An inside look at a small distro

Distro Walk – NuTyX

© Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

© Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Article from Issue 268/2023

Thierry Nuttens, the developer of NuTyX, shares a behind-the-scenes look at a small Linux distribution.

Today, the emphasis in Linux is on the major distributions. NuTyX GNU/Linux [1], however, looks back to an earlier time, when a distribution was the work of a single user or at best a small group of developers. Inspired by Linux From Scratch (LFS) [2], Thierry Nuttens has developed NuTyX over the past 16 years to provide a transparent, maximized system that can be appreciated by all levels of users (Figure 1). Intrigued by this passion project, I invited Nuttens to talk about his efforts. His answers provide an in-depth look at how one small distribution is run.

Figure 1: The NuTyX Linux distribution offers a system that all levels of users can appreciate.

Linux Magazine (LM): Why did you start to develop NuTyX?

Thierry Nuttens (TN): I tend to always want to understand the inner workings of what I put together. NuTyX is no exception to this rule. When I started discovering this system of explanation, more than 17 years ago, I didn't understand much about the free software world. What interested me the most was to have a high-performance, reliable, and easy-to-maintain system. My vision of Linux changed radically when I discovered the Linux From Scratch project, a project where (almost) everything is explained, from building a chrooted system to building the build toolchain to finally get a working operating system built yourself. Even today, I am still learning from this project and its simple and transparent maintenance.

I then came across the CRUX project [3], which offered exactly the package manager I needed. Not only were the commands simple in this small command-line utility, but they were quick and – the icing on the cake – the commands were compiled statically, which allowed the installation of compiled packages and archives as TAR files.

However, I had one major problem: CRUX did not offer downloading or dependency management. So I decided to create my own package manager, called Cards [which stands for "Create, Add, Remove, and Download System"]. Today, we have 4,500 packages, maintained by two of us.

LM: How has NuTyX developed from LFS to a more user-friendly system while maintaining its efficiency and transparency?

TN: Today it is possible to install NuTyX in many ways. For beginners, several ISOs (LXDE, Xfce, MATE, KDE, Gnome, Cinnamon) are ready to install. Each ISO allows automatic, semi-manual installation in direct mode or live mode, from the RAM or from the mounted ISO. Finally, a script allows you to install the distribution in manual mode. In addition to the latest stable kernel, all LTS kernels are available in a separate package. Once the end of life is reached, Cards informs the user. A tutorial explains how to proceed to change the kernel. As on LFS, the two init systems, SysV and systemd, are offered, but unlike LFS, the two coexist without worries on NuTyX.

NuTyX packages are available in rolling and testing versions, each of which is organized into three repositories: base, cli, and gui. The cli-extra and gui-extra collections, as their names suggest, make up the set of command-line (cli-extra) and graphical (gui-extra) extra packages. Each repository is further subdivided into areas such as devel, lib, and man. Updates occur as the system shuts down.

LM: How does Cards differ from other package managers?

TN: Thanks to C++, the codebase remains modest in size, and the number of operational dependencies is reduced to a strict minimum. This package manager is fast … very fast. An installation with the correct arguments takes 11 seconds.

What really makes the difference from other package managers is that Cards is also used as the rendering engine of the site. The site is powered by Cards. The reason is very simple: The main function of the site is the search for NuTyX packages. It is not possible to log in on the site. Lastly, no cookies are installed when visiting the site.

LM: Who is NuTyX's target audience?

TN: This is a recurring topic on NuTyX. There is no graphical installer, and therefore installing NuTyX is scary from the first screen. If a new user has never installed an operating system other than Windows or Apple, he will naturally be shocked by NuTyX. Despite this, in the list of installation possibilities, there is indeed a completely automatic installation (i.e., partitioning, formatting, and boot installation will be done without any user intervention).

The reason for this approach is twofold. First, for me, who has to test each ISO produced, it is extremely simple and fast. It saves me having to choose the same options for each new installation. Second, the new user, in 90 percent of cases, will do a first test in a virtual machine, therefore with a completely blank disk devoid of any partitions – which is the required condition to trigger a possible automatic installation. Even if the user is an expert, he can very quickly install NuTyX completely automatically.

LM: How is NuTyX organized?

TN: There are three people on the project. Spiky, whom I salute very warmly, is exclusively responsible for updating packages on the testing version. Guth, whom I also salute very warmly, is responsible for the proper functioning of the master repository server.

In 16 years, I don't remember having had a break. I update security vulnerabilities, kernels, browsers, and other applications not providing dependencies on the "rolling" version. I maintain the documentation pages on the site. Cards is also one of my daily tasks. Sometimes I find new features to implement.

I also support Spiky when he is in trouble with certain packages. When the freeze of the testing version arrives (more or less every one to two months), I take the branch that Spiky prepared, and I start my battery of tests, merging the rolling branch to testing and installing every package to detect any duplicate files or missing or obsolete dependencies.

Then I generate all the ISOs and test them all in a virtual machine. Together Spiky (in English) and I (in French) write the news announcing the next available version of NuTyx. Once the testing version has passed all the above tests, the rolling version is overwritten with the testing version, ISOs are generated in the rolling version and published, the installation script available on is updated, and the new release is announced.

Boutique Linux

Linux is big business today, or at least it sometimes looks that way to judge from the media coverage. However, talking with Thierry is a reminder that the personal touch continues to drive Linux and free software behind the scenes. As Spiky, a long-time LFS user, pointed out in an additional note to Thierry's answers to my questions, small distros like NuTyX continue to provide alternatives that the larger ones cannot. "You can speak to their creator," as Spiky says, "which is almost impossible with other distros, and a new user can interact with the team and not be belittled."

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