Archive for March, 2015

Learning the Arch Way

For much of the last decade I have shunned “advanced” Linux distros, like Gentoo, Slackware and even Debian. Instead, I have mostly just used Ubuntu – on desktops, laptops and even servers (although not phones, not yet). I have done this not because I found it too difficult to install these other distros, but because I grew bored of spending my time administering a system, rather than getting on with things I considered to be more important. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time in the last ten years introducing Linux to newcomers and found that it was far better to be able to point to a working system that they to could setup.

So, when I bought a small, low-powered laptop recently, I naturally thought of Ubuntu or another Debian derivative, like Crunchbang. Something quick and easy to setup, just like always. Why then did I chose to install Arch? Well, I’m not quite sure. Maybe after all this time I needed a new challenge, maybe I wondered what I was missing out on, or maybe it was just peer-pressure. Initially, I felt guilty for turning to a distro that from the outside seemed elitist and would potentially alienate less technical users, but the truth is I’ve grown quite out of touch with the Linux community and it’s been some time since someone looked at my computer and asked how they could do that too.

Arch has been around for a surprisingly long time now. It’s a disto that advocates simplicity and choice, but it also seems to pride itself on its difficulty. In the long list of Linux distros, it seems to sit somewhere in between Debian and Gentoo.

Installing

Once I’d successfully installed Arch on my new laptop, I wrote down my experiences and some initial thoughts, and emailed them to a friend. I was feeling quite stupid at first – I’d gone through the process mostly-okay, and then realised that I’d have to start it all again if I wanted an encrypted disk (an absolute must on a laptop). The beginner’s guide does mention this, but it’s a very small comment that’s easy to miss in the noise and it wasn’t in the section I’d expected. From what I can see, you should expect to go through the install process a couple of times on your first go..

I also made my life more difficult by chosing to install Openbox and setup the desktop environment myself. Afterwards, I found a useful blog post, which goes through the steps to setup a desktop system running Openbox and that would have saved me quite a few hours of trial and error.

To navigate all the wiki pages, to evaluate the options for different pieces of software took too much time that I would rather have spent doing something more interesting. I’m never going to get excited by compositing engines, wallpaper managers, etc, and having a meta-package for an Openbox desktop to pull in all the little bits I needed would have been so very helpful and time-saving. From what I can tell, it’s would also be in keeping with the Arch Way. This is now something on my todo list, but sadly it’s a rather long list. I’ve since found the Arch Openbox wiki page, which I think I read through at the time, but like many of the pages it’s more of a reference than a beginner’s guide or walk-through. In general, I found that it was all too easy to get lost in the morass of pages.

In writing up my experiences (read: complaints) to a friend, I realised the root cause of many of the struggles I’d had – that Arch is not Debian. I know this sounds obvious, but in truth, the biggest issue I had was in adjusting to the different way of doing things – different approaches and culture – and instead expecting things to work in the same way.

The Arch wiki is extensive and very useful, but it doesn’t hold your hand and it’s not always correct. At times I found myself having to read three pages at once to get all the information I needed and I missed important bits as a result. Lesson learned, do not install if you’re not in a position to fully read the rather complicated wiki and expect to make some mistakes. The experience has resulted in a new post-it note being stuck to my monitor – RTFW (read the fine wiki).


Setup chosen:

  • LVM on LUKS
  • /boot vfat (required for UEFI compatibility), / and /home ext4 with a 4GB swap.
  • Desktop: LXmanager, Openbox:
    Tint2 (everything I need in a task bar), Nitrogen (wallpaper management), Compton (transparency and extra shiny), Conky-Lua (looks awesome, but is also useful), LXTerminal (simple enough but with the features I want), PCManFM (also runs in the background for dbus support)
  • Gesture control: touchegg (partially setup)

The Arch Way

The Arch Way is to give users a choice. As a result, it includes non-free software alongside free software, equally. Unfortunately, it doesn’t easily provide a way to see the license details of what you’re about to install. I’m not asking for a long pointless EULA, just a way of seeing the license (or at least the free/non-free status) when I’m viewing the results of pacman or yaourt -Ss. Having lots of options is not a choice, a choice is only a choice if it’s informed.

Similarly, I’m never going to be interested in boot loaders, login managers or wallpaper providers. I really like the Ubuntu approach of having sensible defaults – by all means provide details to the user to allow them to learn about the alternatives and to do something different instead, and that’s certainly one of Arch’s strengths, but don’t force users to evaluate every choice.

I think this is where the Arch Way and I depart somewhat, and some of the ways in which I prefer Debian and Ubuntu’s approaches.

Conclusion

Since doing the install I have found out about Archbang. It looks promising and would certainly have made things easier, although I’m glad that I went through all the steps manually, as I do feel I’ve learned (and re-learned) a lot as a result.

I’ve found Arch to be simple and flexible. It is fast, although I’ve not done any tests or comparisons, so I don’t know if it’s faster than a basic Debian install. So far, I really enjoy using it, although whether that will last I don’t know.

Right now, Arch feels like that new friend in your life, fresh and exciting. But Ubuntu feels like home, it’s friendly and dependable. I’m still gutted that the ten year anniversary of Ubuntu passed me by at the end of last year. I suppose it’s too late for me to throw it a party.. but Arch at least, has rekindled a fire within me that I thought had almost gone away.

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