Arch Linux, arguably the best-known streaming distribution, just celebrated its 20th anniversary. The project commemorated its first public release, 0.1, with a snapshot of its original homepage.
Few years ago, The Reg watched “the last DIY Linux user’s haven” and loved it. Arch has several virtues that have helped him survive and thrive quietly, largely out of the spotlight.
The first thing that strikes a new Arch user is that there is no installer: the install disc simply boots to a command prompt. There is actually an installer, but it is not the default method. The best way is to simply follow the documentation, which walks you through the process of creating partitions, installing the operating system, installing a bootloader, and configuring it.
The documentation is exceptionally good. Even speaking like someone who has spent years writing Linux documentation for a living, the Arch wiki is one of the best, most comprehensive, and comprehensive documentation in the industry. Professionals who write the documents for various enterprise Linux distributions often end up looking for information on the Arch wiki. (Don’t ask me how I know, I just know, okay?)
The installation process and the underlying documentation lead to the third virtue: a full installation tends to be very small and simple, because you only install the things you need. If you’re not sure what you need, the documentation will help you figure it out, and the result is something that’s both pretty minimal and hopefully you understand. You know what’s in there because you installed it.
Which means, no, it’s not an operating system for your grandma – unless your grandma is already a techie, which happens – but it’s a great learning tool. I’d be hesitant to recommend Arch as someone’s first introduction to Linux, but if you’re a Reg Reader, you probably have a clue, and as such you can fix this… and you’ll understand the result better than an Ubuntu install or an Ubuntu remix. Start with Ubuntu or Mint, try a few desktops in virtual machines, find a combination you like, then rebuild it in Arch.
Unlike Gentoo, you don’t have to compile everything, so it doesn’t take a lot of time. Unlike Linux from Scratch, the result is a fully functional operating system with a package manager, so you can keep it up to date effortlessly. (Although as your skills grow, LFS is a great next step.)
As a streaming distro, you always get pretty much the latest versions of everything. The distro’s maintainers don’t modify its components substantially, so you get standard builds, which makes troubleshooting easier.
The only downside I’ve personally encountered with Arch is that if it’s not your main operating system and you don’t use it very often, it can be difficult to update a very old install, because so many things have changed.
Arch wasn’t the first streaming distribution – it was arguably Gentoo, founded in 2000 – but arguably, all early distributions were to some extent. It’s not a completely from scratch project – it was originally based on Crux Linux, which is still around. There are new streaming distros, including openSUSE Tumbleweed, first released in 2014.
As it enters its third decade, Arch also has several descendants, such as Manjaro, Antergos successor EndeavourOS, and Garuda Linux.
Arch has survived and thrived, and what sets it apart and makes it worthwhile is the combination of simplicity, small size, great documentation, and the understanding that comes with building your own operating system. . It’s not an ideal server operating system, although some people are running it in production.
Yes, of course, if you just have a job to do and don’t want to take the time, choose a more stable and slower distro. If you want a reasonable installer and defaults, plus a little more integration, Arch Derivatives can help. If you want it, along with built-in snapshots and restore, and a handy system-wide administration tool, openSUSE Tumbleweed provides it for you.
What sets Linux apart from other Unix-related free operating systems such as FreeBSD is that Linux is not a single piece of software from a single team. It’s several hundred separate pieces of software, flying in very close formation – and all of them are being developed on their own separate timelines. Bringing them together 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 each 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 develop those skills. If you want to understand what your team is doing, Arch is a great way to learn. If you want to know about new versions of components, Arch is also very good for that.
What makes paid enterprise distros money is mostly large teams of developers backporting security patches to older versions of all of their various components, so you don’t have to manage the integration work of making different versions of unrelated products work together. But someone is doing it, and he has to learn somewhere. This is where Arch scores.
Eric Raymond said of the Lisp programming language:
Arch Linux is a bit like that. That is why it has survived for two decades, and may it continue long. ®