Arch Linux, probably the best-known rolling release distribution, has just celebrated its 20th birthday. The project commemorated its first public release, 0.1, with a snapshot its original home page.
A few years ago the reg watched “the DIY linux user’s last resort” and liked it. Arch has several virtues that have helped him survive and thrive in peace, largely away from the limelight.
The first thing that strikes a new Arch user is that there is no installer: the install disk just boots to a command prompt. There is indeed one Plumber, but it’s not the default method. The best way is to just follow that documentationwhich guides you through the process of creating partitions, installing the operating system, installing a boot loader and configuring it.
The documentation is exceptionally good. Even as someone who has spent years writing Linux documentation for a living, the Arch Wiki is some of the best, most thorough, and comprehensive documentation in the industry. The professionals who write the documentation for various Enterprise Linux distributions often end up looking things up on the Arch wiki. (Don’t ask me how I know, I just know, okay?)
The installation process and the documentation behind it leads to the third virtue: A full installation is usually very small and simple, as you only install the bits you need. If you don’t know what bits you need, the documentation will help you figure it out, and the result is something that’s both fairly minimal and, with a little luck, you’ll understand. You know what’s in there because you installed it.
That means no, this isn’t an operating system for your grandma – unless your grandma is already a techie, which happens – but it’s a great learning tool. I’d hesitate to recommend Arch as your first exposure to Linux, but if you’re a Registration number Readers, you probably have a clue, and as such you can figure it out… and you’ll understand the result better than an Ubuntu install or a remix of Ubuntu. Start with Ubuntu or Mint, try a few desktops in VMs, find a combination you like, then recreate them in Arch.
Unlike Gentoo, you don’t have to compile everything, so it doesn’t take long. not how Linux from scratch, the result is a fully functional operating system with a package manager so you can keep it up to date with little effort. (Although your skills will develop, LFS is an excellent next step.)
Since it’s a rolling release distribution, you’ll always get pretty much the latest versions of everything. The maintainers of the distribution don’t change their components significantly, so you get plain vanilla versions, making it easier to troubleshoot.
The only downside I’ve personally experienced with Arch is that it can be difficult to update a very old installation if it’s not your primary operating system and you don’t use it very often since so much has changed.
Arch wasn’t the first rolling release distribution – that was arguably Gentoo, founded in 2000 – but arguably all very early distributions were to some extent. It’s not an entirely new project – it was originally based on Crux Linux, which it still is around. There are newer rolling release distributions – notably openSUSE Tumbleweed which was first released in 2014.
Arch has survived and thrived, and what sets it apart and is worth your time is the combination of simplicity, small size, great documentation, and the understanding that comes from building your own operating system. It’s not an ideal server operating system, although some people run it production.
Yes sure, if you just have a job to do and don’t want to take the time, choose a distro that is more stable and slower. If you want an installer and sensible defaults, plus a bit more integration, the Arch derivatives can help. If you want that plus built-in snapshots and rollback, and a handy system-wide management tool, openSUSE Tumbleweed has that.
What sets Linux apart from other free Unix-related operating systems like FreeBSD is that Linux isn’t a single piece of software from a single team. There are many hundreds of individual pieces of software flying in very close formation – and all are developed according to their own plans. Merging these into a unified whole is what distributions do.
This is also what DevOps teams do and it is the nature of running a modern production system on open source software. I wouldn’t tell my DevOps people to run production servers on Arch, but I would certainly expect any of them to be able to install an Arch system and get it up and running within an hour. If you’re not there yet but want to be, Arch is a great way to build those skills. If you want to understand what your team is doing, Arch is a great way to learn. If you want to learn about newer versions of components, Arch is pretty good for that too.
Most of the time, what keeps paid enterprise distributions going is large teams of developers backporting security fixes to old versions of all their various components, so you don’t have to do the integration work to make different versions of unrelated products work together. But someone does it, and they have to learn it somewhere. Arch scores here.
Eric Raymond called the Lisp programming language:
Arch Linux is a bit like that. That is why it has survived two decades, and long may it remain so. ®