Gentoo for All the Unusual Reasons
I have a confession to make. I use Gentoo Linux. My colleagues at the various Linux User Group meetings I attend think I'm nuts. Everyone knows that Gentoo is a source-based Linux distribution. Gentoo's reputation (in large measure pushed by the people who develop the distribution) is that it's for people who want super crazy optimizations, and it really is suitable only for those who use desktops. In truth, Gentoo is ideal for a whole bunch of other, unexpected, reasons. Much to my surprise, people actually are using Gentoo in production environments for these very reasons.
Because there is binary compatibility across all the descendants of the original i386 processor, the other Linux distributions (not to mention everyone writing software for Microsoft Windows) can ship prepackaged binary versions of their software compiled for the generic i386 platform and take advantage of the fact that it'll work everywhere. The other side of this is that these distributions are unable to take advantage of any new optimizations your fancy CPU might offer, which is a pity.
Gentoo is a built-from-source distribution; however, you are able to specify compiler flags to be used when building software for your system. GCC in particular allows one to specify the kind of CPU on which the code will run. By specifying the processor type, such as Intel Pentium III or AMD Athlon Thunderbird, the compiler is able to generate processor-specific code that, in theory, results in better, faster machine code.
Is a Gentoo system faster? Anecdotal evidence is mixed. It seems that a Gentoo system runs somewhat faster than an identically configured system running one of the more popular distributions. But, any minor performance advantage is squandered completely if the system is not installed, configured and tuned correctly. Because many of us don't know how to do that, and because Gentoo offers so much latitude to do your own thing, it's easy to lose the benefits of slightly faster programs if you do something silly.
So, from a speed perspective, it really doesn't matter whether you use a build-it-from-source distribution or a binary-package distribution. If improved speed is not a reason to use Gentoo, why would you want this built-from-source thing?
People get annoyed at their computers for a variety of reasons. The one we focus on here is the newer version problem, and modern operating systems run into it in two ways. The first way is when users need a toolkit, utility or other item that is not included in the distribution. As a result, the users need to roll it themselves. The second way is when a newer version of an application or tool is available than what is included in the prepackaged distribution.
A key issue is at play in both of these scenarios: ease of operation. Does the operating system help you with the challenges that administering a system presents? Much to my surprise, Gentoo Linux turns out to be really good in this regard.
With Gentoo, one installs new packages by downloading sources and then compiling them. You want a piece of software? No problem—issue the instruction, and a little while later, it's installed. It's the same user experience as with Debian.
Gentoo really shines, however, when a user needs a newer version of a piece of software. Let's say I'm using the bluefish HTML editor, for example, and a bug is annoying me. A newer version of bluefish might be available in Portage, Gentoo's software package management system, so I might be able to ask for the upgrade. Gentoo has a handy command called etcat that can determine what's available:
# etcat versions bluefish
etcat tells me I have version 0.9 of bluefish installed, and now version 0.12 is available. From reading the bluefish Web site, I know the problem is fixed in version 0.12, so I definitely want the upgrade.
The emerge command tells what will happen if I do upgrade:
# emerge --pretend bluefish
Apparently, this version of bluefish needs a library called libpcre. Portage has shown me that in addition to doing an upgrade of bluefish, it's going to bring in libpcre as well. So, off we go:
# emerge bluefish
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