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Gentoo Linux 2006.0 review

By Jem Matzan

It's been a while since I last reviewed Gentoo Linux because there haven't been too many significant changes in the past few releases. I've been using it as my primary desktop operating system for a year and a half, though, and I've been running my main Web/email/database server on it since October of 2004. There's a reason why I've stayed with it that long, both as a desktop and server OS -- and there's also a reason why I'm writing a review of the 2006.0 release after a long hiatus from Gentoo reviews.

Gentoo Linux overview

This section is for people new to Gentoo Linux. If you're already familiar with this OS, skip down to the next section to read about Gentoo's new features.

Gentoo Linux is a unique GNU/Linux distribution that compiles all of its software from source code rather than using precompiled binary packages. Gentoo is arranged much like FreeBSD, except it has command line tools that automate all of the special functions that must be done by hand in FreeBSD. Where FreeBSD has the Ports system, Gentoo has the automated Portage system; where FreeBSD has /etc/rc.conf to regulate boot processes, Gentoo has the rc-update tool to add or remove scripts from the startup process.

Although the entire system can be compiled from source (and updates are applied by recompiling the whole program), there are a few binary packages available for some of the larger applications, like OpenOffice.org and Mozilla. You can also install the operating system from a binary package, then recompile it as each piece of the operating environment needs updating.

The number of programs in Gentoo's Portage tree grows constantly. It's a rare occasion when you can't find a significant open source program in Portage. In fact, you can probably find several different versions of it, and you can compile in special functionality or hooks for other programs if you like. Numerous performance enhancement capabilities are also available, in case you want to try to squeeze some extra speed out of your software. In short, Gentoo Linux is the perfect operating system for the desktop tinkerer.

What many people don't know about Gentoo is, it is also an outstanding server OS. From a standard stage 3 (binary) installation, you can have Postfix (plus Amavis, Clam and Vipul's Razor), Apache (with PHP, SSL, and Perl), OpenLDAP, and OpenSSH installed, configured, tweaked, and in production in a little over an hour. If you don't have much experience with these services, the Gentoo project provides in-depth and generally up-to-date documentation that will get your server up and running securely and efficiently in short order. Other distros can accomplish this kind of setup faster; speed of installation is not what Gentoo is noted for, however. Rather, it's ease of automation and customizability. A Gentoo sysadmin can easily take advantage of programs like emerge, webapp-config, etc-update, and rc-update to do the majority of daily and weekly system maintenance with a few simple scripts and/or cron jobs.

Gentoo is also about choice. Don't want to use Postfix? Fine, use Exim or Qmail. Don't want to use Apache 2? Apache 1 is available. Not a fan of syslog-ng and vixie-cron? Choose from a list of other loggers and cron utilities. Want to keep Java off of your machine? You can make a simple change to a config file that will ensure that a JRE or JDK will never be installed.

What's new in 2006.0

The Gentoo liveCDThe Gentoo installer
The Gentoo liveCDThe Gentoo 2006.0 installer

The only major change to Gentoo in this release is the addition of a liveCD with a graphical installer. The liveCD boots to a plain GNOME environment with some basic desktop programs and a link to both the graphical and the ncurses-based installers. Both are identical in functionality, but the ncurses installer can be run outside of X.org.

One of the coolest things about the installer is its ability to save installation configuration settings to a text file. You can then use this file to quickly reinstall Gentoo, if necessary. I would imagine that you could easily create a script to automate the installation process by using a prefabricated config file.

The installer is not meant to make the installation process less complex; in fact it does not leave out any of the options that are available from the old "install by hand" process. All it does is make the whole installation routine faster; instead of reading instructions and typing in the next command, you just click checkboxes, type in names and locations, and proceed with the install. It cuts down the pre-compile configuration time by at least half. As a bonus, while you're waiting for the system to install, you can take further advantage of the liveCD environment by browsing the Web.

The Gentoo installer is well-documented, so if you get stuck at any point, the Help button actually does provide some decent assistance.

Gentoo Linux 2006.0 has also reportedly improved its PowerPC and SPARC support, but I didn't have the chance to test any architectures other than x86 for this review.

Putting it to the test

The good news is, the liveCD works really well -- it boots and runs even on ultra-modern computers with peripheral hardware that is only supported through generic drivers. This could be a great advantage for Gentoo users who need a liveCD to fix boot problems with an existing Gentoo installation. You could do this with previous Gentoo CDs, but you were limited to the command line. Alas, the liveCD doesn't save you much time as a rescue CD if you're already a command line wizard.

I'm a veteran of multiple Gentoo installs on a variety of systems, so I was looking forward to using the new installer to see if it could make the process a little simpler. I tried to install Gentoo 2006.0 at least a half dozen times on my test system (Asus A8NE, Athlon 64 X2 3800+, 1GB RAM, Seagate SATA-V 150GB drive, ATI Radeon X700 PCIe video card -- this system works perfectly with other, older distros), and the Gentoo installer failed in various ways each time. I didn't give up until the installer completed with a non-fatal exit status, but it still produced some errors and did not install the system as intended. I re-checked the ISO's MD5 sum, wrote it to a new CD, and still had all the same problems with the new Gentoo installer.

Using a stage 3 environment generated from the liveCD itself, and installing no extra packages or programs, I was able to get Gentoo onto the test computer. The Gentoo installer made it a much easier, quicker task to get to this point. However, a significant amount of time was spent after the fact, installing programs and changing settings that seemed to cause the installer to error out and fail.

Since the AMD64 edition of the liveCD was marked as "experimental," I figured it wasn't worth the hassle to try it out, considering my experiences with the more heavily tested x86 edition.

If you are going to use the Gentoo installer from the liveCD, make sure you save your installation settings before the actual installation process begins. If the installer fails, you will not be able to restart it with your settings unless you have saved them to a file.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

The new Gentoo installer is a step in the right direction, but it's not production-ready just yet. Gentoo Linux in general, though, is more than capable of performing the duties of a desktop or server operating system. For the technically inclined, I highly recommend it.

Here's what I'd like to see changed or improved in the next Gentoo release:

  • Better testing on the installer. The new Gentoo installer doesn't work very well; it could use a lot more testing.
  • An option to go back in case the installer fails. It really sucks when you spend 20 minutes tweaking the settings to install the perfect Gentoo system, only to see them all erased when the installer errors out. Why not give the option to posthumously save the install settings upon failure, or at least to go back and remove some options so that you can try again?
  • Automounting of existing disk partitions. The liveCD should mount any detected hard drive partitions. This makes it much easier to use as a "fixit" CD in those rare instances when you've made your Gentoo system unbootable. It's also nice if you're installing to a hard drive that has unknown content; it would be helpful to see what is on the disk before it is partitioned and formatted.
  • Java 5.0 support. I've been waiting patiently for several months to get Sun-JDK 1.5 support in Gentoo. Yes, I have read the notes on why Gentoo doesn't have it yet. But many other distros have Java 5.0 support. It seems to me that this should have been fixed in Gentoo by now.
Purpose Operating system
Manufacturer The Gentoo Linux Project
Architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T, PPC, PPC64, SPARC, SPARC64, Alpha, IA64, HPPA
License GNU General Public License
Market Experienced GNU/Linux users, FreeBSD users wanting to switch to GNU/Linux
Price (retail) Free to download, or you can buy it on CD from the Gentoo Store
Previous version Gentoo Linux 2005.1
Product Web site Click here