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16 September 2011, 10:51

Arch Linux – "It is what you make it"

by Richard Hillesley

Many Linux distributions have taken the path of easy GUI-based installation, in order to appeal to a broader mix of users. But not Arch Linux, which emphasises simplicity of technical complexity over general usability. Richard Hillesley explains.

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Arch Linux is a lightweight Linux distribution optimised for i686 and x86-64 architectures. Arch features a BSD-style init system and its own pacman package manager, and uses a rolling-release development model rather than issuing fixed releases.

Arch likes to define itself around the concept of simplicity, yet Arch Linux is not a distribution for the first time user. Simplicity, as defined by an Arch user, is about elegance and reduced technical complexity at the system configuration level and is not about ease of installation or ease of use, though ease of use may be a useful by-product of the installation process.

Arch doesn't use a graphical installer, and installation is a guided process designed to give the optimum result for the individual user. The user installs a lightweight base system using a text-based installer. The base system comprises the basic necessities: the kernel, the GNU toolchain, libraries and some utilities. The philosophy of the Arch developers is that: "A lightweight base structure built with high programming standards will tend to have lower system resource demands." To this end: "the base system is devoid of all clutter that may obscure important parts of the system, or make access to them difficult or convoluted."

Arch has "a streamlined set of succinctly commented, clean configuration files that are arranged for quick access and editing, with no cumbersome graphical configuration tools to hide possibilities from the user", so, "an Arch Linux system is therefore readily configurable to the very last detail."

Every Arch installation is different to every other Arch installation and is defined by its technical elegance and its adherence to the demands of the individual user or set of users. The aim is not a Linux for every man, but a Linux that is moulded to fit the demands of the individual user. So, as the Arch wiki expresses it, simplicity in the context of Arch Linux means "without unnecessary additions, modifications, or complications. In short; an elegant, minimalist approach."

The benefit of this approach is that an effective Arch installation becomes whatever the user wants of it and, ultimately, "it is what you make it."

For the star gazers

In the beginning GNU/Linux distributions came with everything, because everything wasn't very much. An early GNU/Linux distribution came with the GNU tools, some text editors and games, email clients and browsers, Apache and Samba, and some maverick add-ons, such as ham radio tools or XEphem for the star gazers. Everything that was out there came in some form or another, on a bunch of floppies. For the most part the user put things together himself (or herself), and not everything worked, but it could always be added to or fixed. Linux became a playground for programmers, hobbyists and informed users who had some understanding of how the system worked.

And then along came the more modern distributions that were aimed at the general end user. The emphasis was on getting things to work out of the box, with snazzy GUIs and graphical installers which aimed to be "big and professional", and every distribution hoped to be Linux for the everyman. The downside with these distributions is that the things that made Linux attractive to the hobbyists, programmers and informed users – such as control and flexibility – were sacrificed for the greater good of the generic user.

The role of community distributions such as Arch Linux is to return control to the more technically inclined user as a platform for learning, educating and building into the future. According to Aaron Griffin, the "owner" and lead developer of Arch Linux: "Arch is not a distribution made for 'user friendliness'. It is a distribution designed to be a platform – a 'base' for the user to do what they want. This means that we don't try to force a user's hand into our way of doing things, with our configuration tools, and our ideas. It should be about their ideas."

Zoom Chakra's Tribe installer. 'The installed system is pure Arch Linux + KDE4 + Shaman, with some artistic touches.'

Perhaps because the user is able to do as they wish, Arch has been the base for many derivatives, the best known of which is probably ArchBang; this has gained a following as a minimalist distribution which uses an Arch base and the OpenBox window manager. The Arch philosophy has also been ported to the Hurd in the form of ArchHurd. Other Arch derivatives that are worth trying are Chakra, which is "Arch Linux + KDE4 + Shaman with some artistic touches", and Parabola, which is entirely free software. Arch has also been ported to other architectures, notably ARM-based processors with Arch Linux ARM.

Next: The art of simplicity

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