Arch Linux: The Simple, Flexible (and Fast!) Distro

Arch Linux is a unique distribution, offering the latest free software via a super fast package manager coupled with a "keep it simple" philosophy. It is fast becoming a very popular distribution and now thanks to their split packages, you can install a lightweight KDE 4.3 desktop for even more flexibility and speed.

Many people don’t look outside of the top few distros that everyone knows, but there are so many great Linux distributions out there it’s always worth keeping your options open.

While distributions usually stay true to their core philosophies (barring major internal restructure) they can drift and sway over time. A particular release just might not work right, or perhaps it simply no longer suits the user’s changing needs. There are many reasons for switching distros, especially as users become more familiar with Linux in general.

Most distributions fill some kind of niche and appeal to only a small group, while others are actually very similar but make use of different core technologies. Some have a set of central core philosophies which define it uniquely, of which Arch Linux is one such distro. Pronounced like “archer” (and not “architecture”), the popular operating system was founded by Judd Vinet in 2002 with a focus on being lightweight and simple.

It is an independently developed, community based project which is now lead by Aaron Griffin with a loyal team working tirelessly behind the scenes. It is designed to be fast and, as the wiki states, “focuses on a balance of minimalism, elegance, code correctness and modernity.”

Unlike many other distros, Arch is aimed at what it calls “competent” users, that is to say those who are not afraid of the command line or making choices about their system.

It’s a matter of principle

There are five core principles of Arch Linux, embedded in what is known as the “The Arch Way.” These include:

“Arch Linux defines simplicity as a lightweight UNIX-like base structure without unnecessary additions, modifications, or complications, that allows an individual user to shape the system according to their own needs. In short; an elegant, minimalist approach.”

Code-correctness over convenience
“Simplicity, code-elegance, and minimalism shall always remain the reigning priorities of Arch development.”

“Arch Linux uses simple tools, that are selected or built with openness of the sources and their output in mind.”

“Arch Linux targets and accommodates competent GNU/Linux users by giving them complete control and responsibility over the system.”

“By keeping the system simple, Arch Linux provides the freedom to make any choice about the system.”

All of these philosophies come together to make a truly unique and fantastic operating system.

Unique features aplenty

Arch Linux implements a super fast binary package management system called Pacman, written from scratch in C. It allows users to quickly and easily install a wide range of applications from on-line repositories and of course includes all the standard tools one would expect from a package manager. It doesn’t stop there however. Arch also implements a ports like package system which allows users to easily build their own packages from source, tweaking and modifying them if they so desire.

Arch Linux doesn’t dictate what a system should be. Instead, it provides a base system which users can then expand and adapt to meet their own desires. Packages have minimal dependencies which in turn helps to provide a smaller, neater, and faster system. There is no loss of functionality however, as optional packages are available (and even suggested to the user) to provide additional features.

This operating system also follows a rolling release method. This means there are no specific version, unlike most other distributions. Instead, the package tree is constantly updated with new versions and the system rolls along with bug fixes, security improvements and new major versions. The one installation of Arch can be forever upgraded and users can have the latest versions of all the packages, every day. As with everything, there are some downsides to this method, but for users who like to have the latest without waiting for a new major release, Arch fits the bill.

What the project does provide however, are updated installation media sets which contain snapshots in time of the package tree. Recently, an updated version 2009.08 of the installation media in the form of CD and USB disk images was released. This media boots a live environment with a text based installer to provide an easy way of installing the system onto a machine.

The initial result is a simple, basic system without a graphical user interface and without a myriad of services started. Where the system goes from here is up to the user. Install Xorg, services and a graphical environment. Or don’t. The wiki and forums are both extremely helpful in getting an Arch system exactly the way you want.

A better KDE, the Arch way

Recently, one of the most popular desktop environments reached version 4.3. Yes, the latest release of KDE is better than ever, with this version having fixed over 10,000 bugs! The team of over 700 also implemented almost 2,000 feature requests to make this the best ever. If the previous release was really good, this release is exceptional.

Naturally Arch was soon to incorporate the new release into their current package tree, but it also came with extra flexibility. In an announcement, the project explained that the whole of KDE would also be available as individual packages, rather than as larger binaries containing multiple applications.

Taking an example, the “kdebase” meta package includes several KDE applications including dolphin (the file manager), konqueror (the web browser), konsole (the terminal) and kwrite (the text editor). It also includes several utilities. Making use of this new package configuration means that users can install a single specific KDE application like konsole, without installing the full suite of programs included in the kdebase group. The breakdown of all group and meta packages is available on the wiki.

The ability to install specific applications (and have only their direct dependencies pulled in by the package manager) opens the door to a more customizable and lightweight KDE desktop. With a specific plasma shell optimized for netbooks in the pipeline, it makes KDE a far more attractive environment for these low powered devices. So with Arch, users can have a fast, lean, minimal distro with an even more exciting KDE 4 experience.

Using this new method, a base KDE installation on Arch used just over 100MB or memory when booted fully into the loaded desktop. That’s not a whole lot of resources! Of course, this number will vary greatly with the number of services set to start on boot-up, as well as the specific applications users want to load. What it does show however, is that when broken down into smaller components KDE can still be quite flexible and even provide a perfectly acceptable light weight option.

Minimal KDE 4.3 Desktop

Other distributions may offer similar functionality, however they are often working in the reverse. The resulting system consists of a fully blown desktop environment which users can then cut down. With Arch, it takes the other approach – start small and build up what you want. Add to that a blistering fast package manager, a fantastic ports system to roll your own binaries, a BSD style init system, rolling releases and more, all topped off with a great community and you’ve got a killer operating system.

Interested in what Arch might have to offer over your everyday distro of choice? There’s a wiki page set up to help answer this very question!

KDE 4.3 is here and it’s absolutely brilliant. If you want the most exciting, modern and beautiful desktop available in the free software world on a fast, stable and flexible platform, then you simply can’t go past Arch Linux. Install it today and see for yourself!

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