Laying down the glove to the ricers

Shane Hathaway shane at
Mon Sep 11 22:39:34 MDT 2006

Hans Fugal wrote:
> Gentoo is a thief. It robs that which is most valuable: your time. You
> may say that gentoo teaches you a lot about how linux works, and you'd
> be right I reckon, but it's not very efficient. You spend far more time
> and energy in compilation than you do learning.  But hey, we're all free
> to spend/waste our time however we wish. Some have disagreed with me,
> but I say better to waste your time with gentoo than many other 
> time-wasters out there.

I'm sure you realize how easy it is to counter such a generalization, 
but let me give you some examples anyway.

Example A.  I have a desktop running Gentoo.  This 64 bit system is 
complex and general-purpose: it combines KDE, GNOME, MythTV, MPlayer, 
Flash, QEmu, the NVidia driver, software for kids, accounting software, 
electronics design software, and dozens of software development 
environments and tools.  It has quirks like support for JPEG 2000 
everywhere and a kernel patch to support my remote control.  I could 
build a system like this with binary packages, but I've tried to do that 
before, both with RPMs and Debian packages, and I couldn't keep it 
stable; I had to maintain too much by hand.  Gentoo, on the other hand, 
successfully manages the complex combination in an automated way.

I can't pin down why other Linux distributions have difficulty with 
complex combinations, but every other distribution I've tried runs into 
a complexity limit pretty early.  Perhaps it's because each new release 
of a binary distribution generally requires a whole new set of binary 
packages.  The chance that someone is going to build all of the packages 
I want, for the particular distribution release I choose, is very, very 
low.  With Gentoo, all I need is an ebuild (which I can write myself, if 
necessary), and chances are good that my favorite unpopular package will 
work for years.

Example B.  I have a public server that I really want to keep secure.  I 
believe the best way to keep it secure is to run as little as possible 
on it and partition the server using virtual servers.  I'm a bit 
religious about this because I've been through three server breakins in 
the past.  So the server is running a bunch of tiny Gentoo 
installations.  The smallest of the servers runs only 4 processes, and 
even that could be trimmed, I think.  I might be able to make it this 
small with Debian, but AFAIK Gentoo's custom compilation gives it a 
slight edge on security because it makes stack smashing attacks difficult.

Example C.  At work I have a laptop and a small cluster of development 
servers running Gentoo.  Gentoo helped me a lot because it let me 
experiment with different versions of dependent packages until I found 
out exactly which versions my software should require.  Sometimes I have 
to rely on the latest release, even if it isn't widespread yet (e.g. 
PostgreSQL 8.1), and sometimes I can rely on any version released in the 
past few years (e.g. GCC and Python).  Now that I've chosen the 
requirements, I can confidently say which versions of Debian, SUSE, or 
RedHat meet the requirements.

Now for a counterexample.  I installed Gentoo on my parents' computer 
for a while.  It turned out that upgrades were a royal pain, though. 
Every 6 months or so, on a day-long visit, I would begin an upgrade in 
the morning and by the evening it still wasn't finished.  I finally 
switched them to Ubuntu and now we're both much happier.

Another counterexample: now that Ubuntu fulfills the requirements for 
the software I'm working on, I set up an Ubuntu server at work and now 
I'm testing on that.  It works, but I've already discovered two packages 
that apt doesn't know about, sysstat and memcached.  Perhaps I need to 
use the "universe" or "multiverse" repositories to get them.

Do I spend a lot of time maintaining all these Gentoo boxes?  Hardly. 
Much less than I was spending on Red Hat, Mandrake, and Debian, that's 
for sure.  Or maybe the time just feels way more productive.  I couldn't 
care less if the system runs faster or slower compared with other 
distributions.  What's great is that everything continues to work 
together and just gets better over time.


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