The sheer number of different ways in which Linux can be run is astounding, as there are plenty of choices to go around. While there are plenty of distributions which rely on either the .deb or .rpm package formats, there’s also a handful which use their own formats, if any at all. One of those distributions is very unique compared to most others as the distribution’s developers don’t compile software into binary packages for easy installation.
Instead, this distribution doesn’t care about how easy it is to install software, but rather have it work as well as possible on your system through machine-specific optimizations.
Gentoo is a Linux distribution which is a completely original project and which has a very different approach to the structure of the distribution compared to most others. The idea of Gentoo is for all installed software to be self-compiled – that is, you download the source code to the software and compile it yourself on your own system so that the compiler can create the software for your exact system.
For most other distributions, software is already compiled on the developers’ servers and packaged so that the operating system can easily extract the package and move the binary files into the correct places. Those binary files are generally compiled for all systems using a specified architecture, but as they are not compiled on your system, they’re theoretically not as optimized as they could be.
Although you’ll need to download all the source code that you need and compile it yourself, you won’t have to stay stuck with finding the source code yourself, compiling it the correct way, and keeping it up to date. Instead, Gentoo has an application called Emerge (to which an application called Porthole is the GUI) which works a lot like apt on Debian-based systems like Ubuntu or yum on Fedora.
It can check different “repositories” for new or updated software, and list it in Porthole. Emerge, however, uses a ports system where each entry in the system is simply an .ebuild file which lists the commands that Emerge needs to run in order to download the source code and compile the software correctly. Whenever Emerge checks the ports system and finds that a newer version exists, it’ll update its software list and act accordingly.
Advantages & Disadvantages
There are a handful of advantages and disadvantages to this approach of installing hardware, so Gentoo is really only useful in certain conditions or if you’re a Linux pro who wants to give it a go. The advantage to this method of installing software is that it is all compiled on your system, so the compiler can account for all possible optimizations and make the software run as fast as possible.
It also makes the installation of software a lot more flexible if you know what you’re doing, which anyone less than a Linux pro probably won’t. Such flexibility and optimization leads to the possibility of some pretty cool projects, like the Misa Digital Guitar which runs on Gentoo Linux. Therefore, if you really need the last possible ounce of performance, Gentoo may be the way to go.
However, for more common users, there are several disadvantages which may not make Gentoo worth our time as a daily driver. For example, Gentoo is definitely not easy and is highly discouraged for a Linux beginner. Compilation also takes a good amount of time, even with a powerhouse CPU doing all the work. There’s a reason why most people compile the software on their own powerful servers and then simply package it up.
To remedy that situation, the Gentoo developers have made available a few pre-compiled binaries for software which is known to take forever to compile, such as Firefox or the KDE desktop environment. However, these kind of defeat the purpose of the distribution, so if you’re going to do that for almost all of your software, you might as well be using a (relatively speaking) traditional distribution.
Again, Gentoo can be a great choice for you if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for whatever you’re doing.
While I don’t see myself using Gentoo as a main operating system in the near future (or ever for that matter), it’s still a fantastic distribution which adds plenty of value and ideas to the Linux community. For those of you who plan on using or testing Gentoo out, I hope that you’ll be successful at whatever you’re trying to do. It’s always best to use the right tools for the job, and Gentoo can definitely fill that position.
What do you think about Gentoo’s approach? Which distribution’s approach do you like the most, or what do you think could be changed about Gentoo’s? Let us know in the comments!
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