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Gentoo Linux, Part 1

After spending several days trying to fight with KDE over font issues and running into this, that, and the other dependency problems with Debian Linux, I decided to give Gentoo Linux a try. There are several people on Slashdot whom seem to think that Gentoo is pretty sweet. I’ve done Slackware way back in 1996, Red Hat Linux (my work system runs a Red Hat variant), Knoppix and the various clones, and now it’s time to try Gentoo.

Prior to doing this, of course, I had to perform a system backup. The nice thing about Unix platforms is that all your “user” files essentially live under your “home” directory, unlike a Windows system where you can find your files in one of about 80 different locations. Because I’ve got a couple of systems with large hard drives, I’m in the process now of copying my tar-bzed home directory (13gb! — I probably could have cleaned house a little more, but I’ve got the space). That will take some time to copy over to a different system.

Most Unix systems have some sort of a packaging mechanism which allows an end user to install or remove various applications or parts of the OS. Slackware has packages, though I forget what they’re called at the moment. Red Hat uses RPMs (as do a lot of other distributions), Debian uses .deb files (managed thru dpkg, apt-get, dselect, and possibly others). Gentoo has Portage, but it’s very different than what other Linux distributions do.

As I understand it, Portage is a bit like the FreeBSD ports system. When you want an application, a few simple commands brings it into existance. If the application needs something else, the “dependent” bits are installed too. However, what happens behind the scenes is, in many cases, is a compilation of the software you want. On some systems, this can take hours. Why is this good? Because there are a number of different hardware platforms out there, each requiring it’s own “special compilation tweaks” to run optimally. What a lot of distributions do is compile programs assuming a generic i386 instruction set for maximum compatibility. While that’s good for compatibility sake, it means your programs are running a lot slower than they (potentially) could be. Gentoo solves that problem by compiling everything on your hardware with your build preferences.

A bit geeky? Yes. Potentially a waste of CPU resources? Depends. But it does potentially give me something I don’t seem have with other distributions: a lot more control. Gentoo appears to have that. As part of the Gentool Philosophy, this statement sticks out the most: The most fundamental issue is designing a technology that allows us and others to do what they want to do, without restriction.

After I finish getting my system backed up, we’ll fire up the Gentoo installation process and see how it goes.


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