A First Attempt with Arch Linux

Having heard great things about Arch Linux, I thought I would give it a try. I’ve enjoyed trying different Linux versions over the years, and have found some good environments.

Unfortunately, Arch Linux is not one of them – at least judging according to my initial installation.

The initial install gives you a text-based environment – no GUI here. This can be almost forgivable – but the installation had some hiccups. If you decide to install Arch Linux, don’t select anything other than the core resource: adding extras will only cause things to break. Stick with your CDROM installation media and forget the rest.

Then, after installation, there are a number of tasks to do. As long as you stick with the Beginner’s Guide, all should work just fine. The problems begin when you get into the extras. Most of these problems have solutions; however, one should not come across one problem after another.

Here are the problems I’ve experienced in just a few hours time after initial installation:

  • xdm spawning too many times; pausing for 5 minutes – this because xdm wasn’t installed but /etc/inittab was trying to start it.
  • package conflict with /etc/mtab
  • package conflict with /etc/profile.d/locale.sh
  • configuration of Window Maker overwrites ~/.xinitrc
  • configuring PAM to use ecryptfs didn’t work
  • encrypting home directory appears to have encrypted ~/Private and not ~
  • ecryptfs documentation is obsolete
  • running XDM loops back to login screen after successful login
  • running GDM fails
  • sudo wasn’t part of the main install
  • a new user wasn’t part of the main install
  • the documentation for adding a new user puts the user in the wheel group if you do it manually – but not if you do it with useradd
  • during installation, old install messages are not removed
  • perl is not part of the base install
  • X installs with a network listener active

The two biggest problems are the following:

  1. Bugs are just documented, not fixed.
  2. Nothing is configured!

When a package is installed, it should be ready to go – it should “just work.” Nothing “just works” on Arch. It is one thing to let us choose which packages we want and how we want; however, there should not be a day’s worth (or more!) of work to get things working. Every package seemed to have bugs and things that didn’t work right – and needed special instructions to configure it.

To do anything with Arch, it requires a huge effort to install a large number of packages – and to hand-configure most. It is a minimalist distribution that is built up to be what someone wants. However, I thought their choice of simplicity quotes was ironic:

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.

I say ironic because there is nothing that can be taken away from Arch Linux; packages must be added.

This is a big disappointment; I had such high hopes for Arch Linux. I thought it would be an simpler version of Gentoo or Slackware; not so.

    5 thoughts on “A First Attempt with Arch Linux”

    1. I’ve done numerous installs of Arch, mostly on notebooks over the last 3 years – never had any major issues with it. How sure are you about your hardware?

      1. I rebuilt my Linode VPS at the weekend using Arch linux, and I certainly hit the package conflict ones: “package conflict with /etc/mtab, package conflict with /etc/profile.d/locale.sh”

        I’ve routinely found Arch to be an ongoing hassle on the desktop, my experience definitely echo’s David’s experience. That’s speaking as someone with long familiarity with Gentoo and all it’s quirks too.

        On the server it’s a little frustrating that at least a very basic working configuration isn’t included by default for a number of the packages I went to use, and worse that specific quirks required you to jump onto the Arch Linux site to go find the appropriate settings.
        E.g. with clamav you’ve got the standard “remove Example from top of config file”, but on Arch Linux you also then need to go diving into /etc/conf.d/clamav and switch both entries to Yes. Redundancy much?

        For what it’s worth I’m mostly happy with Arch on my VPS, but I certainly wouldn’t consider it for a second for use in a production environment. Attention to detail is important, and that’s not what the Arch maintainers seem interested in.

        They also chose about the most screw-loose, non-standard way of handling the python 2 & python 3 migration, forcing you to specify the binary name “python2” instead of python.

    2. Archlinux is absolutely not a “just works” distro. Never was and probably, and I’d add hopefully, never will. It is more like LEGO: it gives you the tools to build and configure upon but you have to do it yourself and know what you are doing.

      What you call “bugs” are 90% of the time mistakes or lack of knowledge of Gnu/Linux. Trust me, I’ve been using Archlinux daily for more than 4 years and just once I stumbled upon a bug that didn’t let me boot it altogether. All the other “bugs” were just those “damn me, I should have read the wiki/forum/manpage better!” moments. And if you really do, you’ll learn a lot.
      If you aren’t willing to spend some time understanding how it works and why it works the way it does, then Archlinux isn’t for you. There are lots of other distros, many built on Archlinux itself, try one of those.

      1. I understand – I thought that that might be. However, I don’t see how a package can be installed and not work; to me, that is a bug. It’s one thing to have to configure it – but to leave it hanging like that in a unconfigured or semi-configured state just doesn’t make sense. On top of this, some packages work out of the box and some do not: you don’t know until something fails to operate.

        Reading the documentation is a poor substitute for a working package. Most of my time during the install phase has been in reading documentation (indeed, it was the documentation that has drawn me to Arch in the first place!).

        To me, so far Arch has been more like Linux From Scratch (LFS) with a package system that is mostly amazing – but bites when you don’t expect it.

        Compare to FreeBSD for instance: when a package is installed, if further configuration is necessary it says so. Compare to Debian: if further configuration is needed, a menu-based system kicks in and you can configure it. There is no configuration for many things (but not all) in Arch.

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