Striving for greatness

Thoughts on emerging tech, open source, and life

Gentoo needs focus to stay relevant

After nearly 12 years working on Gentoo and hearing blathering about how “Gentoo is about choice” and “Gentoo is a metadistribution,” I’ve come to a conclusion to where we need to go if we want to remain viable as a Linux distribution.

If we want to have any relevance, we need to have focus. Everything for everybody is a guarantee that you’ll be nothing for nobody. So I’ve come up with three specific use cases for Gentoo that I’d like to see us focus on:

People developing software

As Gentoo comes, by default, with a guaranteed-working toolchain, it’s a natural fit for software developers. A few years back, I tried to set up a development environment on Ubuntu. It was unbelievable painful. More recently, I attempted the same on a Mac. Same result — a total nightmare if you aren’t building for Mac or iOS.

Gentoo, on the other hand, provides a proven-working development environment because you build everything from scratch as you install the OS. If you need headers or some library, it’s already there. No problem. Whereas I’ve attempted to get all of the barebones dev packages installed on many other systems and it’s been hugely painful.

Frankly, I’ve never come across as easy of a dev environment as Gentoo, if you’ve managed to set it up as a user in the first place. And that’s the real problem.

People who need extreme flexibility (embedded, etc.)

Nearly 10 years ago, I founded the high-performance clustering project in Gentoo, because it was a fantastic fit for my needs as an end user in a higher-ed setting. As it turns out, it was also a good fit for a number of other folks, primarily in academia but also including the Adelie Linux team.

What we found was that you could get an extra 5% or so of performance out of building everything from scratch. At small scale that sounds absurd, but when that translates into 5-6 digits or more of infrastructure purchases, suddenly it makes a lot more sense.

In related environments, I worked on porting v5 of the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) to Gentoo. This was the first version that was distro-native vs pretending to be a custom distro in its own right, and the lightweight footprint of a diskless terminal was a perfect fit for Gentoo.

In fact, around the same time I fit Gentoo onto a 1.8MB floppy-disk image, including either the dropbear SSH client or the kdrive X server for a graphical environment. This was only possible through the magic of the ROOT and PORTAGE_CONFIGROOT variables, which you couldn’t find in any other distro.

Other distros such as ChromeOS and CoreOS have taken similar advantage of Gentoo’s metadistribution nature to build heavily customized Linux distros.

People who want to learn how Linux works

Finally, another key use case for Gentoo is for people who really want to understand how Linux works. Because the installation handbook actually works you through the entire process of installing a Linux distro by hand, you acquire a unique viewpoint and skillset regarding what it takes to run Linux, well beyond what other distros require. In fact I’d argue that it’s a uniquely portable and low-level skillset that you can apply much more broadly than those you could acquire elsewhere.

In conclusion

I’ve suggested three core use cases that I think Gentoo should focus on. If it doesn’t fit those use cases, I would suggest that we allow but not specifically dedicate effort to enabling those particulars.

We’ve gotten overly deadened to how people want to use Linux, and this is my proposal as to how we could regain it.

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Written by Donnie Berkholz

January 13, 2015 at 9:31 pm

Posted in Blog

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