Ubuntu vs Gentoo vs Arch – A comparison

Trials with Ubuntu and Gentoo Linux

Arch Linux is now my default distribution – supplanting Ubuntu Linux. Why? Well, its a long story, but I will try to keep it to the point. I am a tinkerer at heart – I love Linux because it allows you to tinker – essentially its a wide open book. Ubuntu has taken Linux down a different path. Ubuntu’s specialty is ease of use, and it excels at that. Ubuntu’s ease of use comes at a price though – flexibility and customization is somewhat diminished due to Ubuntu’s focus on the user experience.

I first moved to Ubuntu in 2008, when Hardy Heron, 8.04LTS was released. I came over as a frustrated Gentoo User. After using Gentoo Linux since 2004 (I used Redhat exclusively before that) I became a bit disenfranchised with Linux as a whole. It seemed that in order to get complete customization and control, I was going to have to suffer through hours of patching and compiling. Ever compile OpenOffice.org on a Pentium 4? It takes hours. I loved Gentoo for its ultimate in customization, but loathed it for the update process.

Ubuntu was a breath of fresh air in many ways – Install it and it just worked. It renewed my faith in Linux. Over time though I discovered several shortcomings. Canonical’s use of Gnome themes that were difficult to change colors on, their move to the non-standard Unity desktop, the fact a total reinstall (or upgrade) was needed to get to a new version of the OS, sticking with specific kernel versions for 6 months at a time, and the fact that by default there isn’t a way on Debian based distributions to get a consistent and reliable dump of daemon status (ie rc-status on Gentoo or rc.d list on Arch) – this is ground level Unix functionality and Ubuntu just plain doesn’t provide a workable solution! These shortcomings led me to look elsewhere after a few years.

One major advantage in to Gentoo, for my needs, is a that it’s a rolling release distribution. This means that kernel, system libraries, the tool chain and applications are updated in place over time, without requiring a wholesale reinstall or upgrade process like typical binary release distros. When you have 10 machines, this becomes a major benefit in keeping them in sync in terms of OS and software versions.

I actually went back to Gentoo for a bit on one system, only to find the same old issues.

Enter Arch Linux

On a whim one night I was perusing Distrowatch, and stumbled upon Arch Linux. Arch is one of the few rolling release distributions that is binary based (minimal compiling for upgrades) and isn’t based on Gentoo Linux. It’s billed as a simple, lightweight Linux, and it definately lives up to its name. Arch has an active user community, has a large and regularly updated core and community maintained package base, and offers the ability, similar to Gentoo, to compile thousands of other packages from the Arch User repository. There is that word again – compiling. But honestly, I have had to do very little of it.

Don’t let the simple, lightweight, moniker steer you aware, Arch is capable of running the most advanced server functions and the latest desktop environments. The lightweight and simple is in maintaining the system. Most system configuration is handled in one file – /etc/rc.conf. The daemon startup order is specified by one line in rc.conf – the order of them named is the order they will start! Imagine that – no messing with symlinks in /etc/init.d anymore.

Package management is simple, kernel updates and initrd images are handled automatically, and support for diskless machines and thin client build processes is second to none.

What’s not to love?

I am sure that their are individuals who would find Arch too much work, and frankly Ubuntu is probably best for them. Linux wouldn’t be Linux with a choice of distros. Its one of its key selling points for me.

Coming up next – more system administration hints for Arch Linux!

Got another distro that you like – leave a comment and let me know!

2 comments on Ubuntu vs Gentoo vs Arch – A comparison

  1. Hi!
    Discovered your site while looking for Gentoo/Arch comparisons. I have been using Linux on and off for ten years, and have been doing quite a few distro reviews recently on my blog. For a summer project, I decided to pick either Gentoo or Arch, install, and talk about my experiences using it for a month. My goal is to break out of my comfort zone and learn new things, hopefully having fun along the way.
    I haven’t yet decided which one to work with first, but I appreciated this short article you wrote.

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