When youâ€™ve been running GNU/Linux distributions for an adequate number of years, I do believe youâ€™ll eventually find yourself walking the path to Mount Gentoo in hope of joining the ancient Greybeards. Many have met their demise on the roadÂ ahead, but armed with the Gentoo handbook weâ€™re confident that itâ€™s within our reach.
What is Gentoo?
Gentoo is a free operating system based on either Linux or FreeBSD that can be automatically optimized and customized for just about any application or need. Extreme configurability, performance and a top-notch user and developer community are all hallmarks of the Gentoo experience according to the projectsÂ about GentooÂ page.
Why choose Gentoo Linux?
If extreme configurability and performance was not enough of a selling point, Gentoo is one of the few remaining GNU/Linux distributions that lets you assemble a Unix-like operating system. Let me quote Gentooâ€™s unofficial mascot:
I was a bit frustrated at the current state of Linux distributionsâ€¦ until I tried Gentoo Linux. â€“ Larry the Cow
Gentoo is a source based distribution that leaves most choices up to the user and expects you to put in the time and effort necessary to build your ownÂ system. However, donâ€™t get discouraged by what initially might seem like an overwhelming task. The Gentoo handbook is an excellent resource thatâ€™ll safely guide you though the installation.
I will say that the installation is rather time-consuming though. I selectedÂ the default desktop profile and went with Xfce as my desktop environment to keep a lightweight system. Even so, I still spent two days configuring the system and building various system components.
Building theÂ LinuxÂ kernel is also a part of the installation, but if youâ€™re unfamiliar with Linux kernel configuration you might rely on Gentooâ€™s genkernel tool. It will automate the process and provide you with a â€œone size fits allâ€ solution. However, as an inspired Gentoo user you probably want to optimize the kernel configuration to your specific hardware.
Portage is the package manager, build system and heart of Gentoo. Portage provides you with unparalleled granular control over your installation. However, that kind of power also deliversÂ complexity and a steep learning curve.
Gentoo being a source based distribution will introduce you to quite a few new concepts when it comes to maintaining your installation. Most notably youâ€™ll have to decide with features each package should support by specifying USE flagâ€™s.
Changing USE flagâ€™s for packages will often pull in additional dependencies and require rebuilds. Occasionally youâ€™ll also have to manage conflicting USE flagâ€™s and dependencies. Itâ€™s not as complicated as it sounds though as Gentoo already have predefined Portage profiles that specifies default values for global and per-package USE flag.
Recently I movedÂ to a KDE Plasma build by switching toÂ the kde desktop profile and issuingÂ a world rebuild without experiencing any issues. In addition to usingÂ Portage profiles, youâ€™ll also want to set some system wide USE flagâ€™s in your Portageâ€™s make.conf to avoid unnecessary features and dependencies (like Gnome support onÂ a KDE based build).
Mastering Portage will likely make or break your Gentoo experience. In my opinion, spending a good amount of time with â€œman portageÂ andÂ man emergeâ€ will save a lot of time and sorrow in the long run.
Please refer to man portage 😉
I donâ€™t think anyÂ distribution offers quite the same levelÂ of flexibility as Gentoo in regard to system customization. After all, Gentooâ€™s killer feature is its adaptability, hence the term metadistribution.
Currently Iâ€™m running a KDE Plasma 5.8.6 environment without systemd on my Asus G73SW (Intel Core i7) laptop. I have not uncovered anything that didnâ€™t work as expected so I would not hesitate to recommend running KDE on Gentoo. Iâ€™ve now used Gentoo for about a year and my impression of it in terms of quality and stability is overwhelmingly positive.
As you might expect, running a source based distribution does require your continuous attention, but unlike popular belief, youâ€™re not â€œalways compilingâ€ on Gentoo. Most packages compile in a matter of minutes, but you do have those special snowflakes that takes hours to build. As an example, LibreOffice clocks in at 4 hours while Firefox is done within a single hour. Both packages are available in binary format though, but well I like to keep things consistent.
In addition to my desktop system I also deployed a Gentoo based VPS last year to host myÂ onion siteÂ on the Tor network. In comparison, running a Gentoo server predictably seesÂ far less compile action than a desktop system. Itâ€™s been a good experience and it definitely wonâ€™t be my last Gentoo server deployment.
Should you use Gentoo Linux?
Optimization and customization are valid arguments, but for me the main reason for choosing Gentoo was the freedom of choice. The ability to globally disable support for technologies I do not want installed on my system with USE flags has been a feature Iâ€™ve really come to appreciate.
Rolling but no bleeding
Gentoo is a rolling distribution thatÂ priorities proven and stable software. If youâ€™re looking for a rolling â€œbleeding edgeâ€ distribution youâ€™re better suited with Arch or Void Linux.
Work vs Reward
I believe youâ€™ll have a definitive answer after performing a Gentoo installation. If you found the experience to be a waste of time without any obvious benefits, well then Gentoo is unfortunately not what youâ€™re looking for.
OpenRCÂ is Gentooâ€™s default dependency-based init system that maintains compatibility with the system provided init program. Works as advertised in my experience and thatâ€™s all I want from an init system. Users preferring systemd will find Portage profile(s) for their needs.
Running Gentoo has been an interesting and rewarding experience. I did not intend to keep the system running after the initial installation, but somewhere along the road it went from being an alien environment to become a safe haven.Â After a year of runningÂ Gentoo Linux, Iâ€™ll place it only behind Slackware on my all time favorite list.
Gentoo Linux links
Roger hosts his website off of a Raspberry Pi!