The Gentoo Linux

EssayTechnology
Jun 12, 2022

Introduction

Linux offers users various distributions that they can install and utilize as an alternative to Windows. Choosing a distribution to use can be difficult for a user that has specific needs. Some users may be comfortable with using the Zorin OS while others may be looking for specific features present only in Kubuntu. Oftentimes, users will have to uninstall unwanted applications from distribution to be able to install the ones they prefer. Linux addressed this issue through their release of the Gentoo distribution. The Gentoo Linux distribution provides extensive customization options that allow users to configure their systems upon the installation of the operating system.

What is a Linux Distribution?

Gentoo is one of the many distributions or “distros” that Linux offers to its users. Other popular distros are Zorin OS, Kubuntu, ChaletOS, Elementary, OS, React, OS, and Linux Mint. Each distro has unique features that make them desirable for certain users. Installing one distro means installing default applications that come with the package. Distros include Linux kernels, GNU shell utilities, X servers, desktop environments, package management systems, Internet browsers, management tools, and other software (Linux Distribution, n.d.). To understand these systems, especially Gentoo, users must first learn the definition of a Linux distribution.

Linux distributions are operating systems, similar to Windows and iOS. If a user is using a Linux system, such as a desktop or a server, they can opt to install a Linux distro instead of the common Windows operating system. However, Linux distributions tend to be open-source programs that any individual can modify for their needs. A programmer can utilize the source code of an existing distro, such as Kubuntu or Zorin, and create a new distribution. This open-source feature has led to the creation of more than 300 Linux distros (Linux Distribution, n.d.). These distros are either from individual programmers or commercial companies.  

Despite the commercial potential of creating a Linux distro, the open-source feature makes it illegal to charge for the software. This means that all Linux distros are free to download and install. However, some companies offer paid services to customers to help them install or manage distributions (Linux Distribution, n.d.). This is common for distros that require specific instructions to install as well as for users who are not comfortable installing operating systems on their devices.

What is Gentoo?

Gentoo is different from other Linux distributions because of its extensive customization options. According to gentoo.org (n.d.), Gentoo has extreme configurability and performance. It is compatible with various instruction set architectures, such as the Alpha, AMD64, ARM, HPPA, IA64, and more (Handbook: Main Page, 2021). Each architecture requires different methods of installation which users must be aware of before installing Gentoo. Fortunately, there is a community around Gentoo Linux that provides handbooks for each architecture-specific instruction.

Furthermore, Before installing the operating system, users can choose which applications and software to include in their system. For instance, a user can choose to not install GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) to maximize the performance of their system. On most distros, users will need to uninstall GNOME after installing the operating system which would waste time. If a user also wants to uninstall other applications, such as Intel software that require additional drivers, the process will waste more time. The system will automatically download the required drivers, adding more than a couple of minutes to a couple of hours in the installation process. Gentoo’s customizability allows users to save time as well as avoid installing unnecessary programs that may reduce the performance of their device.

Gentoo History

Daniel Robbins founded Gentoo in October 1999. According to gentoo.org (2021), this was also the date of the registration of the official gentoo.org website. Robbins developed Gentoo to create a distro that will put performance first by minimizing CPU utilization (Robbins, 2005a). To do this, he needed to minimize the bloat software that most distributions download automatically. The bloat software utilizes RAM and storage spaces which affects a device’s performance. Since these types of applications are harmless and do not disrupt the user, they tend to run in the background without the user’s knowledge. These applications will utilize RAM and the more bloat a device has, the more RAM it will dedicate to them. Users who are unaware of bloat can end up with a device that utilizes more than half of its RAM for unnecessary processes, reducing performance. Robbins aimed to solve this problem through the creation of Enoch, the initial name of Gentoo Linux. 

Robbins released Enoch distribution in December 1999. While the distribution works, it experienced various bugs during its development which required Robbins to work with various individuals and companies. It took several months for the team to fix some bugs, however, this allowed Robbins to learn more about distributions and the community around them. Still, an idle-lockup bug caused Robbins to stop the development of Gentoo Linux for a while (Robbins, 2005c). He could not identify the cause of the problem and so he decided to work on other projects. Robbins worked on the FreeBSD operating system for several months until he resumed his work on Gentoo Linux.

Robbins found Linux as a system with a large room for innovation. It had intricate filesystem and kernel improvements that made it perform better and faster (Robbins, 2005c). Additionally, Robbins gained the help of his development team lead, Achim Gottinger, which made the transition back to Gentoo smoother. Robbins and Gottinger worked on Gentoo Linux exclusively but eventually developed a full development team after the successful improvements to the distribution.

The development team eventually created Portage. This package management system became the heart of Gentoo Linux as it allows users to customize the distribution to their needs. The creation of Portage allowed users not only to customize their system but also allowed other developers to contribute to the sources and scripts of the distribution (Robbins, 2005). Robbins saw Portage as a way for Gentoo Linux to become a tool to push Linux technology forward. Since anyone can access the source and create their own Linux-based technology, Portage held massive potential in innovating Gentoo Linux and Linux, in general.

With the success of Gentoo, the developers decided to claim the copyrights and other intellectual property for the distribution. This was necessary to protect their work and make sure that no other entities steal their distribution. Robbins owned the copyright for Gentoo Technologies Inc. as well as other properties belonging to that name (Foundation: Gentoo History, 2021). This also led Gentoo to become an official corporation with Robbins as the Chief Architect. The creation of the company may have improved Gentoo’s authenticity as a Linux distro which may have helped with its popularity among users.

Gentoo Technologies Inc. was a for-profit organization, however, the developers established a new not-for-profit company after Robbin’s retirement. The new not-for-profit company, Gentoo Foundation Inc., inherited all the assets of Gentoo Technologies Inc. The Gentoo Foundation Inc. became integral in intellectual property, financial, and legal protection (Gentoo Foundation, n.d.). This was necessary to separate the development process and company matters. According to gentoo.org, Gentoo elects seven council members every year who will then become the decision-makers regarding various issues in the Gentoo project. This ensured that Gentoo Linux’s development will continue without delay while another body handles the corporate side of the company.

Gentoo Features

Portage

Gentoo Linux’s continuous development has led to various features that defined the distribution. One of the defining characteristics of Gentoo is Portage. As mentioned earlier, this is the heart of Gentoo that allows users extensive configurability. Portage acts as the package installation system, giving users access to the Gentoo repository (About Gentoo, n.d.). When Portage syncs with the repository, the user can see more than 19,000 packages and choose which packages to include during the installation process. Since Gentoo is open-source, there are always new packages in the repository, meaning that the numbers of packages grow with time. This will provide users with a large selection that will fit their needs. Additionally, Portage can scan a device to ensure that installed packages are up-to-date. This will avoid any essential programs to become outdated which can affect performance and cause issues in the system.

USE Flag

The “USE flag” system is another feature that contributes to Gentoo’s configurability. While Portage has access to the repository, the “USE flag” system allows users to remove programs and functions from packages (Benefits of Gentoo, 2022). Through this feature, a user can install the operating system without unnecessary and bloat software. For instance, if a user will use a desktop exclusively for gaming, they can prevent the installation of Bluetooth services, application layer gateway services, fax services, and touch keyboard and handwriting panel services. This will reduce the load on system memory and CPU, increasing system performance.

Flexibility

Another noteworthy Gentoo feature is its flexibility. As mentioned earlier, Gentoo is compatible with various architectures. Users can also utilize the distribution for servers, system development, professional desktops, gaming systems, and other functions that are compatible with Portage (About Gentoo, n.d.). This flexibility makes Gentoo a viable option for any individual or professional working on an electronic device. Additionally, the constant package addition to the Gentoo repository means that the distribution will evolve over time, further expanding its flexibility and compatibility.

Community Benefits

Using Gentoo Linux also provides benefits from the Gentoo community. Since Gentoo is open-source and highly customizable, Linux and other tech enthusiasts tend to gravitate towards the distribution (Benefits of Gentoo, 2022). This means that the average Gentoo user will be an individual who is knowledgeable about operating systems and other related technology. This creates a community of experts who share their knowledge about operating systems and distributions to further improve the system. They will tend to report more bugs and find solutions for problems in comparison to other distro users who are not tech experts.

The knowledgeable community also means that new users will have access to information that can help them install and use the distribution. While the gentoo.org website provides the necessary handbooks for each architecture type, new users can utilize platforms like Youtube and Reddit to find knowledgeable individuals with first-hand experiences using the distribution. They can indicate the common issues that new users may encounter as well as the solutions for the problems. There is also the Libera #gentoo webchat where thousands of users are available to help the community (Benefits of Gentoo, 2022). This ensures that there will be available help for anyone regardless of their system architecture, device type, and preferences. 

Installing Gentoo

Gentoo’s installation is the first and most important part of utilizing the distribution. Since it acts as an operating system, it is the first software that a user will install on their device. However, the process can be unfriendly to non-tech-savvy individuals due to architecture-specific instructions as well as the technical aspect of installing an operating system on a blank device. According to the gentoo.org website (2015), the installation is a 10-step procedure from preparing a working environment to exploring the Gentoo Linux environment. New users should note that there are multiple ways to install Gentoo and they will need to follow specific instructions to install the distribution successfully.

Identify CPU Architecture

Users must first identify their system’s CPU architecture. There are multiple architecture types and the most common one is the AMD64 architecture (Handbook: Main Page, 2021). Other types include Alpha architecture, ARM architecture, HPPA, PPC, SPARC, RISC-V, and X86. Users can type “echo %PROCESSOR_ARCHITECTURE%” in the command prompt to identify their system architecture. Once this is done, they should refer to the Gentoo manual on the gentoo.org website for the specific instructions to begin the 10-step procedure.

Choose an Installation Media and Establish Internet Connection

The first two steps in the installation process are preparing the necessary tools and environment for the installation. Users must first choose the installation medium and establish Internet access . For the installation medium, users can either use a Gentoo minimal installation CD or by burning the Gentoo media ISO file to a CD. Once the Gentoo media is ready, users can boot it by inserting the media into the system and entering the motherboard firmware user interface. They will need to change the boot order to access the external boot media and choose the available kernels and boot options. After this, the system should log the user to the “Live” Gentoo Linux environment. If the user’s device connects to an Ethernet network, the second step should start automatically. However, for systems that utilize WIFI connections, users may need to follow specific instructions from the Gentoo manual.

Create Disk Partitions

Step three is about preparing the system’s disks for the operating system installation. This is a significant part of the process since the OS installation location can impact system processing speed greatly. Users will need to create partitions in their disk using either the MBR or GPT partitioning technologies. Once the users have created the system disk partitions, they will then need to house a filesystem in the partitions. Since there are many types of filesystems, users will need to choose a compatible one for their CPU architecture. After the filesystem housing, users will then have to mount the root partition.

Install Stage3

Gentoo users call the next step the installation of a stage3 or a stage tarball. Users will need to choose a tarball, such as the multibib tarball and non-multibib tarball. It is important to note that new users should refrain from using a non-multibib tarball because of the in-depth knowledge that an individual needs to install and use it (Installing the Gentoo Installation Files, 2015). To find a tarball, users will need to download and unpack the files. Downloading the tarball will require the use of graphical browsers or command-line browsers since the blank device has no access to traditional browsers without an operating system. Other system installations will also require downloading files which is why securing an Internet connection is essential. Once the user has unpacked the tarball, they will then need to configure the compile options.

Install the Base Gentoo System and Enter New Environment

The next step is installing the base Gentoo system and moving it to the device partition. Users will need to download the source code before entering a new environment, however, if they used a non-Gentoo installation media, they can skip the download and do it after entering the new environment (Installing the Gentoo Base System, 2015). In preparing for the new environment, users will need to copy the DNS information to secure network connection and mount necessary filesystems. Once this is done, users can then enter the new environment–transitioning from an installation media to a system or device partition.  To do this, users will have to change the root location, reload settings in memory, change the primary prompt, and mount the boot partition (Installing the Gentoo Base System, 2015). Successfully entering the new environment means that users can begin installing the necessary files on their system. Users can then utilize Portage to access the Gentoo repository and download the packages for the system. They will also have access to the USE system, allowing them to choose specific files and programs to install and not install.

Kernel Configuration

With the Gentoo base system on the device, users can begin kernel configuration and compilation. The kernel is the center of the operating system and configuring it correctly is necessary to establish a stable device. Users can either configure and compile the kernel manually or utilize the “genkernel” tool or a distribution kernel (Configuring the Linux Kernel, 2015). The approach that a user chooses depends on their preference and knowledge about the process. Once kernel configuration and compilation are done, users will then need to configure the system. They will need to set the filesystem information, networking information, and system information (Configuring the System, 2015). This process involves personalizing the device by setting passwords, usernames, and defining specific processes. Properly configuring certain settings can further improve system performance and security, however, new users can opt for default options to avoid beginner mistakes.

System Tools and Boot Loader Installation

Once the user has configured the system, they can then begin installing the tools that are not in the initial package they chose. Most of the tools are optional since the initial package should include necessary programs for Gentoo to work. Still, users can choose to install a system logger, cron daemon, file indexer, sshd init script, time synchronization, filesystem tools, and networking tools (Installing System Tools, 2015). After installing system tools,  users will have to install a boot loader to power up the kernel. Installing a boot loader is an essential process since it tells the system to turn on when a user presses the power button. There are various types of boot loaders and users will need to choose one that is compatible with their system.

Testing System Stability and Performance

Installing a boot loader is the last step in the Gentoo installation, however, users can go through additional steps to further improve system performance and stability. They can configure user administration and create a new user aside from the root. Performing a disk cleanup will help remove unnecessary junk files that were necessary for installation but are obsolete after the process. Lastly, users should test their systems by utilizing them how they intended, whether it be for professional, commercial, or personal use.

Conclusion

Gentoo Linux is a flexible distribution that utilizes the Portage and USE system to provide extreme configurability. Daniel Robbins, Gentoo’s creator, developed the distribution to improve system performance and provide users with the ability to configure their operating system. Through the open-source characteristic of the distribution, it created a knowledgeable community that continuously pushes the Gentoo system forward. Gentoo’s unique features make it a great operating system choice for users who want extensive control of their system. However, the intricate installation process requires knowledge about Linux and operating systems which new users may lack. This limits Gentoo’s accessibility, making the distribution appealing only to tech-savvy individuals.

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References

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Robbins, D. (2005b). Making the Distribution, Part 2. Web.archive.org. Available at https://web.archive.org/web/20051118195918/http://www.gentoo.org/doc/en/articles/making-the-distro-p2.xml. Accessed June 12, 2022.

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