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Gentoo's new Secret Sauce is sweet and sour

After several delays, Gentoo finally released version 2007.0, code-named Secret Sauce. Despite the extended period of development, the installable live CD and DVD versions didn't work as they should, thanks to obvious bugs with display drivers. That said, if you discount the live CD and DVD and install Gentoo the manual way it's popular for, the new version is smooth as ice.

Gentoo 2007.0 is available in several formats for various platforms. As per its torrent download statistics, most popular are the live DVD, the live CD, and the minimal CD for x86 and AMD64 platforms. The live CD contains Linux kernel 2.6.19, Xorg 7.2, GNOME 2.16.0, 2.1.0, Firefox, Thunderbird, Evolution, and X-Chat and Gaim (now Pidgin) for IRC and instant messaging. The DVD version has everything the CD has, along with KDE 3.5.5, XFCE 4.4.0, GIMP 2.2.14, Abiword 2.4.6, KOffice 1.6.1, and several other applications, tools, and libraries.

I tried the 32-bit DVD and CD versions on a dual-core desktop, a Celeron 1.7GHz desktop with an ATI card, and a Celeron 1.4GHz IBM laptop. Both versions failed to bring up X on the desktop with ATI card. Andrew Gaffney, a Gentoo developer, explains on the project's Bugzilla page that "sometime between 2006.1 and 2007.0 the xorg-server ebuild changed to using video_cards_{mach64,r128,radeon} instead of video_cards_ati, and the default VIDEO_CARDS in the profile was never updated to match. Because of this, none of the ATI drivers got built on the x86/amd64 LiveCD/LiveDVD."

To work around the problem, I manually edited the xorg.conf file to use the no-frills vesa driver. On the ATI box, this worked with the live DVD, but the live CD refused to bring up X. However, the live DVD failed to bring up X even on the laptop with the Intel 855GM chipset using the i810 driver; even the vesa hack didn't work.

The Gentoo Linux Handbook says the live CD and DVD environments should have a link to an offline version of the handbook, along with links to the graphical and command-line Gentoo Linux installers. When I logged into X with the startx command after editing the xorg.conf configuration file to use the vesa driver, all three links were missing. But when I ran the live CD on a virtual machine with VMware 6, I was directly logged into X, and the GNOME desktop had the three links. VMware and other virtualization software use their own minimal graphics card. To my surprise, on the same virtual machine, when I swapped the live CD ISO with the live DVD ISO, X again failed to show up. Again, just as on the Intel laptop, the vesa edit didn't work to get X with the live DVD. Gentoo's main claim to fame is that its users compile their distribution from source, which results in a system that's optimized for the user's machine. Some time ago, Gentoo started work on an installer, to help administrators reduce time installing Gentoo on multiple machines by using settings from one installation to automate installation on other machines. It used the install profile from one install on another machine, skipping all the configuration and starting installation.

But faster automated installs were the original goal of the installer. As per its FAQ, the Gentoo Linux Installer (GLI) is now focused on helping relatively inexperienced Linux users install Gentoo. Both the live DVD and CD versions of 2007.0 can be used as network-less installation disks thanks to GLI. The latest version of the installer included in the CD and DVD is far better than its predecessor. I successfully installed Gentoo using both the graphical and command-line versions of the installer.

The installer is still closer to Slackware's or FreeBSD's installer than Ubuntu's or Fedora's, because it doesn't always move cleanly from one operation to the next. At certain stages, such as after setting up partitions or adding mount points, users have to save their settings and go back to the previous menu to continue installation. Because those screens have an OK button, the proper next step may not be apparent to new users. Here, if a user has just set up a partition, clicking OK will take them through the process they've just completed. The Gentoo handbook, which users can find on the desktop, details the installation procedure with screenshots.People who are used to installing Linux will be comfortable using the installer. It's not only easy to navigate, but also retains the power Gentoo installs are known for. You can still customize your compiler options and set flags for your particular platform. But rough edges exist with the installer as well. The installer on the CD refused to complete installation, failing just before the partitioning step. On the laptop, I installed Gentoo using the command-line version of the installer, which installs in a terminal window. While Gentoo was being installed, I went to work on the other machine. When I came back after a few hours, there was no sign of the terminal on the desktop and no message prompting whether the installation had completed or failed. It took a reboot to find out that Gentoo was installed successfully.

Before starting the installation process, the installer asks whether users want to create a file to store information about the choices they make during installation. This file later helps with GLI's original objective of replicating installations on other machine. The file stores all options and settings made during the installation, including creating the partition, which kernel to use, services to start at boot, and user information. It also includes the root and user passwords, but they are both encrypted using the MD5 hash algorithm.

The only installation I attempted that worked without any issues was the one using Gentoo's traditional Stage 1 method via the minimal CD. I selected several packages, including a complete GNOME desktop, on a modest 1.3GHz Celeron desktop with 512MB of RAM and old IDE hard disks. The packages were all fetched from the Internet over a slow 256Kbps Internet connection. It took about a week, which might sound surprising to non-Gentoo users. A Gentoo install first fetches all packages to be installed from the Internet, then compiles them from source. This compiling process can take a lot of time, depending on the processor, the physical RAM, and the hard disks on the system. To reduce this time, Gentoo now encourages users to do a Stage 3 install.

Using Gentoo

Once you've got Gentoo up and running, it's again a mixed experience. The distribution boots quickly and the desktop displays nice icons, themes, and wallpaper. Common applications such as and Firefox launch without much delay. But for some strange reason, the installed Gentoo doesn't allow normal users to run any administrative applications. When you try to run an application that requires superuser privileges, such as opening a root shell or changing boot parameters, Gentoo prompts you for the root password, but it won't accept it. On the other hand, if you change to root manually using su -, followed by the root password, you are instantly authenticated.

Thanks to its use of a recent kernel, hardware support in Gentoo is good. Apart from the graphics cards, which were properly detected but didn't have proper drivers, Gentoo 2007.0 recognized and configured all my devices, from PCMCIA wireless cards to USB mice, keyboards, cheap PS2-TO-USB converters, pen drives, and cameras. Gentoo doesn't automount USB devices; to use the devices, you have to connect the device and look for the device address in dmesg, then manually create the mount point and add the appropriate mount information in /etc/fstab. This is a little inconvenient, considering there are a dozen distributions that don't require this labor.

Once a USB storage device is mounted, though, you can view pictures, read PDF files, or listen to MP3s or view AVIs stored on it. Gentoo also plays DVDs, and includes the popular DVD ripper dvd::rip.

Once you've installed the operating system, you can use Gentoo's Portage package management system to add more applications and update your system. These apps will be downloaded over the Internet and compiled from source. The procedure is detailed in the Gentoo manual, which is on the live CD and DVD, but not on the installed system.

If the documents don't help you, ask your questions on the official Gentoo forums. It's actively moderated and useful threads are moved to the top to help others. There are also several mailing lists and IRC channels to dicuss Gentoo on the desktop or particular hardware architectures.

Gentoo developers should be applauded for trying to make Gentoo accessible to users spoiled by see-before-you-try live Linux distributions. Gentoo's GLI isn't only easy to use, but also lets users retain the control and flexibility Gentoo installs are popular for. But the graphics card driver issues in both the CD and DVD mean that a majority of the thousands of people who've downloaded these versions may turn back disappointed, failing to even log into X.

There isn't anything wrong with 2007.0 release itself, but there is a lot of scope for improving the live versions.