27. ruinevil says:

    Ubuntu is not rolling. They design their operating system releases with specific version of packages that should work together, which are often not the lastest ones out. Archlinux on the other hand provides whats laying around in the core repository at the time of release with some installation tools.

  28. Cyrusm says:

    Great review! I’ve been using arch for a couple of years now. just to let you guys know, Ubuntu is not rolling release. how long does your bi-annual upgrade take?
    my upgrade from “Don’t Panic!” to “Overlord” took 1 command and about 10 seconds.

    also for GodHack: “I suggest this distro… for those who wanted to know what a linux install looked like 10 years ago”
    Just because other distro’s make things shiny and pretty doesn’t mean they are any better. It just means they use more system resources to accomplish the same simple tasks. it’s like a guy hammering a nail versus a guy hammering a nail while wearing a tuxedo.

  29. Vitaliy says:

    Nice review!

    I myself use Arch for a year now, having tried Ubuntu first. And yes, it is INTERESTING to have this distro on home PC. The choice is mine, whether I do or do not want to dig deeper than I have already. To me it is like a never-ending book, which I can put aside anytime and pick up later whenever I wish.

    It gave me couple of days of hard-time, but these days gave me more understanding how computer (and OS) works, than all my years with Windows.

  30. [...] Here it is: everything I wanted to say about Arch Linux and more. [...]

  31. Anonymous says:

    you say it has no config center like yast. so you have to configure everything by using commandline? cant you install anything like yast with pacman? im a bit lazy :p i want to use arch since i can choose any file system or desktop env. i want. also i like the rolling thing..

  32. Anonymous says:

    >>Or, you shudder at these screenshots, and you like something a little more sparse. You have it. http://i27.tinypic.com/6pnk0i.jpg

    any hints on how this look was achieved? this isn’t gnome, right? :)

  33. vio says:

    I have tried many Linux distributions (Ubuntu, PCLinux, Fedora, Mandriva, Debian, openSUSE, etc) but Arch was the best for me, for more than one year now on my desktop & my laptop. And I’ m not an expert in Linux, but I think the installation wasn’t too difficult for me (using the Arch installation guide) and it worked every time. I think most of the Linux users can do it without (too many) problems.

  34. bn says:

    What I don’t like at Arch it’s:
    I tryed arch 1 year agop and I went to Slack… and then to Ubuntu …

    1. I miss a DVD with all the software and doc in a release …. I hate downloading software….
    2. There wasn’t any lite desktop precofigured …. It’s really annoyng to add icons an menus in flux ….

    3. Packages in repository use to break by system quite often.

    To be honest I prefer ubuntu …. don’t like things that stand in my way and make me lose time…

    The advantage of arch it’s that is fast ….. but there are other distros … some maybe faster…

  35. tmc says:

    Nice review. While I’m using Arch without glitches I can’t say that was easy to install and configure. Making something wrong strenghtened me to read more. Always exprienced that if something went wrong I’ve made a mistake, the Arch was always right. I took this period as a big exam of knowledge + IQ and I was very proud passing it with good results :)

    Not everybody can afford time and energy to jump and buid everithing starting from a black screen and a blinking cursor. Anyway I advice them that instead of vasting time with other distros, they should read archwiki and forums. There is no need to put questions, because others did do it before. No one of them remained unanswered, at least my ones were cleared on any issue.

    The roots are bitter, the fruits are sweet. Jump once and eat fresh and sweet fruits in all seasons :)

  36. [...] blogjával akkor találkoztam először, mikor egy részletes beszámolót írt az Arch-ról. Ekkor már az Arch táborba tartoztam és ez a cikk amolyan “after-sales” [...]

  37. [...] + life on the cutting edge – archlinux + arch linux – 2008.06 Overlord [...]

  38. justanothersysadmin says:

    “The Arch installer is ncurses based, which means it’s graphical but looks like crap.”

    LOL!

  39. arch says:

    Most people try Arch because they think they’re being clever. All this stuff about Arch being difficult to install is just rubbish, it’s time consuming, not difficult. And after all that setting up you’ve got a system that’s no better than Ubuntu that installs in less than half an hour. I actually found Ubuntu 9.04 to boot and run quicker than Arch + Xfce4.

    One other thing, about the Arch forums…it’s a boring place….lots of people slapping themselves on the back and thinking that they’re clever because they’re using a system that needs constant repairing thanks to ‘pacman -Syu’.

    Arch is for people with more time than sense.

    Arch fanboys are worse than mac fanboys. Not only do they think that everything else is wrong and bad, but they try to convert everyone to their cause.

    • archie says:

      Arch linux is not about being better or harder or more complicated. I moved to arch to personalize my linux box. Granted, you can do this with any linux box, but there’s something to be said about building one from the ground up. Building a house with no plans, no equipment, and no HELP is nearly impossible. Arch gives us some basic blue prints and the tools, and a helping hand when needed, and we do the rest.

      arch linux is not trying to be better than Ubuntu. arch is like any other distro, it’s DIFFERENT. arch is what ever the user wants it to be, whether it’s a lamp server, xammp server, basic desktop, note book variant or a hand held OS. It is up to the user to decide what they want it to do or be.

      Arch Forums is not a social hangout, if you seek some sort of sick pleasure out of reading the posts your in the wrong place. The Arch forum is a place to get your questions answered and to share your knowledge. It’s a place of learning and place to help others learn. Now it may not be perfect and may never be but it’s helpful to most.

      If you want to talk to someone with more time then sense go talk to people who write the linux kernel. Arch provides a much faster, easier way to customize a box then building it from scratch.

      I’m not trying to convert you to arch like the preachers of mac crap. I am merely informing you so you might make an informed decision in the future. weather you decide arch linux is for you or not, that’s up to.

  40. arch says:

    Ok, I just gave Arch Linux much more time even though I put some bad things about it above. It has been stable and fast and I like it… no wonder it has so many fanboys I have to admit it’s real good though.

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