ITworld review: Arch Linux for Linux fundamentalists

Most users like their operating system to be like their cars. They stick in the key, turn on the ignition, and off they go. For these users, I recommend Ubuntu. But, if you're the kind of person who likes a car with manual transmission and getting your hands dirty under the hood, then Arch Linux deserves your consideration.

[ See the Arch Linux image gallery ]

You can, of course, just build Linux from source code, or use a distribution such as Gentoo or Linux from Scratch (LFS) that relies heavily on Linux source code. Those distributions though are best left to developers and other people who know their way around programming. Arch Linux, on the other hand, is suitable for Linux power users who still prefer the command line interface (CLI) to GNOME or KDE.

Believe it or not, there are still people who find the CLI to be the most comfortable way to get the most out of Unix or Linux. I should know. I'm one of them. It's not that Arch doesn't let you use a GUI; it's just optional.

I strongly suspect that's why Arch is as popular as it is. Arch Linux is currently, as of early December 2010, number eight on DistroWatch's Linux distribution page hit list.

You see, Arch Linux, without requiring you to master kernel compiling 101 gives you an enormous amount of control over how Linux will run for you. That starts from the get-go.

When you download an Arch Linux CD image (.iso) or USB stick image (.img), you get only a minimal set of core programs. You can also download an even smaller image and rely on ftp to download the most recently available files for a fresh installation. I only recommend this course though if you have a very fast (10Mbps or faster) Internet connection.

Once you have the image, reboot your system with it and start the install process. Let me warn you right now that the interface is pure NCURSE character-based GUI. That means, among other things, you'll be using your arrow keys, not your mouse, to navigate through it. I also recommend that even if you are a Linux power user that you have a window on another PC open to the Official Arch Linux Install Guide and the Arch Beginner's Guide. You'll need them.

The latest version of Arch Linux is 2010.05, but don't fret over not having the newest bit. Unlike many popular Linux distributions like Ubuntu or Fedora, Arch uses a rolling release system. That means that the latest "stable" version and all the rest of the distribution's programs are constantly being refreshed with the latest software releases as fast as they arrive and are tested out.

This is done with Arch's own homebrew software package manager, Pacman. Don't let the name fool you. The Pacman package manager has no relationship to the poplar openSUSE Packman software repository.

Installing Arch, if you don't remember how you used to do it back in the early 2000s and late 1990s, isn't going to come easily. I didn't have any trouble installing it on my workhouse Dell Inspiron 530S PC. This older computer is powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This box has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set.

I also had minimal trouble installing it on a VirtualBox virtual machine (VM) under Mint Linux on another Dell 530S. You must, however, be certain to follow the directions for running Arch as a guest operating system or you will end up having trouble running the X Window system, the foundation for most Linux GUIs, down the road.

On the other hand, I was already installing Linux in the early 1990s and I work with Linux every day so it darn well had better be relatively easy for me to install. The only thing I stumbled over was that I missed that, by default, Pacman, isn't set up to use any repositories. You need to edit the /etc/pacman.d/mirrorlist file before you can start updating and installing software.

I also found several 'interesting' things. For starters, Arch's GRand Unified Bootloader (GRUB), doesn't automatically detect any other operating systems on your hard drive. Yes, I know Arch is all about "do-it-yourself" Linux, but GRUB is infamous for being a pain to set up properly and there's nothing quite like not being able to boot at all from a hard drive to make you want to tear your hair out. Rather than get stuck in that situation, I recommend you read LinuxQuestions' GRUB HowTo and Trouble-Shooter Guide, and then carefully set up Arch's GRUB.

I was also surprised that while Arch supports my favorite Linux file system for speed and reliability, ext4, it defaults to using ext2 for the boot partition. Ext2 is not a journaling file system, so it's more vulnerable to crashes than ext3, ext4, or most modern file systems for that matter. Ext2 still has a role in flash drives and SSDs (solid-state drives) -- since it's believed that they can only be written to a limited number of times before failing -- but for a normal hard drive? I can't see it.

Although I didn't try Arch Linux on a Wi-Fi network it should work. That's because it allows you to select firmware, if needed, and hardware drivers during your setup for your Wi-Fi hardware.

Once I had it set up, I immediately saw one thing I really liked about Arch: It was fast. I've gotten used to distributions that come with everything and the kitchen sink. It's useful to have many of the most popular Linux programs at hand, but I'd forgotten just how much processor time and memory room they demand. With Arch, I was running only what I absolutely needed. The result was a machine that I found much peppier than with other Linux distributions, and let's not even talk about Windows.

Another nice thing about Arch is that it's online community forums and mailing lists are filled with helpful, informed fellow users. In addition, the online documentation is a notch above what I see in most Linux distributions.

Even so, I can't recommend Arch Linux for everyone because it's not a Linux for everyone. But, if you know Linux and you want to have ironclad control over your system, I think you'll like it a lot. I did.

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