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First of all, I falled in love for this distro since a year ago, when a friend suggested me to try it (I was using a "huge" SuSE Linux 9.1). He told me that there were a distro that allows user to build his own Linux installation such as "from scratch", so I decided to try it. I wasn't a "newbie", but either I wasn't a guru , so I considered this new way of installation such as a challenge. He also suggested me to FIRST read all the documentation (With other distros, I haven't yet done this BEFORE but AFTER the installation...) and first of all to plan very well for what purposes I had to "build" my system. Between braces, I turn this suggestions to all of you which will decide to try Gentoo ... so, I started with downloading the 2004.2 (that times...) and reading the well shaped installation Handbook (with the CAPITAL H as it's a REAL Handbook .... ), and I started to plan this: A multimedia station optimized for Gnome/GTK+ (nothing against KDE, but I'd better to decide which environment fits my needs, and I think that having both of them is such a confusion...) alsa, cd-recording and DVD reading.
Well, after this planning I started to discover the "magical hidden world" of Gentoo represented by the Portage System for packages handling. Inspired from the old Unix "ports" but MORE powerful (or, as someone likes to say "powerfool" ...). after a couple of days made by mistakes, misconfigurations, tries, I finally had a "builded" system and I compared it with such a "minimalist" installation of the SuSE 9.1: 1 GB against the 4.2 of the SuSE! And, consider that I installed an "huge" environment like the Gnome, and to be secure I also installed the QT libraries (but not the whole KDE) if someday I'll need some program that requires them; and, ofcourse I added all the server I need for my "experiments" (Apache w. PHP, MySQL, QMail), and something else I consider important in a network environent (IPtables handlers, DNS, SSH/OpenSSL...). Everything WELL optimized (from the Kernel to the latest unuseful library), "fitted" on my specific hardware and so everything I launch on it is FASTER than if I was picked up the usual collection of pre-builded binaries (optimized, I have to say, for the largest range of hardware to better fit general needs...).
Everything seems to be so good, so amazing and shining, but all these beautiful things needs a cost to be payed for: time to configure (and, sometimes, go crazy to fix problems when something doesn't works as you expected...), patience, and a huge amount of work more than it's needed to keep working other binary-based distros. But, ofcourse, once you've faced all the difficulties involved into a Gentoo installation, you could really feel PROUD of your Linux "Building".
Ah, I forgot: no grafic, wizards, windows, buttons-checkboxes-scrollingmenus, no "point'n'click" installation! Everything is left on the tips of your fingers: if you've never heard before, there's a beautiful user interface called CONSOLE, and Gentoo gives you the chance to finally LEARN to use it as that powerful things it is!
Since that installation, I've experienced the other "funny" side of Gentoo: Portage is NOT ONLY "something that helps you to install" packages, but also is one of the best packages UPDATE tools I ever heard! If you want to update some packages, you'll use the same tool you've used to install it, by simply add a POSIX switch (-u) or a GNU-SIX switch (--update) to your "emerge" command , and ofcourse your packages will be UPDATED, or again.. you can RE-BUILD your packages to re-optimize it for other purposes (i.e. : you decided to optimize for "gnome gtk" and you would "switch" the whole system to another optimization like "kde qt3"), even with the "emerge" tool and its options. Or, again, you can update the WHOLE system (emerge --update world) instead of "re-installing" the whole distro.
Ofcourse, also this other BEAUTIFUL feature of Gentoo has a cost to be payed for: you really need a FAST internet connection, as all the packages to be update are available "on-line" and downloaded before beeing unpacked-configured-compiled-installed. If you have such a 56.6K modem, I really suggest to DON'T approach this distro, or to download and install manually the single packages you want to update or switch to a REAL "Linux From Scratch" approach.
Using the Portage update system I didn't had needs to download the newest distros released by Gentoo, so my system is, now, like a 2005.1 (with newest updates made yesterday night).
Ofcourse I downloaded another time the WHOLE install-CD (universal) as I'd like to try it in order to find some changes since the last releases.
Now, some tech:
You can obtain Gentoo from the internet, downloading it for free or buying a CD from the on-line Gentoo store (such a donation or contribute to the Gentoo Foundation). The main difference between Gentoo and the other distro is that is NOT necessary to have the Installation CD to install it: you can start from your own, already installed Linux System, partition it and download from the network a "Stage" from which start. The installation CDs (there are a "Minimal" and an "Universal" CD) are such as "live" CD with a pre-configured general environment with all the necessary tools to start configuring your disk(s) and prepare the installation (if you haven't an already installed Linux Sys). The "Minimal CD" doesn't contains any "Stage", you have to download the stage you choose and each package you need (including the Kernel...); the "Universal CD" contains the three default stages for the arch you choose when you downloaded it and a minimal collection of packages needed for a VERY BASIC installation without an internet connection. If you need a more extendend installation without having internet connection, you can download the "packages" CD and configure Portage to use it instead download packages from the internet. The advantage with this kind of installation is that you're not forced to have an high-speed internet connection, the disavantage is that, probably, you wont install the LAST updated package. There's another method to avoid the usual slowliness of a "standard" Gentoo build, you can use the "GRP" packages instead of the "source code" ones, but you'll probably bring down all the advantages provided by the "build" process (and, probably, if you can't take this advantage, or you don't want, you'd better to switch to a standard/bindary distro...). For more info about the GRPs take a look at www.gentoo.org. Finally, the "Stage" method can simply beeing explained in this way: stage1 gives you the opportunity to REALLY build the compiler, libgcc and everything is needed in the basic environment. Such as a real "LFS" build. The stage2 is a little bit ahead (with the STATIC gcc and libgcc compiled, ld.so and some other stuff), while the stage3 gives you a ready pre-built basic environment (even without kernel) with all you need just ready to work and a basc FSH (FileSystem Hierarchy).
About the changes in the Gentoo 2005.1 against the other releases, I think there's nothing to add: all the basic layout of this distro is the same since the 2004.X distros (I've never tried some Gentoo before 2004), just some details like the splash-screen, the migration to the 2.6.x kernel (since 2004.2) and various update (subversions) for the main tools used in the Install CD.
I can advice Gentoo Linux to all that user who wants to really understand how a Linux (*nix) system is structured and builded, how it works "deep inside".... and, ofcourse, who wants to make some "practice" in the Linux Kernel Compiling
I can suggest to STAY AHEAD from Gentoo to the users who believes that Linux could be "similar" to Window$ and other stuffs: easy, quick, dirty and not accessible "under the cover".
Finally I can suggest to try Gentoo Linux to all the users that wants to taste this "special flavour of Linux" .
I'll leave you with this thought:
when you build a house, you start from the "windows" or from the foundaments?
It's a distro full of contraddition: simple and lovely for who LOVES Linux, for who find Linux the best way to do hi-end, hi-level servers, for advanced / experts / guru users... and, in the other side, it's hard, time-consuming, difficult to understand and to configure.
By the way, these are only opinion given by different skill levels, it depends on which writes it... the only thing that is SURE about Gentoo Linux is that this distro is one of the more stable, flexible and well-documentated distro ever heard.
I had to set up a "test" server with an Apache 2 webserver, MySQL 4.(mmmh... I cant remember which version ....), SSH, Samba, VS-FTPd, a mail switcher (qmail or sendmail, no matters...) and few other local tools (such as a telnet client, VI editor, a browser, some libraries...). A lot of things that could justify the choice for well-builded binary distro, Red Hat "et similia". So, why a Gentoo? It seems that I've only loose three days to install, configure and set-up this "small" server, but these three days has been only well spent time: I learned A LOT of things, that I knowed such a little, about Linux kernel; I faced some little problem with "devfs" and I learned how to fix it (useful for the future ); most of all, I COMPILED and WELL CONFIGURED (with "portage", of course) all the packages and I experienced a VERY FAST SERVER, such as the double of the power that could gave me a binary distro not optimized for Intel(R) HT technology. This "test environment", infact, is builded on a simple HP desktop with a P4 3.2Ghz HT. I've not done some benchmark, but ofcourse on that machine was installed a Fedora C3 with both Apache 2 and MySQL, and OFCOURSE I experienced a growing speed when MySQL parses such as 2000 "insert" queries consequentially... It takes such as 5-6 seconds. Could a binary, pre-compiled version of Linux-MySQL response as quickly as this one?
In spite of difficulties, slowliness, "Gentoo-way" and many others "cons" reported by everybody who's face this distro, I think that performances given by this kind of approach are the real advantage given by the "Gentoo-way", and ofcourse it's a huge advantage when we must compare another distro with this one.
I reccomend it to newbies: it's the BEST way to learn something about Linux... and, DON'T FORGET TO READ ALL THE MANUAL BEFORE START THE INSTALLATION, and another time DURING the installation, ofcourse