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Sorry Gentoo, Maybe Later

The great thing about working for a Linux shop, and the fact that there are only 3 employees, is the interest in using any Linux distribution as workstations.

A couple days ago, a conversation erupted in IRC about Gentoo. It was a decent conversation, and I was sharing it with my coworker. He, being mainly a Debian nut, got his interest piqued, and decided to try it out. We just moved into a small office space a week or two ago, and in the meantime, we are building some desks for the office. As such, he hasn't setup his computer. The hardware is temperamental, and Ubuntu Edgy won't install on it (USB and SATA issues). However, the nightly build of Debian testing installed just fine. So, my computer is up and running with Debian, but my coworker's computer hasn't even been taken out of the box. That changed yesterday.

Because of the interest all of the sudden in Gentoo, we decided to give it a whirl. At the request of beandog and maquis, we downloaded the minimal cd, burned it to a disk, and rebooted. Because of the few hardware issues that are present with these boxes and Linux, we had to pass a couple kernel commands, so we could get working. But, we had to do the same with Debian on my machine, so it wasn't that big of an issue.

Once booted, we were at a terminal prompt. Because the terminal, and installing Linux, is nothing foreign to us, we thought we knew the steps we needed to take to get a working system up and running. We referred to the manual on occasion, only to figure out how to download and unpack stage3 and portage, and the specific commands to Gentoo. Otherwise, we set out on our own.

BIG mistake.

First off, we downloaded and unpacked stage3 and portage in RAM. It hadn't occurred to us, as it should have, to partition the hard drive first. So, no surprise, stage3 wouldn't fully unpack due to space limitations. Same with portage. Once we realized the error of our ways, we promptly started setting up the partitions.

At this point, we realized the manual might be more valuable than we thought, so we started following it fairly religiously. Rather than using fdisk to partition the drive, we used parted, as we are both more familiar with that. The problem, though, was we needed to specify the exact cylinders that we wanted our partitions to start on and end on. This seemed to be a bit backwards. But, it is probably our naive nature to partitioning that was making it difficult. There was probably something easier than what we were doing.

After we had the partitions setup, we had the oddest anomaly. We had two, yes two, /mnt/gentoo directories. Now, how does that work? No, I didn't type it incorrectly. One /mnt/gentoo contained different files than the other. I assumed that one of them was mounted in RAM and the other on the HDD. But, that didn't make any sense, because we had /mnt/gentoo specifically mounted to the HDD. So, how can there be two of them?

At any rate, one of the /mnt/gentoo directories had our stage3 tar.bz2 and the portage tar.bz2. We figured it was in RAM, because we downloaded them before setting up the partitions. It should be just as simple as copying them from RAM (if that is in fact where they are residing) to the HDD. No luck. Every attempt we were met with was more confusion, and an error saying there wasn't enough room on the partition, when, in fact, 240GB was mounted.

At any rate, we were about 3, maybe even 4, hours into the install. It was just way too much work to get it up and running. So, we bagged it, and went with Debian after all. 2 hours later (the time it took to download the packages from the web), we had a fully functional Debian testing box. I'm not blaming all of that time to Gentoo. Half of it was our own fault and ignorance, but the other half is Gentoo's ability to make it difficult.

I had a couple observations during the install of Gentoo. First, I kept asking myself why I was doing everything manually. I understand that automation can give up a level of control, but, why do I have to get the packages myself, and unpack them? We even had to configure our network card, as the DHCP client in Gentoo just was not picking anything up (maybe a bug?). Manually specifying the cylinders that we wanted the partitions to start and end on was another headache. There is probably a way to setup the partitions with out that, but we couldn't figure it out.

All in all, I felt that I had taken several steps backwards in time. Automating the network, partitioning, package selection and setting up partitions all should be automated. For example, when using the text-based installer with Debian, I still can say exactly what packages I want on the system and exactly how I want my partitions setup. I just don't have to grab the packages myself, I don't have to unpack and install them. I just specify a mirror. And, I don't have to specify the cylinders for my partitions. I haven't lost any control, and the install is worlds of a difference better, I think, anyway.

To conclude, Gentoo just isn't for us. Not at this point. We may put it inside a virtual machine, and give it a whirl there, but we won't be installing with the minimal CD. No, we'll be using the universal CD that has a better installer. Gentoo isn't for first time users. I don't think anyone will argue with me there. Gentoo, I think, isn't for the moderately advanced Linux hacker either. At least it wasn't for us.

Gentoo sounds like a solid system, and we're not giving up on it yet. Maybe some of you Gentoo hackers can tell me what we were doing wrong, so we can make it a more pleasurable experience next time.

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