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Gentoo: “We’re Not Dead”

In 2008 the Gentoo Foundation ceased to exist, sending rumors of Gentoo's demise and ultimate death circulating around the Internet. Almost two years on, the distro is still here and celebrating its 10th anniversary. How close did the distro come to disaster, and where does it stand now?

MS: Gentoo is far more than a project. Gentoo is representative of the notions of freedom and the existential open society, a choice we choose to make about our digital lives. However, with the idea and choice, we face the work of engineering solutions. There are many challenges devs are facing and there is much good work coming of it.

We recently celebrated our tenth anniversary. With that milestone we have released a new Live DVD, Gentoo 10.1, to highlight some of Gentoo’s capabilities. It is an exciting enterprise, and it will continue.

Accompanying the work on the LiveDVD, several developers and users have worked long hours improving accessibility subsystems. Accessibility is a major priority for Gentoo, we are working very hard in that area.

Portage, our package management system, has seen a ton of new features including automated blocker resolution and better dependency management. There are even more excellent features in Portage-2.2 like package sets, which is under heavy development currently.

One project that I and many others rely on for data center and workstation security, Hardened Gentoo, is seeing serious growth. Work is progressing quickly to integrate the latest tool chain and build system with technologies like SSP (stack smashing protector). The Hardened Project also provides Pax/GrSec and SELinux kernel support. There is also a complete distribution, called Tin Hat, designed to run completely in RAM based directly on the work of the Hardened Project for security research.

On the desktop environment front both the KDE and GNOME teams have been hard at work with the new major releases from upstream. In fact I’m using KDE 4.3.1 as I write this. Gentoo supports just about every window manager and desktop environment under the sun, with thousands of available applications and libraries. Python, Perl, PHP, and Ruby support is superb, Erlang rocks on Gentoo. Really, I could go on and on, but I would encourage the reader to take a look themselves, so as to avoid any further wind-baggery from me.

Progress

The message appears to be, “We’re not dead.”

Indeed, the website is now updated regularly and although we also didn’t see the second release for 2008, the distro has changed models to offer smaller, more frequent releases.

These things suggest that the board is listening to the community, but how much other activity has been happening? Linux Magazine tried to get some firm statistics from Gentoo devs on the amount of development within the project, however this did not eventuate as promised.

What we can see however, is a commit to source code every five minutes over the last six years. While it might be a definitive benchmark, it does show that the devs are solidly continuing their work on the distro and that it’s not stagnant.

More Bleeding, Less Edge

So what do you get for your commit every five minutes? Gentoo used to have a reputation of being a bleeding edge distribution, but how true is that today?

While Portage often contains multiple versions of a package, only one will be the recommended version depending whether the system is running stable, or unstable. Gentoo also has the advantage of being a rolling release. As such it is more likely to have more up-to-date packages compared to a typical release based distro, which usually only releases bug fixes and security updates for the one version for the life of the release.

The following shows the current versions of several core packages in Gentoo compared to some other popular distributions.

comparison-table.jpg

The stable branch of Gentoo is actually not overly impressive. Both Fedora and Ubuntu will be out with a new version within the next two months, yet Gentoo is already lagging behind in many common packages.

Sure, the road to KDE4 has been rocky, but most distros have replaced it already and yet Gentoo is still at version 3.5.9. The unstable branch is of course more up-to-date, so what is needed to ensure packages can move more quickly into stable? Is the image of a bleeding edge distro even something that Gentoo is still trying to maintain?

Onwards And Upwards

Gentoo might be on the mend, but there is still a ways to go. One would have thought that a distribution which has been suffering bad public relations of late would jump at the opportunity to set the record straight and promote their project. Unfortunately in this case, it was like trying to get blood from a stone, taking almost three months for what we did get.

If Gentoo is to continue to be an attractive distribution, it needs to remain open with its community. As they say, perception is half the battle. If the community feels they are not being looked after, there is probably a good reason why. Without the users, Gentoo is nothing at all. They are their most valuable asset and developers come from dedicated users.

In any project there are bound to be some ups and downs. Developers come, and developers go – as do users. Gentoo has always had a very strong community however, which no doubt has played a very important role in pulling the distro through times like these.

Hopefully the board of trustees can continue to respect the members they serve and rebuild the glorious distro it used to be. Just were will Gentoo be in another two years? We’ll have to wait and see.

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