New distribution: Gentoo Linux 1.4

Gentoo Linux is a relatively new Linux distribution targeted at Linux power users and developers. It is unique among the range of Linux distributions available: although well-documented, Gentoo has no GUI tools, meaning the user gets to do everything by hand. The Portage system, which underpins it, eases software installation.

Gentoo Linux is available in two forms from www.gentoo.org: a small 40MB ISO providing only the most basic of systems, and a more complete 500-600MB ISO providing a much more complete system. (An ISO is a file containing a CD-ROM disc image of a Linux distribution).

After the CD boots you are dropped to a prompt with a brief message instructing you to configure your Internet connection by hand and then to get started reading the install documentation (available at www.gentoo.org/doc/en/gentoo-x86-install.xml). It soon becomes clear that the entire Gentoo Linux installation process must be performed by hand.

Installation

First you need to install modules, configure networking (if not already configured), partition the hard disk and build a basic directory structure for the Gentoo Linux system. Each step is well documented and users with some Linux command line experience should not encounter any problems getting this far.

After your system has been prepared for Gentoo, the distribution can be installed by extracting what are called Stage 1, 2 or 3 tarballs onto the newly created partitions. This is where the choice of ISO comes in to play. Users who chose the small 40MB ISO are required to download and compile their entire Gentoo system from the Internet. There are numerous advantages to this, including access to the latest software, more configuration options, and the end result of a finely-tuned system with performance improvements coming from hours of compiler optimisations. The downside is that the compiling process takes hours. If you take this option, be prepared to set aside an afternoon while your system is built.

The Stage 2 and 3 tarballs, both available on the larger 500-600MB ISO, include a more complete system. Stage 2 still demands a lot of time-consuming compiling, though much less than Stage 1, while Stage 3 is a complete precompiled system. The tarballs in these stages are great if you want to get Gentoo up and running quickly and are less concerned about performance optimisations.

I took the second option and installed the Stage 2 tarball. Installing the Gentoo base is an easy process, just like extracting any other tarball. The compile process starts with a pair of commands and looks after itself until compiling is complete. Gentoo provides prebuilt versions of some large packages including XFree86, KDE and GNOME, available to all installation methods. These are great time-savers and are easy to install.

I did run into some problems com­pleting my install. After compiling the system there are a number of steps to be performed before the system can be booted. Most importantly, a kernel needs to be compiled. At this point I discovered that the ncurses library had not been installed properly and I would have to configure the kernel using the ‘make config’ command, which is an extremely painful process.

After manually configuring the kernel, the rest of the installation went smoothly — and after the best part of an afternoon, I had a working Gentoo Linux system up and running.

Running Gentoo

The first thing you notice when Gentoo Linux starts up is how fast everything is. Most Linux distributions are optimised for either a 386 system (designed to maximise compatibility) or a Pentium system (usually a compromise between compatibility and performance). Gentoo Linux, as a result of the compiling it entails, is optimised for your particular system.

The packages installed by Gentoo Linux initially are just enough to get a basic system running. Once booted, most common packages will have to be installed by hand using Portage. Unique to Gentoo Linux, this package management system is descended from Ports, a system popular with BSD UNIX. Portage makes it easy to install software from source with a single command. For example, to download, compile and install Mozilla, I only needed to type:

$ emerge mozilla

Overall, Gentoo Linux is clearly a distribution for people who like to get under the hood of Linux. Just performing the installation is a great way to understand what is going on in the system. Developers will appreciate the distribution’s strong focus on performance. Gentoo Linux clearly targets developers and performance users, but others may do well to steer clear.

Gentoo System requirements:
Minimum: 486MHz CPU, 64MB RAM
Recommended: +500MHz CPU, +256MB RAM

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Alastair Cousins

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