Sid, Arch or Gentoo – Who Would You Rather Roll With?

Windows, OS X, BSD and Linux are all contestants in an intriguing race – a race of technological development. To be more precise, they occupy slightly different niches in the ‘computing ecosystem’, however compete against each other in terms of overall usability (BSD to a much lesser extent). Sadly, as Windows and Mac first became the OS’ of choice for regular users, the majority of development was dedicated to those two platforms. On the other hand, Linux is not far behind. For instance, linux kernel 3.16 introduced such features as response to physical shock, relying on built-in pressure sensors (known to Windows since XP). The current stable edition of the linux kernel is already 3.18, while 3.19 is undergoing thorough testing (release candidate 5, 3.19-rc5, can be downloaded from kernel.org).

Because Linux displays an ever-changing landscape, I decided to settle down with an operating system that would follow the so-called rolling-release development model and would be rather up-to-date. Of the most popular distributions I considered Gentoo, Arch Linux and Debian Sid.

I tried Gentoo a few months ago and was moderately annoyed with its time-consuming installation. I quickly deemed it too difficult for me, though I might try it again once I gain sufficient experience.

Therefore, I narrowed down my choices to Arch and Sid.

Arch Linux is a typical rolling-release distribution, following principles of simplicity and clarity. The installation procedure is almost purely manual (less troublesome than Gentoo, though) and requires editing of multiple configuration files. However, it also provides a very good learning opportunity. The key to success is a combination of up-to-date vanilla binaries (very similar to the ones available from upstream developers) and easy access to compiling tools.

Debian is definitely not a rolling release distribution, though the Unstable/Sid branch is often considered as such. Debian developers refer to it as a testing ground for new software packages. It will never be released per se, thus making it debatable whether Sid is a true rolling-release distribution or not.

I greatly appreciate Debian for its power, versatility and stability, but because even Debian developers themselves deem Sid to be highly unstable (frequent updates may cause dependency errors, etc.) and it does not receive security updates like Testing and Stable in a timely fashion, I decided to leave it for now. There is also the case of how current the available software packages are…

Arch Linux closely follows the work done by development teams responsible for specific software (applications, kernel, drivers, etc.). If a given dev team releases a stable version of their software, it will be shortly after added to Arch Linux repositories. Because of that Arch was humorously called ‘Linux, with a nice package manager’. I agree that if kernel 3.18 is considered stable by the kernel dev team, it most likely is. In addition, while people think Arch Linux is bleeding edge, and thus unstable by design, not so many of them report actual problems with the distribution.

Debian standards are set much higher. Every upstream package that flows into Experimental and Unstable has to be thoroughly processed by Debian dev teams. While this guarantees additional testing and prior configuration of software packages for the average user, packages are not as up-to-date as in Arch.

Thereby, for the time being I decided on Arch Linux.

What about you?

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4 thoughts on “Sid, Arch or Gentoo – Who Would You Rather Roll With?

    • Thank you for your response. It seems you have much more experience in building systems from the ground-up than me. I consider myself more of an enthusiast, though not a greenhorn anymore :). I do agree that the rolling release model is the way to go and Gentoo is doing it extremely well. Contrary to what many people claim, it’s quite difficult to cripple a Gentoo setup to the point when it needs to be re-installed completely. However, I prefer binaries over source packages only because compiling takes a lot of time ;). Hence, my choices of Debian Sid and Arch Linux. There is also a new player on the field – Void Linux.

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      • Cool, I’ll have to watch out for Void in the future.

        Given that it appears to be a community effort too, I can’t really tell what the difference between Arch, Sid, Void (and even the BSDs) is except that the tools are differently named.

        I’m not sure what “new” thing that XBPS packages add to the ecosystem. I’ll have to keep reading.

        Conversely, have you seen NixOS (nixos.org)?
        It’s technically a rolling release, but that’s not the main feature. Nix is a fully atomic, functional, declarative package manager. It can, for example install multiple instances of libraries onto your system, and applications can seamlessly select which version they should be using. This means that it also has rollbacks.
        Like, Gentoo it can also do the source-through-binary update model, but with the added benefit that it is deterministic (a binary package maps directly to the source and configuration) to get the binary-like speedups when possible.

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      • I became interested in Void Linux mainly because it felt to me like Arch Linux in its teens. When there had been more freedom in the community and systemd hadn’t been an issue yet :). I heard about Nix some months ago, when I was investigating Linux systems that brought unique features to the community. However, I stayed true to Debian due to its mere flexibility.

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