Digging deeper with Gentoo Linux
by Richard Hillesley
Gentoo is not like other Linux distribution. The Gentoo swims faster than other penguins, and dives deeper. Where more fashionable distributions worry about fast installation and ease of use, Gentoo worries about efficient compilation and degrees of customisation. Richard Hillesley explains its history.
Gentoo is not about ease of use or making installation easier for the new user. Computers are what you do with them, and most users have little or no knowledge of how their systems are put together, and care even less. Gentoo is for the users who want to reach under the hood, get their hands dirty, and learn.
Installation is hands on, and slow and painstaking, but is worth the effort if you have the time and the inclination to work your way through the Gentoo Handbook, and don't mind waiting while the code compiles.
As one comment in the Gentoo forum puts it: "The nice thing about Gentoo is all you have to know how to do is read. Most of the errors tell you what the problem is. After that it's a matter of a quick Google search and then fixing the error..."
"Programming is irrelevant. You will be assimilated."
Read the manual
Gentoo is a distribution for perfectionists and hobbyists who want to know how their system works and how it gets that way, digging deeper into the code and its configuration. The Gentoo community is friendly and helpful, especially to those who help themselves, and the forums are busy with useful information. The culture is not to hold your hand, but to walk you through the process with sound and useful documentation.
Gentoo is not for everybody, and is best suited to the those who are inquisitive and self-reliant and have an interest in exploring how their system is put together and how it works, and don't mind how many iterations it takes.
Most Linux distributions come with the code precompiled. The priority of a consumer oriented operating system is a quick install and a running system that works. For most distributions the code isn't optimised, choices are made on the user's behalf, unwanted programs and daemons are run and seldom used.
In contrast, most of the key Gentoo packages are compiled from source to the specification of the user and the hardware, and every installation is unique. A well-driven installation will result in faster code with less fluff and bloat. The installation may take hours or days but the pay off is that it only happens once. Gentoo is a rolling release and 'version-less', and package updates are 'emerged' from the portage system on the fly.
Gentoo doesn't require special skills but will help those who wish to learn and acquire skills themselves. As one Gentoo user puts it: "Using Gentoo no more requires one to use C than driving a car requires one to be able to rebuild a motor. Conversely, as with being able to rebuild a motor being a useful set of skills to have when using a car, so too is knowledge of C potentially useful when using Gentoo. Moreover while Gentoo rarely, if really ever, forces users to work with C, or other implementation languages, directly, it does allow users to choose when and how deeply they want to dig in to the internals of any given package, and taking full advantage of the didactic potential of the portage tree would provide a broad and fairly thorough general coding course in itself."
Gentoo and its derivatives are less well known than Debian or Red Hat (and their derivatives) because they receive less publicity, and appeal to a different audience, but Gentoo has an active and sizeable community, and both Gentoo and its derivatives have an interesting story to tell.
Derivatives have included Tin Hat Linux, which takes paranoia to new levels, Gentoox, written explicitly for the Xbox, and Nova, which is being developed in Cuba as the state OS to replace dependence on Windows, and has since moved, for convenience, to a Ubuntu base. SystemRescueCD is Gentoo based, as is Saboyan Linux, which is Gentoo but friendly, and comes pre-compiled for ease of use.