A little distro with big ambitions

Distro Walk – Garuda Linux

© Lead Image © Andrea Danti, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © Andrea Danti, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 251/2021
Author(s):

This friendly Arch Linux distro focuses on usability and modern hardware, making it particularly appealing to keen gamers.

Traditionally, Garuda is a giant bird or bird-like being who appears in several Asian mythologies and is a cultural and national symbol in several countries. By contrast, Garuda Linux [1], from India, is a relatively new Linux distribution with an emphasis on efficiency, ease of use, aesthetics, and gaming, as well as a growing name for originality among distributions. Recently, Shrinivas Kumbhar, the lead founder, agreed to talk about the distribution and where it is going.

Kumbhar was introduced to free software in junior college when he attended a seminar on ethical hacking. A few years later, he experimented briefly with Remix OS and tried to install Kali Linux. However, when he managed to install Kali, he says, "I couldn't figure out anything. So my hunt for a friendly beginning distro began and I installed Linux Mint. But due to its outdated look and outdated software, I got rid of it. I installed Ubuntu and the same thing happened, and so my distro hopping journey began." Interested in gaming, he tried SparkyLinux but was disappointed in its reliance on Debian and Openbox. In the end, Kumbhar settled on Manjaro and discovered its Arch User Repository, as well as KDE Plasma. His first effort at a distro was a Manjaro spin he named manjarowish. When he decided to use Arch Linux's repositories directly, he also renamed the project Garuda, "and ported some awesome tools from Manjaro and various other distros like MX Linux."

Today, Garuda is a loose organization of enthusiasts who share a common core of code while developing their own spins and own aesthetics. For example, the Dr460nized spin features a blurred, dark desktop wallpaper very different from the staid default look in most distributions (Figure 1). Currently, nine spins are listed on the website, varying from traditional desktops such as Gnome, Xfce, and KDE Plasma to lightweight interfaces such as IceWM and tiled desktops such as bspwm and Qtile. The spins also run the range from Garuda Sway, a Wayland version designed for beginners, to Garuda Linux Barebones, which is designed for advanced users. Kumbhar explains, "While every maintainer is free to implement ideas as he wishes, our shared code is discussed within the team (and sometimes in the community as well to gauge interest) and implemented if an overall good solution has been found. The mixture of younger people with partly crazy ideas combined with an overall very experienced selection of long-time Linux users is what shapes Garuda's appearance and codebase. That being said, we are still in the process of getting everyone involved with the team. We trust each other with decisions, but there is always something new to learn, which is really great."

Figure 1: The look of Garuda's Dr460nized spin has been described as "cyberpunky."

For the most part, Garuda's target audience is specific: people with some Linux experience who want an easy introduction to Arch Linux. In addition, Kumbhar adds, "the system is also tailored to people who want to game a lot. We have a wide range of emulators and games already available in our repo, which makes it really easy to get started quickly (Figure 2). However, Garuda is also perfectly fine for use as a workstation. Also, people who want to switch from Windows might find Garuda a good choice if they are interested in learning how the system works. Most of the basic system maintenance tasks are present in our GUI applications, which takes away some of the fears of having to do everything yourself." According to Kumbhar, the distro's site averages 100,000 visitors per month and has had 40,000 downloads as of July 2021.

Figure 2: Garuda has extensive support for gaming, although it is equally suited for use as a workstation.

Design Philosophy

Asked about Garuda's design philosophy, Kumbhar replies, "we want a beautiful and fast system which focuses on performance and responsiveness. Garuda is mainly focused on modern hardware, the reason being is that we want to break the conception that Linux is only used to repurpose old hardware. That is not the approach we take. We want bleeding-edge features, so we make changes constantly and try many things. Due to our rolling releases, we make changes very often, and months old is very ancient in our thinking."

As an example of how Garuda has evolved, Kumbhar notes that the original plan was to have a system with everything included. However, feedback encouraged the creation of lite and ultimate editions. After another round of feedback, Garuda removed the ultimate editions and created a Setup Assistant tool instead. "Our current goal," Kumbhar adds, "is to reduce the system maintenance that our user has to do in Garuda due to it being a rolling release."

Notable Features

Garuda's selection of features illustrates the distribution's priorities. Like many Arch derivatives like Manjaro, Garuda uses the independently developed Calamares installer [2] to take the pain out of installation (Figure 3). In addition, though, Garuda has an initial setup tool that shows a list of available applications in a dozen different categories – something I have never seen in any other distro. This initial setup tool is accompanied by an unusually thorough set of system management tools, including ones for boot options, network management assistance, and GRUB boot options, which taken together make system management from the desktop a practical possibility (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Garuda features the popular Calamares installer.
Figure 4: Garuda features an unusually thorough collection of administrative tools.

Less obvious to the casual eye are Garuda's technical tweaks. For example, it installs by default Arch's linux-zen [3], a custom kernel that enhances performance with a custom I/O scheduler and a general focus on low-latency performance. The distro also uses the zram [4] kernel module, which boosts performance by creating a compressed swap space in RAM, and nohang [5], a daemon that kills lagging or unresponsive applications when memory is low. Even more importantly, Garuda uses the Btrfs filesystem, taking full advantage of its ability to take system snapshots by displaying them at the GRUB boot menu via an application dubbed Timeshift. Timeshift would be a desirable feature in any distribution, but as Kumbhar explains, Timeshift "is integral in making Garuda safe to use with its rolling release model. As Btrfs is a CoW (Copy-on-Write) filesystem, we get instant system restore points which are created automatically before every system update. If there is any issue which can't be resolved, the system can then be easily and instantly rolled back to the state before the update occurred. This feature can often save people in case they play around with the system and perform some system-breaking modifications, making Garuda a perfect fit for people who want to tinker with things in order to learn the ins and outs of Linux."

Looking Ahead

According to Kumbhar, Garuda's main emphasis "is to make the whole distribution very user-friendly. That's why we will continue to implement ideas as we notice what people have issues with." Recently, for example, Garuda added to its system maintenance tools the ability to update keyrings in the background while applying hotfixes before an update. In the near future, the distribution also plans to provide the x86_64_v3 microarchitecture [6] to provide support for some classes of Intel/AMD CPU processor support – just as soon as Arch releases its support. "Last but not least," Kumbhar adds, "there are plans to combine our different Garuda applications into one to have a central place for conveniently administering the system."

At first glance, Garuda might seem to be moving in too many directions at once. Yet, for the most part, its efforts seem to work. By combining ease of use with technical innovation, Garuda provides the best of both. With all its ambition, Garuda is a model of what a derivative should be, keeping in sync with developments within Arch while striking off in specialist directions of its own.

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