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Keeping it simple

Arch began life in early 2001 as a personal project of Judd Vinet, who drew his inspiration from Per Liden's CRUX distribution which shares many of the characteristics of Arch Linux. Like Arch, CRUX was designed to be a lightweight Linux distribution and used BSD-style init scripts and, like Arch, the focus of CRUX was to "keep it simple".

Vinet was drawn to Crux because he found it: "simple, elegant, and very quick and easy to use once you understood how it worked. And understanding did not take long, because everything just made sense – concepts and methods weren't complicated unless they had to be."

But CRUX had one major shortcoming. CRUX used gzipped tarballs and had no dependency tracking. "There was no meta-data, no dependency tracking, and no easy way to locate and download packages. The package set was also very minimalistic."

Vinet's solution was to develop Arch. Initially, Arch was a one-man project, to fulfill the time-honoured objective of scratching the itch of one developer, but the project has grown steadily through the years, and now has well over thirty core developers. For Vinet, Arch was "an opportunity to take all the great concepts I liked about other distributions and combine them together, along with some of my own tastes. Simplicity and elegance were my goals."

Zoom The Arch Linux installer

Scratch an itch

Vinet's solution to the dependency problems he had encountered with Crux was to write a package manager, pacman, which served as a useful adjunct to his build scripts, and became the main selling point of Arch. "Once you install Arch Linux on your computer", he noted, "it's always up to date. Just run pacman on a regular basis and you never have to download another ISO, and never have to rebuild your system with a newer version."

But pacman is "only half of the package management system. It tracks, downloads, installs, removes, and upgrades the tar-gzipped packages that we distribute. The other half is the Arch Build System (ABS), which is a build system heavily based on FreeBSD's ports system."

Other Linux users may argue about the drawbacks of having yet another package management system to rival apt-get or yum, but Linux at the community level has always been about control and choice, and Arch users will tell anyone who asks that pacman is their preferred choice.

According to Vinet pacman was "the biggest draw" for Arch Linux. "People love it," he said. "They also seem to like the simple filesystem layout, the lack of extraneous stuff (like /usr/doc), and the simple boot scripts, which provide modular rc.d daemon scripts but without the SysVinit-style fun."

Just for fun

Judd Vinet left the project in 2007 and handed the reins over to Aaron Griffin, under whom Arch has continued to grow, as a popular distro with a distinctive philosophy all of its own – for experienced users and for those with an itch to scratch.

Arch Linux rivals only Debian in its dedication to its guiding philosophy. For the Arch developer "simplicity is the primary principle", and elegance, versatility and expedience are the secondary virtues. "The simple, elegant and versatile system must offer expedience where practical, but expedience can and will be sacrificed in favour of any of the above. It must be sacrificed whenever implementation simplicity is jeopardised. When expedience is compromised by a resulting complexity of user interface, it must present its complexity without unnecessary complication. All other principles must be sacrificed in favour of design simplicity. Implementation simplicity is more important than interface simplicity."

As if to prove Arch's growing influence and popularity, Arch Linux ARM was recently chosen as one of the distributions to be offered with the Raspberry Pi Foundation's revolutionary ultra-low-cost Linux computer for teaching computer programming to children.

"It's just for fun..." Griffin has said. "I am trying to create the perfect distro to run my machines, and that just so happens to coincide with what other people want. Otherwise we wouldn't have such a great team of developers and community members."

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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