So I've been on a quest for the last couple months. I'm looking for a new operating system. Or maybe a new version of the one that I use already. I've been a Red Hat user (as a server platform and as a workstation/desktop OS) for a few years now, and it's been nice. Nice enough to buy RHAT, even. I've been using Linux in one way or another since late 1994. While I've also used BSD and Solaris off and on during that period, I'm most comfortable with Linux. It feels right, in a way that Windows never did. I always feel like I'm using someone else's computer when I use Windows, like too many decisions have been made without my input. I don't know how to describe it. I'd like to stick with Linux, but lately Red Hat has made some decisions (no more freely-available and supported consumer products, and absurdly short end-of-life times for past releases being two big ones) that will leave me either hanging, paying, or putting up with whatever I happen to get. So I need to find something else.
Since I've used Red Hat for so long, I'm used to their packaging system, which is called RPM. Other Linux distributions use RPM as well, and so I started taking a look at a couple of them.
I liked SuSE quite a lot. Their install process was amazingly cool. It let me configure everything exactly how I wanted it, and it went out and patched all its software before it was done with the install. That's very nice. It was also a pretty install, nice and graphical. I liked YAST (their set-up and configuration tool) quite a lot as well. Unfortunately, SuSE didn't like my laptop at all; I couldn't get XFree86 4.3 to work to save my life. I even dropped in an X 4.3 config file from when the laptop had Red Hat 9 on it and it just wouldn't work. All I could get operational was framebuffer support. Ugh. No thanks.
I looked at Mandrake next. There was something... weird about it. I can't put my finger on what it was that put me off. It just felt weird. I don't know... like it was too graphical or something. Knoppix was the same way for me. I don't think I can use Mandrake.
The only other distrubutions I can think of that use RPM are Lycoris and Ark Linux. I actually downloaded Ark Linux, but the hardware detection left a little to be desired, and I couldn't install via CD-ROM on my laptop. I'm (mostly unwittingly) using my laptop as a sort of litmus test, since I'd like to have one distribution that I can use on every machine I have. If it won't "easily" go onto my laptop, I have to move on. (Lycoris, BTW, was a non-starter. I detest the Windows XP style.)
So, no RPM for me. But that might not be a bad thing. I've been using apt for RPM in addition to normal up2date on one of my home machines for a few months now, and I've been liking it. Unless I use up2date, I don't get that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with seeing the colored icons in the panel applet for up2date, but c'est al vie.
Moving on to other packaging systems, I take a look at Debian. everyone's been raving about apt for so long, and I've been using it on Red Hat, that I might as well get with the program, eh? The problem with Debian is that there are far too many install choices (with too little information about what comes with each one), and when you get it all installed you're running software that's well over a year old. While that's great for a server, I'm leaning more toward bleeding edge. You know, like a 2.4 kernel or a version of KDE from this century. Something. And yes, I know it's easy to upgrade everything all at once it's the OS installed, but isn't that like installing twice? Why? And, frankly, the whole debate over whether the OS should be called "GNU/Linux" or "Linux" (or "XFree86/KDE/GNU/Linux", or whatever) is just utterly pointless. And more than a little annoying. Debian is not for me I think.
So I found Gentoo. It's configurable, stable, highly customizable, and you can build a system optimized for particular architecture (I've seen reports of a 10% speed increase in certain apps). The package system it uses is called 'portage', and it's based on BSD's 'ports' system. It's pretty darn handy.
I had looked at Gentoo last fall sometime, and had even downloaded a "live cd" (their term for a bootable install CD). I never got around to playing with it very much. I was recently in an email discussion with Eric Lafoon, the fellow that makes Quanta Plus, and we wound up lamenting the recent changes in Red Hat's business strategy. I was originally asking him how I would go about getting an updated version fo Quanta. It only comes with KDE, apparently. To get a new version, I'm going to have to either upgrade KDE (over Red Hat's extensive changes -- a very painful option) or muck around in kde.org's ftp site, grab what I think I need, and tweak things until Quanta compiles. No fun there.
All that led us to a discussion of the relative merits of various Linux distributions. Eric mentioned that if I was using something like Gentoo (or Debian), upgrading anything I want would have been brutally easy. He made some very good points about what Gentoo has over Red Hat.
Paraphrasing Eric, Gentoo users will:
Like I said, those are all very convincing points. The only thing I can see lacking (and this is only because I haven't looked around yet) is some sort of kickstart system like what Red Hat has. We use that at work for every Linux box we install. Gentoo, as far as I can tell, has a fairly detailed install process, even when using their binaries. Gento may take a little more time to install (since you can compile everything, if you want), but the end result will give you a better distribution. My machines at home and work are going to have serious support issues when we can no longer get patches for security holes and the like. And neither me nor my employer can afford the cost of the Advanced Workstation/Server, so we have to figure something out.
I downloaded both the ISOs today (at over 28 megabits per second, thanks to the university-to-university connection betwen my workstation and the mirror site). I'm going to give Gentoo a shot this week on the laptop and see how it goes. It might be what I've been looking for, it might suck. We might end with the "userland" and mildly-supported Red Hat Linux regardless. Either way, having a choice is cool.
(BTW, if you're casting about for Linux distributions to try, have a look at Distribution Watch. They're pretty informative.)