By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2006-05-01 Email Print this article Print

Gentoo is a Linux distribution that succeeds in striking a balance between fine-grained configurability and ongoing manageability.

In contrast to popular Linux distributions such as Red Hats Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Debian GNU/Linux that are delivered as collections of precompiled binaries, Gentoo Linux users build the software that makes up their Gentoo systems from source. In this way, Gentoo preserves for administrators a broader range of software configuration options, since many choices must be made at compile time.

eWeek Labs tested the latest version of Gentoo Linux, 2006.0, which was released in late February. We were impressed by the steps the Gentoo team has taken toward making the system accessible to a broader group of potential users—principally through the addition of a graphical installer that graces the distributions new LiveCD installer.

Gentoo Linux is coming into its own. Click here to read more. We can wholeheartedly recommend Gentoo for testing new software components. We can provisionally recommend it for production environments: Provided that your IT organization includes administrators who are very familiar with Gentoo—and are prepared to smooth out potential snags—Gentoo Linux can be a stable and well-performing option, particularly when your applications require a combination of components that falls outside what typical Linux distributions provide.

Whats more, in production scenarios with Gentoo, its important to stick to a solid testing regimen, compiling and testing updates and new applications before delpoying them to your production machine. With such a setup, you can also avoid having to compile software directly on your production machine, since Gentoo offers support for packaging up compiled software for deployment on a similar Gentoo machine.

And, as a distribution thats focused on leaving to its users many of the configuration choices that are reserved for the core development team in other popular Linux flavors, Gentoo is an excellent distribution for testing the latest and greatest of what the free and open-source world has to offer.

For instance, Gentoos software repository—which is accessible through the systems software installation tool, Portage—contains 21 different Linux kernel flavors. These include kernel sources for the OpenVZ, User-Mode Linux, Linux VServers and Xen system virtualization projects, each of which requires its own set of kernel patches to operate.

While binary and source packages for major distributions, such as Debian and Fedora, are available on the Internet for each of these projects, Gentoo places the code—and the means to custom-build the projects for your system—closer at hand than any distribution weve tested.

However, Gentoos vices stem from the same roots as its virtues do. To start, compiling software to fit takes a good deal longer than simply downloading binaries. We were able to use utilities such as ccache and dist-cc to speed up compile times, but, even so, updates and new software installations take longer on Gentoo systems than on Red Hat or SUSE boxes.

Whats more, the fact that each Gentoo installation is a bit different means that Gentoo developers cant test Gentoo as a complete system, the way that Debian developers can. With the countless combinations of software components and versions that a Gentoo box is heir to come potentially unforeseen bugs and conflicts.

Along similar lines, weve found that Gentoo typically doesnt manage to keep up with fast-moving distributions such as Fedora or Ubuntu in providing "stable" versions of key application components—that is, application versions that the Gentoo team has marked stable, versus testing (a.k.a. "masked") or unstable (a.k.a. "hard-masked) versions. For instance, where Fedora Core 5 includes GNOME version 2.14.1 and KDE version 3.5.2, Gentoos current stable GNOME version is 2.12.2 and its stable KDE version is 3.4.3—one full version old, in both cases.

The most noticeable new element of Gentoo Linux 2006.0 is its installer disk—a LiveCD that booted us into a GNOME environment, complete with a copy of the Firefox Web browser. From within this LiveCD environment, we could launch Gentoos new, also graphical installer application, and we could cruise the Internet for answers to any questions about the installation we had—or check Web mail, for that matter—while our installation unfolded.

The previous Gentoo installer disk was also a LiveCD, with a handful of useful applications, but it was text-only. In that version, the Gentoo install process was broken down into a series of command-line steps, all laid out in the Gentoo Handbook on the projects Web site. In version 2006.0, that command-line install process remains available, but we found that the graphical installer automates the process very well, while remaining flexible for advanced configuration choices.

The Gentoo Handbook isnt quite as vital when youre using the graphical installer, but weve found this document, along with a great deal of other Gentoo documentation available on the projects Web site, to be well-written and up-to-date. Weve also been impressed with the Web site gentoo-wiki.org, which, unlike the official Gentoo documentation, may be freely modified by Web users (just like wikipedia.org, the mediawiki software that also powers gentoo.wiki.org).

Two other good sources for information about Gentoo are the projects forums, at forums.gentoo.org, and the Gentoo IRC channels on the freenode IRC server.

Next page: Evaluation Shortlist: Related Products.

As Editor in Chief of eWEEK Labs, Jason Brooks manages the Labs team and is responsible for eWEEK's print edition. Brooks joined eWEEK in 1999, and has covered wireless networking, office productivity suites, mobile devices, Windows, virtualization, and desktops and notebooks. JasonÔÇÖs coverage is currently focused on Linux and Unix operating systems, open-source software and licensing, cloud computing and Software as a Service. Follow Jason on Twitter at jasonbrooks, or reach him by email at jbrooks@eweek.com.

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