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Gentoo Linux 2006.1 review

By Jem Matzan

In one respect, Gentoo Linux 2006.1 is the same as it's always been, except with newer software on the installation media. Beginning with version 2006.0, though, a graphical environment was added to the live CD along with an installation program that rarely worked properly. The good news is, the installer works reasonably well in Gentoo 2006.1; the bad news is, it's still quicker and easier to install by hand via the command line.

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 the new features and improvements in 2006.1.

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.

Many people don't know that Gentoo 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 system updating, configuration, and maintenance.

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.

Each Gentoo release serves only one purpose: to more easily install on newer computers. You don't upgrade Gentoo by downloading the new release, writing it to a CD or DVD, and then installing it over the old one. Instead you simply use Gentoo's built-in tools to upgrade the OS little by little at intervals of your choosing. All of this -- and everything else that has to do with system administration -- is done from the command line, so if you don't have a very good understanding of the CLI now, you will by the time you're through with a complete installation and configuration of Gentoo.

What's new in 2006.1

The Gentoo 2006.1 liveDVD
The Gentoo 2006.1 live DVD (click to enlarge)

As mentioned above, the only real reason for new Gentoo "releases" is to update the installation media. So 2006.1 offers an updated kernel (2.6.17-gentoo-r7) with expanded hardware support, and a much-improved installation utility on the live CD. A 1GB live DVD is also available; it serves the same purpose as the live CD except it has more binary packages.

Here are the rest of the highlights in the 2006.1 release:

  • Network-less install mode
  • Sub-profiles for desktop and server machines
  • Improved graphical installation program
  • Serial console support for Alpha and XServe PPC systems
  • UltraSPARC T1 support
  • >4GB RAM support in SPARC systems
  • Dual-core PowerPC G5 support
  • PPC 32-bit and 64-bit support
  • Added the ability to install onto a PPC machine from a Firewire disk
  • Java 5.0 support has been added to the base system since 2006.0 (this is not officially part of the "release," but it's worth mentioning)

Putting it to the test

The installation program is cosmetically similar to the previous version included with 2006.0. Its process is a little more streamlined, but it still has a bug in the partitioning utility that forces users to delete partitions in order to change the filesystem type. So if you have a blank drive and want to change the suggested default partitioning scheme (which offers a 100MB /boot partition -- too small if you want to use more than one kernel), you have to delete each partition and then recreate it with your filesystem of choice. If you change your mind, you have to delete and recreate again. The same applies to existing filesystems that you would like to reformat as a different type.

Unlike its predecessor, the installer in 2006.1 actually installed Gentoo Linux on my test machines with both the x86 and AMD64 editions. The AMD64 version did fail during package installation after the base system and boot loader had already been installed; the solution was to restart the system and install the packages by hand with Portage.

As it turned out, even when the installation went perfectly I was left with a system that required so much fixing that I may as well have done the whole thing the old fashioned way from the command line. My configuration files were not as I wanted them (some contained outright errors), there was no kernel source installed during the dynamic network-less installation, and no matter what options I chose, I could not prevent the kernel from being built as a large collection of modules. Aside from the fact that this approach consumes more hard drive space and takes longer to boot, it also takes considerably longer to recompile when an updated kernel is available. A large part of the point of using Gentoo is so that you can build a thin, streamlined system -- that includes the kernel with all of the necessary drivers and options (and nothing more) compiled in. The installation program plots a course that is very much like a traditional GNU/Linux distribution with its endless list of mostly superfluous modules and a static GRUB configuration that must be modified every time the kernel version changes (if you compile the kernel by hand, usually you end up with a generic /boot/vmlinuz kernel name, so you never have to change the /boot/grub.conf file after upgrading your kernel -- it always points to the same file name).

Speaking of kernels, I had to completely reconfigure the one that genkernel made during the installation process; some of my hardware was not properly detected, and I had to go through the kernel and change it all by hand.

Considering all of the unused space on the live DVD, you would think that there would be some stage files on it. If there were, I couldn't find them, and the only instructions available on the live DVD was a FAQ. Actually it was a link to a FAQ file on the Web, which is completely useless to people who don't yet have a network connection. To top it all off, the installer FAQ is comprised of worthless questions, ambiguous answers, and snarky comments -- no real information about the installer (like how to retrieve a stage tarball) or suggestions (like saving the configuration before committing the process).

There are two new sub-profiles: desktop and server. I took a look at them and tried them both out. If you're wondering how to do this, here are the commands:

su
rm /etc/make.profile
ln -s /usr/portage/profiles/default-linux/x86/2006.1/desktop /etc/make.profile
env-update

You can substitute amd64 for x86 in the above example, and server for desktop. The only meaningful thing these sub-profiles do is change the default USE options. If you performed a manual install and made your own /etc/make.conf file or spent the time to go through the USE checklist in the graphical installer, then changing the sub-profile will do little or nothing for you.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

Overall, Gentoo Linux 2006.1 is an improvement over 2006.0, but the graphical installation utility is still not production-ready. Your best bet is to download and print the installation guide in the Gentoo Handbook, download and create a minimal install CD, and follow the directions as they apply to you. At the end, you'll have a highly customized, properly working machine that you know inside and out because you configured it yourself. If you follow the live CD or live DVD and use the graphical installer, you're likely to be fixing post-install configuration problems for days or weeks, and you'll be greeted by a host of other problems when you try to install a newer kernel or anything that depends on the kernel source (like proprietary video drivers or VMware Workstation). People new to Gentoo are probably better served by completely forgetting that the installer even exists.

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

  • Scale back the installer. The Gentoo installer still doesn't work well enough to supplant a manual installation. Instead of trying to be YaST or Anaconda, perhaps the Gentoo installer should simply automate some of the most common manual install tasks and let the user do the rest himself. It's better to do the configuration right by hand initially than it is to find out that it's wrong later on and have to fix it at an inconvenient time.
  • Automounting of existing disk partitions. The live CD/DVD 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.
  • Improve the partitioning tool. The installer's partitioning utility is not terribly intelligent. Users should be able to change filesystem types without deleting the partition, assuming it hasn't already been created.
  • Add the option of selecting a make.profile. Why do this after the fact, and end up recompiling everything you just installed? There should be an option in the installer to select a profile.
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 2006.0
Product Web site Click here