The Ubuntu of Arch Distros

Distro Walk – Manjaro Linux

© Lead Image © maxkrasnov, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © maxkrasnov, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 245/2021
Author(s):

Standing on the shoulders of Arch Linux, Manjaro offers simplicity and stability.

Occasionally, a derivative distribution comes to rival the original. These days, for example, Ubuntu and Linux Mint are as popular as Debian. Likewise, for the last six years, Manjaro [1] has consistently eclipsed the popularity of Arch Linux upon which it is based. In fact, by combining the simplicity and rolling release structure of Arch Linux with the organization of Debian, Manjaro has become one of the leading Linux distributions of any origin. Recently, Lisa Singer answered my request for more details on behalf of the Manjaro corporate management team.

Manjaro began as a passion project of three friends from Munich: Roland Singer, Guillaume Benoit, and Philip Müller. First announced on the Arch Linux Forums, primarily as an installer in 2011, it immediately went dark as the three friends created the distro's base tools. The first general release came in September 2015, with official versions running Xfce, KDE, and Gnome as desktops. Over the years, unofficial community editions running Awesome, bspwm, Budgie, Cinnamon, Deepin, i3, LXDE, LXQt, MATE, and Openbox have also been released.

While going in its own direction, Manjaro maintains close relationships with Arch and Arch-based distributions. Most of its packages originate in Arch. In addition, most other Arch-based distributions use the Calamares installer, "which is mostly based on our original graphical installer," according to Singer. "But it got rewritten as an install framework. Before that, we used Cnichi from Antergos and kept in touch with its developers." Today, Manjaro's developers continue to work with their counterparts at ArcoLinux, EndeavourOS, and KaOs to develop the Calamares installer (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Calamares installer is used and developed by Manjaro and several other Arch-based distributions.

Today, Manjaro has 18 core team members, as well as additional contributors. Last year, its main releases had 4,265,621 downloads, 38 percent for the Xfce edition (Figure 2), 36 percent for KDE, and 18 percent for Gnome. Its ARM-based editions had 211,699 downloads from OSDN (57 percent for the Raspberry Pi 4, 15 percent for Pinebook Pro, and 12 percent for the PinePhone). The community editions have had 489,543 downloads (26 percent for i3 and 22 percent for Cinnamon).

Figure 2: The Xfce edition is the flagship version of Manjaro, although many others are also supported.

Manjaro's growth has been so rapid that a couple of years ago, Müller began to consider "ways to secure the project in its current form and how to allow for activities which can't be undertaken as a 'hobby project'" [2]. In September 2019, the result was the creation of Manjaro GmbH. Acting under the advice of Blue Systems, a German free software company, Manjaro GmbH controls the distribution's trademarks, protects its brands, and acts as a legal organization when one is needed. In addition, Singer explains, "we employ and pay some of our developers, either part or full time, and extend our team as needed with freelancers. Team members are mostly recruited from the Manjaro community, and tools get open sourced."

The community itself draws on its own fiscal hosts to collect and distribute donations for its own purposes, working closely with the company, but not being guided by it as closely as Ubuntu is guided by Canonical. For example, officially the Xfce edition is Manjaro's flagship version, with KDE and Gnome editions also officially supported by the company. However, "If people share an interest in a desktop environment, a new community edition gets born," Singer says. "Currently, some community developers are working on the new Manjaro sway edition utilizing Wayland and other new technology. All our existing editions are more or less our blueprints – you can either use 1:1 or modify easily with our development tools. That makes it easy to create a modified version or even a spinoff." Some sense of the interaction between company and community can be seen in the fact that the company's team page [3] lists almost entirely developers – the sole exception being a designer and illustrator.

Manjaro's Features

Manjaro prides itself on combining simplicity and ease of installation. Part of that simplicity is inherited from Arch – the simplicity of making few assumptions about what users need instead of offering a curated collection of applications. Manjaro does offer more preinstalled apps than Arch, but often it offers a choice. For example, the installer offers a choice between FreeOffice and LibreOffice. When a desktop environment offers an app, Manjaro is more apt to use that rather than its own tools. Still, like many distributions, Manjaro does contain its own configuration and package tools.

However, Manjaro's design philosophy is best seen in its package and release structure. Inspired by Debian, Manjaro has three repositories: Unstable, Testing, and Stable. The Unstable repository is a snapshot of Arch Linux Stable and is a few days behind it. Then, Singer explains, "Packages maintained by developers of Manjaro get built against that snapshot and internally tested. Then those packages get all moved to the Testing branch, which the community reviews. After positive feedback, a stable snapshot gets created and properly announced. This way, we don't have to play the cat-and-mouse game with Arch, chasing after them when a library of [an] API gets changed and packages need to be rebuilt. This way, Manjaro has full control and decides on its own when a package will finally land in our stable branch."

Singer continues, "You can choose the speed in which you have your updates" – and, sometimes, your stability. "Unstable might break your system when ABI or PI changes are made by Arch, and our team isn't so fast to catch up with those changes. … However, we recommend the Stable branch on productive systems. You should always keep an eye on our update announcements. Additional info can also be found on our wiki."

Together, Manjaro's package repositories offer rolling releases – a system in which packages are updated when ready, rather than holding them back for a general release – although official releases are announced as milestones in development. "We like to move forward. Software never stops evolving. Maintaining a static distro might seem easier to maintain, but it isn't. [Maintaining a static distro requires] security patches and fixes from upstream, which you mostly find in newer software, which needs to be backported – and then might not be as good as the original release," adds Singer.

By contrast, Singer continues, "Normally you install Manjaro once and keep updating. In rare cases you may reinstall. But you get security fixes faster. While our release cycle for the stable branch might take longer, we will backport security features. However, since we push so many updates to your system, you may need a good Internet connection, as updates might be rather larger than other common distributions like Ubuntu LTS might have. With Manjaro, you get a relatively stable Linux distribution with the latest software."

Future Directions

Manjaro's news page [4] seems to be rolling almost as much as its repositories. Unlike most distributions, Manjaro releases news almost like a commercial corporation, often issuing several news releases each month. As I write, Manjaro is focusing on extending its ARM and Plasma support and preparing for the upcoming Gnome 4. Already preinstalled on the Pinebook Pro and PinePhone, the Manjaro company is also looking for new business and community partnerships. Paraphrasing the distribution's slogan "Enjoy the Simplicity," the Manjaro management team through Singer says, "Our goal will be to go beyond our enjoyment of simplicity." Just as Ubuntu stands on the shoulders of Debian, so Manjaro stands on the shoulders of Arch. In both cases, users benefit.

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