Why not Arch Linux?


Updated: March 28, 2016

Among billions of emails that I receive daily, a frequently recurring theme is that of my willingness, or rather, lack thereof, to test and review Arch Linux. Not a derivative with a nice and fancy GUI but the stock vanilla distro. Which made me write this article.

So, without sounding high and mighty, I'd like to discuss the more philosophical question of how and why and when certain distros get to enjoy my grace, and why Arch Linux in its naked, pure form has never gotten its due review. Not only will you get an answer to your question, but you may also learn something new extra in the process. Shall we?

Teaser

To tinker or not to tinker

A popular community perception is that Arch be one of them distros what needs tough love. In other words, to be able to actually use the system you first need to invest a whole lot of time, energy, patience, precision, command line fury, and reading. All these before you even get to enjoy one iota of the final product. That is the mission statement, and this is the baseline premise for the discussion. If you disagree, you are more than welcome to navigate away right now, and save yourself a handful of frustrating minutes. As we know, reading comprehension isn't the strongest force in the community, so there.

With the mandatory 30 minutes to four hour ordeal of configuring Arch to be a home system, it's earned a reputation of being a tinkerer's distro. And then of course, so much effort can't go without glory, ergo terms like power users and experts also come into play. Except I find this approach to be completely wrong.

Tinkering

Note: Image taken from Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Tinkering is not about turning nuts and bolts

There is undeniable learning curve to setting up your own system from scratch, be it LFS, Gentoo or Arch or any which one. And it is an exercise that definitely should be done, provided your goal is to understand the underlying bits and pieces of the system. But then your system is not a means to an end, i.e. an abstraction layer for applications, it is a goal unto itself. That completely changes the rules of the game.

Which means that if I were to review Arch - I would need to look at it more than just a tool to achieving things like entertainment and productivity - and that goes against everything my reviews stand for. Linux distributions, in fact, any operating system, are there for the sole purpose of helping users enjoy themselves: watch movies, listen to music, play games, type an odd document or two. I find no purpose in maintaining systems for their own sake. It is almost a biological thing when pretty much all of the invested energy goes into feeding the self. Nope. I'm not here to nurture cyborgs.

Cyborg

When the laws of robotics get broken.

But there's more to it. I also believe that Arch does not deserve any special place for being a tinkerer's distro, despite the aura and glamor created by its users. After all, those who have committed themselves so deeply will have no other way of thinking. As far as tinkering goes, any which one Linux is good or bad, equally.

Now it becomes interesting

So let's focus on the power user mystery for a moment, shall we? Following a text wizard slowly, carefully may be an exercise in discipline, and you will learn a little more on how things work beneath the hood, but ultimately, at the end of the day, you will still have only configured your own system. That doesn't make you a wizard.

For that matter, if you understand core concepts of networking, disk management, and then maybe kernel optimization, it does not really matter what distro you use. The only thing that will change is the specific user-space syntax to get the right commands.

Movie hacking leet terminal

Hax0r's terminal. Truth! Or something.

In fact, if you want to learn Linux, then you need to abstractize the user space stuff, which makes Arch irrelevant. Or any other distribution for that matter. If you do want to play that game, then you should focus on industry recognized, standards driven, enterprise quality systems like RHEL and SLES, because they are used on millions upon millions of high-end, mission-critical systems in a range of production scenarios, and that's where interesting things really happen. Configuring Wireless from the command line may be cool once, but if you can fine tune the performance of a large SQL cluster, that's probably more valuable, both to your understanding of the system as well as the overall impact on the world. Plus, you may end up actually making money, and there's nothing more fun than making money out of your hobby and passion.

Let's notch it up further

If you ask me, pretty much all of the system administration stuff is really boring. It's a necessary step to achieve productivity. I don't want to do anything by hand. Manual labor is pointless. I want everything to be automated, self-configured, smart, intelligent, predictive, analytical,with healing properties, etc.

I want to spend as little time being aware of the fact my programs run on top of some code, and I don't care what that code does unless someone pays me to look at it, and then optimize it. I don't want to think about my system, I don't want it to get in my way, it's my slave, and it's doing what I demand. Never the other way around.

True Linux, and Linux being a kernel after all, is all that happens under /proc and /sys, and even that's just an abstractization of all the cool stuff and black magic. But it comes down to scheduling and memory management. It has nothing to do with whatever command you feel like running, and nothing to do with how the operating system was set up. For all I care, it suddenly poofed into existence in front of me, and now I'm hammering and burrowing into its nerdy heart.

Debuginfo not stripped

Interrupts

Disk partitioning? Yes, you should know how to do it, but you can learn about that on Ubuntu just as well as you can on Arch or Slackware. Wireless config? Not difficult. Just boring. Desktop packages? What, now I need to do all this hard work of figuring out all the dependencies myself? Why? I'm not the developer, it's not my job. You don't go to a coffee shop and then grind coffee yourself, do you? Someone else gives you the product, and you use it blithely, and it does not matter how it happened. That's the beauty of it.

Back to tinkering

What is the objective? Becoming better at Linux? Then, the choice of the distro is, I repeat, completely irrelevant. And if anyone thinks you can't do all of what you can on Arch on Ubuntu, they need proper reeducation. Becoming a better system admin? There are certifications for that, and again, enterprise flavors lead the way. No one in the industry cares what distro you may have at home. If anything, CentOS is something people might actually care! Becoming more proficient in the system installation setup? Okay, but why? You should ideally do this once every four or five years. Then, what do you really learn if it's all about following guides from the online wiki? How does that make anyone a power user? Being able to follow text written by someone else makes you into a very good robot really. Long commands and hard labor do not translate into wisdom or respect.

Doing it wrong

Note: Image credits, funnyzone.org.

Conclusion

I have nothing against Arch. But that's exactly the whole point. There's nothing about it that makes it special or worth taking for an extra spin, especially considering the amount of time and effort needed to get it running. It goes against my belief of how technology is done and mastered, and that makes it unsuitable for home use. And it misses the point what Linux is all about.

Manjaro, Netrunner Rolling, KaOS, and others all base off of Arch, and they do it to varying degrees of success, providing the same baseline, the same final product, just without all the middle bits and pieces. That shows you the middle step of the journey is really optional. Unnecessary. Potentially good for your ego, but ultimately not conducive to any industry-standard expertise or knowledge. Besides, I believe in learning new things all the time. Once you've done an Arch install, repeating it would be a mistake. It means you stay put, you spin around in place, and you're not making progress. Which means the whole focus of what many value as the defining Arch quality isn't really one. It's just one potential step to becoming better at Linux. Maybe. But if you want to do it by the book, there are better, more standardized, more widely accepted methods and tools. And so, for all these reasons, you will probably never see Dedoimedo review stock Arch. Unless it comes fully automated and elegant, of course.

P.S. 95% of people reading this article will completely miss its point and come to the inevitable conclusion that a) Dedoimedo hates Arch and its community b) Dedoimedo is a noob and is venting his frustration c) wonder if I wrote this article in a VM or on physical hardware d) douche e) kid go back to Windows. I hope I got all the right responses.

Cheers.

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