Monday, May 18, 2009

Gentoo to Ubuntu Migration Part 2: The College Years

As I'm sure last week's month's installment left you desperate for more...

I started college in May, 1997, and graduated in December, 2001---only one semester beyond the typical four years! I learned a lot in college. Obviously, there was the required "book learning" for my degree (computer science). I mostly enjoyed my classes, but I find book learning less engaging than hands-on learning.

The self-taught/hands-on learning, particularly with regards to Linux, is the topic of this post. Initially, I dual-booted Linux and Windows 95. I tried to use Linux whenever possible, but if I couldn't figure out how to do something, I reverted to Windows.

Sadly, my memory fails me as to my progression using Linux. But here are some highlights, in no particular order:
  • My original distribution was Slackware. It's been far too long for me to make any kind of comment about its pros and cons. But I'm pretty sure that my installation was a mess before I ultimately switched to Debian. At the time, I didn't know anything about package management. Whenever I needed (or just wanted to play with) some piece of software, I would download it, and do the obligatory "./configure ; make ; make install".
  • I remember learning about Samba, which allows Linux to access shared folders in Windows (and vice-versa). At the time, there weren't (or at least I couldn't find) any mature graphical "network neighborhood" browsers for Linux. So any file sharing I did was through the command-line smbclient.
  • I learned about markup languages by writing papers in LaTeX. It took me a while to get past the non-WYSIWYG paradigm... but I eventually grew to love LaTeX, and markup languages in general, and still prefer them to WYSIWYG editors (however, the business world isn't so enlightened, and sadly I still have to interface with Microsoft Word in the "real world").
  • Printing used to be a major hurdle in Linux. I have vague recollections of hacking the cryptic /etc/printcap file (I think that was it). I never actually learned the details of the file (e.g. its grammar and meaning), but mostly just looked for working config files on the Internet.
  • Surfing the 'net: good old Netscape Navigator 4.x! This was about the time of the first "browser wars", i.e. crummy Netscape versus Microsoft's bundled-with-Windows Internet Explorer. I remember Netscape losing this battle, and Linux users were left with the increasingly obsolete and generally junky Navigator, waiting patiently (*really* patiently) for Mozilla to deliver a usable browser for Linux.
  • I used FVWM (or maybe FVWM2, possibly FVWM95) as my window manager for a long time. At one point, I downloaded all of Gnome's libraries and dependencies, painstakingly compiled and installed each (in the right order of course), and... stuck with FVWM! To this day, I don't use the full-featured "desktop environments" (i.e. GNOME/KDE), but tend to stick with the lighter-weight stand-alone window manager. I recall playing with Enlightenment DR15, which had truly mind-blowing eye candy. But still, for whatever reason, stayed with FVWM.
  • Editors. A classic Internet flame war. These days, and since senior year (maybe even junior year), I've been a die-hard vim user. But I did dabble with emacs for quite a while.
I wish I'd made a note of it (of course I never imagined myself blogging about it), but there came a point where I completely removed Windows from my PC. I think I did this around sophomore year, which would have been 1998 or 1999. I've literally been Microsoft-free ever since (at least on the computers I own). Basically, I reached a point where I was completely comfortable doing everything I needed or wanted to do under Linux. The Windows partition was increasingly becoming just wasted space, and I no longer felt I needed it as a safety net.

To this day, I wish I could remember exactly what prompted the complete changeover! I don't know if it was just a realization that I was spending over 99% of my time in Linux, or if there was some critical application for which I finally found an adequate substitution. Either way, the training wheels were formally off!

During these years, there were often "distribution wars". People vehemently supported their distribution; flame wars bashing each others' distributions were not uncommon. Being well-versed in Linux, but still not a true expert, I found myself consulting others as to which distribution I should choose. I went with Debian. Many others were supposedly easier to use, but most people said Debian made you do everything by hand, and was great if you wanted to learn about Linux system administration---which I did.

So Debian became my distribution of choice. This was before "apt-get"! I remember using the horrendous dselect program to manage packages. I haven't used that program in years, so perhaps it has improved, but at the time, I remember thinking it had about the worst user interface I'd ever encountered. (To be fair, perhaps it would make more sense to me now, given that I'm more familiar with the mindset of Linux developers, and common Unix idioms.)

I happily used Debian for many years. I let Debian's package manager (dpkg) manage all my programs. However, there were still many packages I needed (or just wanted to play with) for which a Debian package didn't exist, or existed but was too old. With some programs, I liked to be on the "bleeding edge". Debian's "stable" distribution is decidedly not bleeding edge---that is the price one pays for a stable and consistent system.

Vowing not to let my Debian installation degrade the way my Slackware distribution had, I vowed not to clutter my /usr/local area by blindly running through the "./configure ; make ; make install" routine. Enter what I still consider a really cool "secondary" package manager, epkg (the encap package manager). This program basically allowed you to self install your own programs into /usr/local/encap/packagename-version, and the program would manage symbolic links into the actual /usr/local/ directories.

As time went on, I grew tired of managing packages through epkg. The system worked, but it was somewhat tedious to self-manage an ever-increasing list of packages. Debian seemed "stuck", moving at a glacial pace. Some package versions were getting quite stale---epkg was needed not just for the bleeding edge, but even features that were added within the last year! Likewise, Debian packages were often compiled with features I didn't need, or compiled without features I wanted.

There had to be a better way... and that's when I found Gentoo. Again, I can't remember exactly when I discovered Gentoo. I believe it was after I had graduated college, probably around 2003 or 2004. Gentoo is unique in the Linux world, as it is one of the few source-based distributions. Instead of downloading and installing pre-built binaries, Gentoo's package manager downloads a program's source, builds it on the target machine, then installs the resulting program. The package management system, portage, is also a highly-configurable build system. Via the use of simple configuration files, it is quite easy to install and manage software packages that have been precisely tailored to your system.

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