Gentoo Linux 2004.2 Rocks!

I managed to give the latest Gentoo Linux a whirl just in time to rave about it at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in S.F. next week. I tried out a lot of the newer features they’ve bundled into the new x86 Universal LiveCD, and I’m here to tell you, I’m impressed.

The primary difference I appreciated most was the time that has been spent to massage and clarify the Gentoo Handbook. This serves as a complete reference to choosing an installation method, obtaining media, and getting you through the complex installation for whatever platform they support (more than most distributions) that you are using. When I first encountered this manual in preparation for installing version 1.2 several years ago, it was a sadder sight by far…incomplete, incorrect, and poorly worded througout. It was kind of like driving a Ferrari in rush hour traffic with both eyes closed. Exhilarating, dangerous, and frustrating. After going through the install several times with several versions, it seemed far less important to have good documentation than it was during the intimidating first time. The current manual is clear, and with a few minor exceptions particular to my personal preferences to building machines, very correct in its content. Although it is still not for the novice, it has a learning curve that is not nearly as steep as it once was. Good for the cow!

While the ISO is huge (a sad, sad thing if you’ve got a slow connection to the Internet), the Universal LiveCD is well worth the time investment. Along with the Packages ISO, the CD set gives you the power to get a system up and running in less time, and without a network. For those of you not quite clear on the difference between Gentoo and other distributions, Gentoo boxes are typically built specific to the hardware on which they run because all software, from the basic build environment, all the way to the most complex of office applications, are all compiled from the source code. This makes for a significant time investment on a single machine, but allows one to optimize a build suited for a specific purpose, and gets rid of the problem of getting that darn “square peg to fit the round hole” problem one is left with using other popular distributions. Once you’ve “purpose-built” an installation, you can then leverage the time investment to other machines on like hardware. The Universal CD Gentoo has provided gives you a significant head start on the build by providing basic tool sets and applications pre-built for various chipsets. All the flexibility of Gentoo Linux, with some of the “Easy Bake” feel of other distributions. Wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the best of both worlds, but definitely helps those fearful of the high level of geekiness Gentoo has typically required overcome some of the bigger hurdles…primarily time and dedication.

Another new feature provided by Gentoo is the genkernel tool. Instead of requiring you to know your hardware inside and out,genkernel allows you to build a kernel and all the modules necessary to use hotplug to autodetect, and load modules at boot dynamically. This is the way the LiveCD kernel is generated to support a wide array of hardware. Obviously, this is not the most optimal way to build a kernel, but it does give the opportunity to learn more about your hardware to facilitate future, more custom builds. The primary drawback of this method was the significant amount of time it reqired.

The flashiest addition to the Gentoo install was the use ofbootsplash to customize the way the console terminal looks. This is purely “eye candy”, but was a nice piece of glitz on an otherwise glamourless process. Basically, this tool just uses the framebuffer enabled kernel to allow a custom backgound on a standard terminal screen. Kind of gives an X look to an X-less environment. I had not seen this tool is use before. Now that I know how it works, and how it is configured, I can use if for my purpose-built servers, workstations, and custom boot CDs. Wicked cool!

All in all, an excellent job by the fine folks over at Gentoo!

Over the next week or so I hope to get a chance to clue you into what I’m working on that led to a fresh install…but it’s far more than I can write right now.

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