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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.

{ 25 } Comments

  1. Steve Dibb | February 23, 2007 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    As I've said to you on Jabber, I'll just repeat it here ... all the issues you posted about are covered in the handbook. I know it's a long and seems like you don't need to read it when you already know your way around the shell, but it's really an investment in learning how Gentoo works.

    And the reason nothing is automated, like setting up the network, is because it is completely up to you how you want to configure it. Besides, it forces you to learn how to configure a network (in cases of emergency) instead of relying on automated tools that may be buggy, unreliable, or provide useless feedback.

    I agree and disagree that Gentoo is not for a first time user. Depending on their dedication to learning, I think it will work fine.

  2. PriceChild | February 23, 2007 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    First off, I love gentoo. I Just can't keep it as a stable system and choose Ubuntu(+1) over that.

    Anyway I just wanted to comment I don't really recommend you installing gentoo in a VM... can you imagine the compile time?

  3. sharms | February 23, 2007 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I am a strictly Ubuntu user, so I don't run gentoo, but if the one thing they do have is great docs, and if you follow those to the tee, you will have no issues installing it.

  4. Chris Humphries | February 23, 2007 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I'd recommend following the instructions and documentation on the site. Gentoo works great if you just follow the directions, no offense.

    Your problems were pebkac and totally existing from thinking you could just wing it. Everything after that was your fault and no fault of gentoo.

  5. Aaron | February 23, 2007 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Chris- I just don't understand why I need a manual to install an operating system. That is Gentoo's fault. Making it much harder then it needs to be. Their flexibility makes installing the OS a pain.

  6. Sandy | February 23, 2007 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Portage is awesome for general package management. It is extremely easy to use and flexible with regards to picking different versions, sprinkling in unstable packages, USE flags, etc. I only switched to Ubuntu because I was tired of the amount of work required to upgrade system things like the kernel, gcc, python, etc.

    That, and there were times when I needed software installed ASAP, and waiting for source to compile was frustrating. Though day-to-day I didn't mind it.

    I totally agree that the Gentoo docs are awesome. You just have to, you know, read them. 😉

  7. TuxGirl | February 23, 2007 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Aaron, I'm going to respond to your comment here. I don't think this is a failure in Gentoo. The truth is, Gentoo has a different goal from Ubuntu and most other Operating Systems. As a result of its goal, you *will* probably need a manual. On the positive side, though, Gentoo has better documentation than any other OS I've seen, both for installation, and for just about anything else. Regardless of what OS I happen to be using, if I have a problem that is reasonably distro-agnostic, I usually end up going to the gentoo docs to find the solution.

  8. Aaron | February 23, 2007 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    TuxGirl- I agree about the different goal of Gentoo and the documentation. I have actually used Gentoo documentation for Ubuntu many times. In fact, the last time I used it was for setting up a print server in Ubuntu. 🙂 But, they do have different goals, which is fine. Nothing wrong with that, just that I'm not used to it, and find it a little troublesome.

  9. Matt | February 23, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Gentoo is about a manual install. They tell you that up front. They don't hide it - it's pretty hard to hide that in a 40 page install manual. Why is it manual? Because they are serving a niche. A niche of people who want to get their hands dirty, and configure a linux system from the ground up.

    Gentoo is a wonderful system. However, if you don't want to spend the time learning it, then it's not for you. It doesn't allow you to take shortcuts. Asking why the install process has to be manual is like asking why the sun has to rise in the morning. That's just the way it is. If it weren't that way, then it wouldn't be gentoo.

    There are plenty of other distros out there, as you are well aware, but don't criticise gentoo for being gentoo. Some like it, some don't - that's life.

  10. Aaron | February 23, 2007 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Matt- I think the underlying point of my post isn't coming across very clear. I'm not criticizing Gentoo for being Gentoo. I'm just saying that Gentoo, at least at this point, isn't for me, because it is Gentoo. At least not our work. And I never said anywhere in the post that I don't like Gentoo.

    I want to get my hands dirty with it, and I will. I will get it installed, and will have it up and running. It's just not at a point where I want to try it yet. That's all.

  11. Styles | February 23, 2007 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I used to be a Gentoo nut, and even have a couple Gentoo boxes in a production environment.

    That being said you have to follow the Handbook step by step don't improvise unless you truly know what you are doing.

    I can part out a HD with fdisk in less that 2 mins (back in my day, when stage 1 installs were all the rage) And for me it took a good week and a half to get my first Gentoo install working. And boy it was much quicker and more responsive than any distro I have tried before and I was hooked. But I too made your guys mistake the first time I tried a Stage 1 install.

    And to be honest it was great fun to roll your own Linux install and I learned allot. And that knowledge I took from Gentoo and LFS (linux from scratch) has saved my butt and time more than once working with other distro's at my job (now Sr. Linux Sysadmin) It also taught me not to be afraid to customize Kernels to my hardware which I do now on a daily basis. So I can tune every amount of performance I can squeeze out of the hardware in use.

    The reason why I stick to Ubuntu and Debian based systems today is because I like working WITH my OS, and not working ON my OS. Time is money money is time. So with that being stated let me give you guys one word of advise; if you guys start doing more Gentoo or LFS installs. "DISTCC is your friend use it!" it will save you time in the long run.

    Eric aka "Styles" #ubuntu-offtopic addict

  12. Christer Edwards | February 23, 2007 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I had the same issue when beandog convinced me to try it. Basically came down to not wanting to dedicate an entire day to the base installation and compilation of my machine.

    I'm sure its great for those people that want control over *everything* but I think that's just beyond me.

  13. Harley Pig | February 23, 2007 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    You said "[gentoo]'s just not at a point where I want to try it yet."

    That sticks out at me ... Gentoo is a mature distro. I'm not trying to put words in your mouth or attempt to criticize or anything, but the tone of your post indicates you think Gentoo should be the one to change. That's going to stick in people's craw, even if they don't realize it. I might be wrong, but that's the tone I'm getting from your post.

    That said, there are people who agree with you, at least in some respects. There's the Gentoo Installer Project and the Sabayon distro, which is based on Gentoo and is cross-compatible with it. Sabayon is still relatively new and rough around the edges, but it will install binary packages for you and you can compile that at your leisure, in the background.

  14. Harley Pig | February 23, 2007 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Err ... I mean, recompile your installation at your liesure, or not.

  15. Matt | February 23, 2007 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I want to get my hands dirty with it, and I will. I will get it installed, and will have it up and running. It’s just not at a point where I want to try it yet. That’s all.

    My point is that it will never be at that point. It is what it is. The bit that you don't seem to like - ie. reading the documentation, and installing everything manually is the very essence of gentoo. It is never going to change.

    Maybe you should try one of the "pre-built" gentoo distros like:

    kororaa or vidalinux.

  16. Aaron | February 23, 2007 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Harley Pig- Yes. I do think Gentoo is the one that should change. At least in respect to the installer. It's constructive criticism.

    I understand that Gentoo is one for getting your hands dirty, if you want, and I'm certainly not asking them to take that away. But what about those who want to try a source-based distribution, but not deal with the gnarly installer?

    My only complaint is the installer. I think it should change, or have the option to automate, for those who just want to get through it. I also think a manual of that size and nature should not be necessary to install Linux.

    My post, I hope, isn't negative, but just critical. I want to try Gentoo, but I don't want to deal with that installer. If I can't have both, then "[Gentoo] isn't at the point where I want to try it yet".

  17. dbr | February 23, 2007 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The Gentoo LiveCD (The 700MB ISO download, not the minimal one) has a GUI installer - I've not personally used it (I have no interest or need to compile Gentoo from scratch, I'd prefer to use Ubuntu-server or Sabayon) - it seems like a decent installer, but from what I've read it can be slightly unreliable.

    Personally, I don't see the need for Gentoo, particularly as a desktop : the speed-gains from compiling-from-source (on your own machine) is neglible, epically given the amount of time it takes to compile it.
    Sure, for a server where you *only* need BIND9, or LighTTPd, and as little else as possible, Gentoo may make more sense. But, most modern servers can easily deal with a Debian install and a [DNS/Web/etc] Server (And wouldn't see much better performance, you'd be better optimizing the scripts running on the webserver, say), so the only place it'd make sense is on weaker hardware - But on weaker hardware, Gentoo would take a long time to compile..

    Again, thats just my opinion (which is ignoring the fact people like to fiddle with Linux - Setting up Gentoo could be fun, and if you enjoy setting it up, and have the time - Then there's no reason not to) It's just peoeple using Gentoo for *no* reason (And then bragging about it, even in a "I use gentoo! \o/" way) has always bugged me *Shrugs*
    - Ben

  18. Judison | February 24, 2007 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I use gentoo! \o/

    what \o/ means? I never knew...

    Well... I use gentoo because I don't like ubuntu, I don't like fedora, etc.. etc...

    I don't like to waste my HD with tons of software that I don't need...

    Performance? well I have a notebook... Battery, CPU scaling...
    it makes diff when you have a just-what-you-need, no useless libs being loaded, etc...

    but I know it's not for everyone... I (mostly) never recommend it... (unless some geek friends, for others I just say "use ubuntu")

    And it's fun... it keeps me "aware" of what is going on in FS community.

    Don't get bugged with us... 😀

  19. Stedevil | March 15, 2007 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Chris- I just don’t understand why I need a manual to install an operating system. That is Gentoo’s fault. Making it much harder then it needs to be. Their flexibility makes installing the OS a pain.

    What you are looking for is Sabayon. That is the Ubuntu version of Gentoo, ie easy out of the box.
    In essence what you have done is
    1) gone to the toy shop
    2) choose to "buy" the "build your self" model instead of the ready made
    3) complain that the "build yourself" model needs you to actually build it

    Why didnt you just pick the other box of the shelf? That one that you dont need to build yourself?

  20. Aaron | March 15, 2007 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    Stedevil- Good analogy, but not quite the same. First off, I was unaware of Sabayon, but upon learning of it later, I hear it's still very buggy, and not recommended for production, which is what we want.

    Second, referring to your analogy, sure, Gentoo is like the "build it yourself" model, the only problem is, I need a manual to make my own parts and then to take all the parts out of the box before I even start assembling it. In other words, I knew I was purchasing the "do it yourself" model, I just didn't realize that on a scale of 1 - 5, with 5 being most difficult, that it was a 10. I could handle 5.

  21. Zero Schezard | April 13, 2007 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Ok, my 2cents:

    There is a LiveCD on Gentoo site that actually have an installer. I actually tried it, but no luck (I was on a dial-up, so no package download...)

    I agree with you that Gentoo isn't for first timers, but I don't agree with the Moderate Hackers opinion. Gentoo is, for me, a system that users who already know linux and know exactly what they want on Linux.

    For me, gentoo is stable and have exactly what I need. But, It tooks me 3 complete installs of the system to make it behave "just like I want".

    One tip (very useful): BEFORE installing any package, try emerge -pv , for it shows what USE flags the package supports, and what you have enabled.

  22. Rescue9 | May 9, 2007 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I started with RH 5.2, then graduated Slackware After a few years with slack I tried Gentoo. It took me 7 tries to install it the way I wanted, but I finally got it running just right. However, it's getting to be a pain to manage now. My production server is a LAMP with IMAP/Wordpress/Gallery2/etc. Seems now every time I run an emerge system or emerge world somehting breaks. Being as how this is a server without monitor and kb, everytime something breaks I have to go lug the wife's monitor and kb into the other room to try and fix. I want something that just works.

    Ubuntu may not be it, but I'm about to find out. After more problems on my laptop I finally got peeved and wiped the whole gentoo install. Maybe all the issues I've had with gentoo will help me better navigate ubuntu. Maybe I'll be back... either way... it's all about me figureing out whats best for me.

  23. evilshenaniganz | December 15, 2007 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Interesting post. I always like reading people's first experiences with Gentoo. It took me five tries to get a functional Gentoo system back in '03. Looking back on it, I now know it was GRUB that was the culprit all along-- it can be quite an unforgiving pain in the ass. As far as your difficulties installing Gentoo, I can see two problems up front. The first being your choice of partitioning. The handbook recommends fdisk. I'm not sure where you're encountering these cylinder issues. I've used parted on RAID volumes where I've had to use GPT for the disk label and I've never had to specify cylinder boundries. Again, the handbook recommends fdisk. Betweent the two, I think fdisk's menu system is easier to understand and back away from if you make a mistake. After that you unpacked stage3 and the portage tree in RAM, something the handbook stipulates you should do to a mounted filesystem after you've partitioned and formatted your drives to your liking. At any rate, the point of the handbook is to be a guide for those who are new to Gentoo, much like yourself. I would be curious to see what kind of experience you'd have installing Debian from the expert command-line route. I would bet you'd have just as much difficulty.

    Gentoo is not an out-of-box distro. It never has been. If you want a Gentoo-esque out-of-box distro, I recommend Sabayon Linux. Since its inception it has been a source-based distribution. (Due to internal political strife, it's almost the only way to go at this point as the binary aspect of Gentoo has fallen by the wayside.) You're compiling software. That takes time. If you wanted a quick setup (implied by your observation of the amount of time spent trying to install Gentoo) then Gentoo is not for you. You are better off with a binary-based distribution. I wish you the best of luck and urge you to try Gentoo again at your leisure. And to quash any flame-baiting I'm running Gentoo in both domU and dom0 Xen environments right alongside Debain Etch, Lenny, and Sid environments-- some domUs and some dom0s. Each distro has its own strengths and weaknesses.

  24. mrmagoo | February 5, 2008 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    lets see, first gentoo aint faster than anything else, in fact on my ancient p3 700 , its slower than freebsd or debian slightly,.

    umm, to ripff teh forum syntax.

    - cliffsnotes
    we cant read the manual we cant use fdsik we cant chroot a tarball . gintee must suxr

    the gods honest truth?
    umm gentoos portage will show you whats being updated and why, freebsd , shows some ports info, butt the world ? just read the csup info and make a guess or go read the source.

    debian? lol open aptitude on a small display and then dd you drive after 2 minutes

    yes we debian will protect you fom the world!! just type atitude upgrade!!!

  25. mrmagoo | February 5, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    dont read this post ^

    umm, freebsd has the best ducumantation, freebsd wins

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