Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Is Gentoo Linux the Choice for Minimalists?

Merriam-Webster defines minimalist as: one who favors restricting the functions and powers of a political organization or the achievement of a set of goals to a minimum. I tends to believe that myself is a minimalist, especially in the areas of computer usage. So what should be my choice for Linux distribution?

There are hundreds of Linux distributions listed in distrowatch while my favorite is Gentoo. To discuss whether it is suitable for minimalists, we need one example for comparison. Here I will choose popular Ubuntu, without any intention to start a flamewar between the two distributions.

If one is the minimalist in terms of installation procedure, Ubuntu seems to be a better choice: the setup procedure may take less than half an hour on modern systems, and during setup, one only needs to make a few selections. Gentoo, on the contrary, requires a rather long process: if you perform a stage 1/3 install, you need to type many commands, setup some configuration files, and modify other configuration files; you need a decent Internet connection, and the compilation process might be quite long (if not longer than LFS). On a not-so-modern setup, to build a system with similar functionalities as what Ubuntu offered, you may need several days. So why bother?

The reasons are:

  • Minimal Components: you can build a minimal system out of your own taste with Gentoo: you only need to install programs you like to use (and their dependencies of course, note that you also have some freedom to choose which dependencies to install by control the USE flag), you also specify the minimum number of services to start at boot time. In the end, you have setup your own system with minimal components.
  • Minimal Upgrade: The upgrade system is also minimal. After installation, Gentoo is versionless. For example, you may use your Gentoo box for a long time without any upgrading. But one day, you may be tempted to upgrade one program, say Firefox, since the new features attract you. Then after synchronization of portage, one simple emerge command can bring this particular program up to date (this may update some dependencies or install new dependencies if needed).
  • Minimal Security Risk: you are less prone to security problems since you have less programs installed.

In summary, the installation for Gentoo can not be labelled as minimal, however this is only needed once for one computer. After installation, you can enjoy all the other benefits from Gentoo. The customization capability of Gentoo tends to encourage me to link it with Emacs: if you like Emacs and want to customize everything, Gentoo might be your favorite distribution.

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