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First look at Manjaro

Currently I’m having a go in a VM at Manjaro, a distribution based on Arch Linux.

There are a few things that make the Arch family particularly awesome, and a few things that make it quite daunting, but it’s really looking promising…. the following notes serve to document what I’ve learnt so far.

I’m using the 0.8.8 install release, 32-bit with Xfce in VirtualBox (the KDE ISO results in a blank/black screen after boot into LiveCD, both driver modes. Mouse visible and still possible to switch to tty terminals. Couldn’t be bothered troubleshooting yet).

Arch Linux Follows a Rolling Release Model

One of the things that makes the Arch base really awesome is that it’s by default a rolling distro. What does this mean?

Any non-rolling distro release has to be supported to a certain degree to allow less technical users to have confidence that they will be receiving security updates regularly, as well as software updates as time goes by.

However, time waits for no man so the saying goes, and after a while, the version currently in use will cease to be supported. To continue to be on a supported system, you will have to reinstall your operating system. The releases change because this allows developers to build new systems with different architectures, different principles, and add improvements that the old architecture did not allow, with each version – they really do build a very different product each time. Eventually, the older projects have to die for being obsolete.

This is the case with Windows XP, which has come to the end of its life at least 3 times already, but just won’t go away. It was released in 2001 and recently, Microsoft reluctantly confirmed it would continue to support (id est, develop security fixes) for the system until June 2015 – bringing the OS to 13 years of age by then!

Back in Linux land, CentOS and RedHat Enterprise Linux are supported for ten years before being dropped (and that’s considered extra-long); Ubuntu’s LTS (long term support) releases last for 5 years, and Fedora would have you switch distro at least once a year in order to remain current (thankfully, Fedorans are obsessed with being cutting edge, so they were expecting that to begin with!)

But rolling distros have it differently from all the above. The architecture was set from day 1, and from then on, every update is incremental on the previous system. There is no real version to speak of. It’s just Arch, and you theoretically never have to reinstall an Arch system.

Manjaro

Manjaro goes a little against the tenet of the main Arch philosophy which is nicely described as “if you try to hide the complexity of the system, you’ll end up with a more complex system.”

Manjaro does indeed try to hide some of the complexity of the system – most notably, the installation process! Installing Manjaro is as easy as installing Ubuntu, whilst installing Arch requires a level of expertise and familiarity much higher than your average user and tinkerer may have, with the main installer being an hour-long terminal session the first time round with the manual.

Once you’ve installed Manjaro, you’re on a GNU/Linux desktop like any other.

Installing software

The command line installer for the Arch family is pacman. Some basics common to every distro using the pacman utility:

  1. Update of system – standard fare after installation, ensure your packages are up to date. The S option installs, the y option specifies to update the database first, the u option specifies an upgrade, the i option searches package names and descriptions. For example: `pacman -Syu` This comes with a warning on the main Arch site: Warning: Instead of immediately updating as soon as updates are available, users must recognize that due to the nature of Arch’s rolling release approach, an update may have unforeseen consequences. This means that it is not wise to update if, for example, one is about to deliver an important presentation. Rather, update during free time and be prepared to deal with any problems that may arise.
  2. Installation of development packages – Used in compiling software retrieved from source. This is more common in Arch than in other distros as we’ll see in a second. To do this, run `pacman -S –needed base-devel`
  3. Install software, for example: `pacman -S htop guake synapse`
  4. Install software from the Arch User Repository: the command `yaourt dropbox i-nex` looks for the “dropbox” and “i-nex” packages. Review the list of items listed, identify the numbers of the packages you want to install to their left, and hit enter. Be warned, you’ll be asked some questions along the way…

Note that last piece – the Arch User Repository is a special repository where everything is user-contributed. You install using the command line “yaourt” utility (French for yoghurt, and pronounced ya-oort)

Note that the contents of the AUR is not verified by the Arch team like the official repository contents are, so it is incumbent on the user to verify that what they are installing is legit. I need to do some investigation here on how – I didn’t see anything on MD5 check-summing for example…

Another thing to note about items in the AUR is that it is all provided as source code – it needs to be built after being downloaded, which is why we needed the developer tools to start off with. Yaourt will deal with downloading and building the packages for you though.

After that, it seems like we’re in a fairly recognizable GNU/Linux box. I’ve heard along the grape vine that Arch gives preference to configuration files for tweaking the system, so I’ll post an update here when I reach that milestone.

Some advantages and disadvantages

After reading Allan McRae’s post from over a year ago, there are a couple of other things I have come to realize:

  • Arch Linux is a bleeding-edge distro. Little change is made to packages from their respective upstreams, and usually the latest version is made available ASAP. This can be as much of a blessing as it is a bane. EDIT: Manjaro’s team maintains stable, testing and unstable branches to mitigate system breakages.
  • As such, Manjaro won’t be for the faint-hearted either, unless I find otherwise. An update could break something any time, and might require some fixing. Luckily I installed with BTRFS on both / and /home, so I should explore that next…
  • You really have to wonder why people put “bleeding edge” distros into data centres… and why updates aren’t tested on development/staging platforms before rolling into production. FFS.

ADDENDUM: Also after reading up in this ecosystem, I have learned that McRae does like trolling people. Anyone reading his posts should take him with a spoonful of salt…

Posted in Free and Open Source, Linux

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