The openess of open-source has led rise to source-based Linux distributions -- OS' you compile yourself. But is there a place for the DIY OS in what is already a crowded market of binary Linux distributions?
This may appear as a bit of a conundrum, or at least the musings of a confused teenage mind in the body of a man in his thirties — but I love source-based distributions: the philosophy, the freedom, the configurability, and the closeness to the operating system one gets when using them.
I am, primarily, a Gentoo user though I've used more distributions that I care to count ever since Slackware came in floppy images and RedHat had its 'RedHat Redneck' install language — oh for shame RedHat, dropping this in favour of the corporate image? You're no fun anymore!
I digress — though I love Gentoo, I also hate it with a vengeance. I'm not talking small time peeves here, like the way Krispy Kremes icing gets all over your fingers (and by extension, clothes). I'm talking the type of frustration that is expressed in multitudes of expletives, some of which would make the profinsaurus cry.
Why? Because, by definition and by nature, a source-based distribution is its own worst enemy.
First, the key positives: optimised binaries — compiled specifically for your system; up to date releases — roll your own, no need to wait for distro maintainers; less dependency hell — only packages that are specifically needed are pulled down; and the fun-times education — you will learn more about Linux than you ever thought possible. There are other benefits too: for Gentoo specifically, the Portage system is as advanced (it not more so) than Debian's apt, and the level of choice in how you want to build you system from all the packages known to man is much more open than the pre-defined sets of binary distributions.
And then there's the bad: compile times — come back tomorrow; fiddling with config files — where 'less' is your best friend; bandwidth — you know how big KDE is these days?; and lack of standardisation — choice is a beautiful thing, but it also means there's no 'best choice' default desktop styling, interaction, and package list that people can rely on for consistency. If you install the new Gnome for example you get Gnome default, not a Gentoo tailored version (compared for example with Ubuntu, where it will be themed and configured to the distro).
And the biggest of the big — it will break. The ability to upgrade individual packages will eventually break another package, even in the 'stable' tree, because it is humanly impossible to manage the tens of thousands of packages and their millions of possible tiered, version-based, inter-dependent interactions, let alone configuration conflicts (oh the sheer unadulterated joy I had upgrading Squid last month). That said, it works remarkably well most of the time. But it will break. Oh I know we can't have our cake and eat it too, but I try very hard to do so, and I'm not the only one.
Don't let it stop you though, if you so far haven't tried rolling your own. Just go in with eyes open (pun) that source-based distributions can be as problematic as they are rewarding, and the experience will be worth it. Oh, and time. Lots of it — not only for the install and configuration, but for reading and learning as you go. The install times of Gentoo users from first install to n-th install can be charted as an ever decreasing logarithmic curve.
Popular distros include (of course) Gentoo, Source Mage, Lunar Linux, ROCK Linux, and Linux From Scratch. The latter two, and especially LFS, are designed more as a base to build your own distribution let alone desktop, and are superb if you want to learn what goes into making your own.
Gentoo: Love it and hate it.