My experiences with Gentoo

I wanted to try Gentoo for ages before I actually got it; hearing about it and its optimisations and general niceness. Unfortunately, I was a little too chicken to try it out and was in general unable to: I didn't have Knoppix, or for that matter a CD burner or floppy drive, and so couldn't get to the command prompt and browser I would need to do the install. After getting a CD burner, I downloaded Knoppix, used a hard disk install of that for a month of two and eventually moved over to Gentoo.

Gentoo can be installed in many ways, all of which require an Internet connection and a willingness to sleep while it compiles. The install can be started at various predefined points, called stages, of which there are three.

  • Stage One - You compile everything from scratch. EVERYTHING. This takes a long time, but you get great optimisation.
  • Stage Two (the one I used) - You compile less, but get less optimisations as a result. This took me about 8 hours to set up in all.
  • Stage Three - Not much is compiled at all, just untar a few files, change some settings and the install is done.
Stage Two was pretty easy: it involved downloading two files, a snapshot of Portage files, and a minimal system with which to compile the rest. Following instructions on the Gentoo website, a partition was formatted and the files listed above decompressed into it. The rest of the installation was done by chrooting into the above partition, and issuing the command "emerge system". This told Gentoo's packaging system, portage, to download and compile the source code which would create a full system. After this, init scripts were created for Ethernet cards, the time zone set and a kernel compiled. Through the nature of portage, the latest kernel was available, as was KDE 3.2 and GNOME 2.6.

Gentoo's documentation is excellent, clearly laid out and excellently explained. Tasks like partitioning, bootstrapping and kernel compilation are explained expertly and in a way that even the least computer savvy could understand. Outside of the installation guide, there were brilliant howtos on installing KDE/GNOME, ALSA for sound and even printing (a task made ridiculously easy). I can't praise their documentation enough, and backed up by the helpful forums it is one of many things Gentoo has over other distributions.

After rebooting, Gentoo offers a very basic system, which is added to through Portage. Portage's compile options are endlessly configurable, even at compile time: for instance, if you don't want KDE ARTS support in XMMS, you can put USE="-arts" in front of the XMMS emerge command to disable ARTS support. Again, Gentoo's documentation explains this clearly.

As for bad points, lots of packages are "masked", meaning they can't be installed without unlocking them by editing a text file or modifying Portage options. This is annoying and if dependencies of programs are masked makes it a living hell to sort out. GNOME 2.6, for instance, requires commenting about 50 lines in a text file, otherwise it will be locked. I appreciate that this is for stability concerns, but it is annoying. Also, Gentoo-specific documentation should be provided for some programs, like Apache, to make configuration of these programs easy through the Portage system, and Portage should be able to list all the files which a package has installed, if only to simplify finding some obscure file in a package.

Despite these flaws, I won't be moving away from Gentoo. It made everything, from installation of a web server to the creation of a Freevo PVR box, incredibly easy, and is extremely stable and simple to maintain. I recommend that every user who is annoyed at the lack of flexibility and out of date packages that Debian provides try Gentoo; it's just as simple, if not simpler, than Debian and provides far more scope for customisation.
Gentoo website: www.gentoo.org