So what is Arch Linux really?

Arch 101

Article from Issue 185/2016
Author(s):

Arch is one of those Linux distributions that everyone knows about but few know well. Now is the time for a closer look.

Arch Linux [1] is a cool, compact, and versatile Linux distribution with a loyal community and its own hyper-geeky minimalist aesthetic. The Arch community is home to software developers, Linux power users, IT specialists, and college students – all of whom appreciate the spirit of simplicity embodied in Arch. At a time when so many Linux distros are trying to fill a predefined niche in some theoretical IT marketplace, Arch simply is what it is. Arch makes no effort to be the ascendant corporate desktop; it doesn't try to make itself easy for beginners, or so much like Windows that anyone can use it.

Arch doesn't attempt to attract the purists who insist on all-free software. However, this singular Linux has a singular vision: Start with the barest of essentials, and if you want more, add it yourself. Instead over stumbling over components you don't want, build your system into exactly what you do want, and along the way, you'll find you're learning more about Linux. An efficient rolling release system, and a native package manager that many believe is better and more versatile than apt-get, round out the total package, giving Arch a unique place in the open source universe.

Without a corporate backer, Arch will probably never be as popular as Ubuntu or Red Hat, but if you've been around Linux, you've probably heard of it, and we're guessing you might be curious. This month we take a look at the world of Arch Linux.

Keep it Simple

One way Arch achieves simplicity is by making as few changes as possible to the source code. The idea is to provide software that is as close as possible to the original code provided by the developers of the contributing software projects – plain vanilla software. Arch doesn't alter the code with its own experiments, such as Ubuntu's Unity desktop, which has required massive changes to Ubuntu's libraries and indigenous programs. However, if you decide you want to use Unity on Arch, you can still find it somewhere in an alternative repository.

Arch's rolling release model means repositories always contain the latest editions of the integrated programs (see the box titled "Rolling Release"). Exceptions are libraries or applications where making a modification could massively impair the stability of the system. However, even more extensive modifications usually make their way into the repositories within a few weeks. Once your system is installed, you can keep the system up-to-date with just one command.

Rolling Release

In classical release models, developers release a complete system all together, with an ecosystem of applications and components that have been tested and proven to work together well. The release is given a name or a number, and after that point (or maybe before), the developers start working on the next release. New programs or updates of existing applications are rarely added to the repositories of previously published editions. Only essential functions concerning updates or security fixes are included in the old repositories. For the next edition of a desktop environment, a new version of LibreOffice, or an update of the Linux kernel, you'll have to wait patiently for the next release or else install the updates manually from other repositories. This conservative approach provides the user with an environment that is as stable as possible, but it lacks flexibility and forces users to go outside the official distro repositories to find the updates they need. In some cases, when they do finally upgrade their system to the next release, an application they installed previously from a third-party repository might not even be compatible.

Rolling release distributions avoid these problems by eliminating the whole idea of a periodic release with a version number. A rolling distro continuously integrates updates for existing applications, and even adds completely new programs, into the repositories so your system will always be up-to-date. Linux classics such as Debian "Sid" or Gentoo, as well as newer candidates such as Siduction, Netrunner "Rolling," or openSUSE "Tumbleweed" are other rolling release Linux distributions. A truly rolling release distro doesn't have a release schedule or version numbers. Snapshots only serve as installation media or live systems for demonstration purposes. Anyone who has installed a rolling release distribution will never have to update the system to a new version or pay attention to support periods.

Arch is committed to the rolling release format. Smaller programs typically show up in Arch within hours or a few days after being published in their own repositories. Larger applications, such as a major version of a desktop environment or a completely new office suite, usually take a few days or weeks. In any case, once the new software is integrated with Arch, the next time you perform a system update, it will become part of your system.

Arch takes a pragmatic approach for what software to include in the repositories. The Arch project makes no effort to present itself as an "all Free Linux" and therefore is not recommended by the Free Software Foundation (FSF)[2]. (For that matter, several of the distros that do bill themselves as all Free Software, such as Debian and Fedora, still aren't recommended by the FSF for various reasons) [3]. In the case of Arch, the FSF writes "Arch has the two usual problems: there's no clear policy about what software can be included, and nonfree blobs are shipped with their kernel, Linux. Arch also has no policy about not distributing nonfree software through their normal channels."

Many Linux distributions attempt to be as user-friendly as possible and thus address as many prospective customers as possible. Arch, however, focuses on meeting the needs of users who actively support the distribution. This approach has given rise to Arch's elitist image, but what it means for the user is: Arch is what you make of it. Arch isn't especially friendly for beginners, but if you are accustomed to finding your way through wikis and HowTo manuals, you can usually uncover a solution to your problem quickly thanks to Arch's excellent documentation.

Although Arch installs with a very basic system that doesn't even include a graphical environment, it is possible to completely customize your Arch system to tailor it for your needs by installing additional packages from the Arch repositories (Figure 1). And, because Arch starts with a minimal configuration, you won't have to get rid of unnecessary software on your system.

Figure 1: Regardless of whether you're using Gnome or KDE, XFCE, or a more exotic option, Arch is what you make of it.

History and Future of Arch

Arch emerged in 2002 when the Canadian developer and sysadmin Judd Vinet created the distribution based on Linux from Scratch together with the Pacman package manager [4]. Although Vinet left the project in 2007, Arch has continued to gain more and more momentum over the years. Now, an international team of over 30 volunteer developers – under the leadership of "Arch Overlord" Aaron Griffin – ensure the continued existence of the distribution [5].

Unlike Ubuntu and Fedora, Arch is not backed by a company, yet the development has been stable for years. Security updates and general application updates are quickly adopted into the distribution. Arch recruits trainees for the team of official developers from the ranks of Trusted Users [6]. These trainees have proven themselves over a long period of time through active participation in the bug tracking process.

Major changes, such as the switch from SysVinit to Systemd, are as controversial within Arch as they are with other distros, and the rolling release philosophy often means extra work accompanies major disruptions of the code base, but the Arch community always rallies to face the challenge.

Installation

Arch Linux dispenses with user-friendly graphic installers and similar conveniences: anyone who wants to set up Arch needs to wade through the manual installation. Users who are looking for more help with installation should try an Arch derivative, such as Antergos [7] or Manjaro [8]. The Architect project [9] offers an Arch Linux Installer (Figure 2), although it isn't available by default with the main Arch distribution.

Figure 2: Arch Linux doesn't come with a native installer, but the Architect framework is an option for Arch users who are weary of manual configuration.

By foregoing a built-in installer, Arch maximizes flexibility and user control. Most Linux installers offer only a small set of basic configuration options. Arch, on the other hand, let choose components such as the bootloader, display manager, or even the kernel as part of the installation process. This approach undoubtedly overwhelms novices, and even advanced users sometimes have challenges getting started with Arch, but the reward is that users can look forward to a system tailored to meet their own needs.

See the Arch wiki for more on setting up an Arch system.

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