Thursday, September 5, 2013

Manjaro Past, Present and Future: A Virtual Roundtable

screenshot of Manjaro site

Like a lot of people, I’ve been watching Manjaro rise in popularity (at least according to Distrowatch and Internet chatter). Manjaro, a fork of Arch Linux, is often divisive, one of those distros that people either love or hate, with not much in-between.

Building upon Arch is a bold move, given that it’s a philosophy as much as it’s a distribution. Arch is deliberately complex in order to give users the most control over their system. Manjaro’s goal of simplifying Arch can be seen as compromising that philosophy. But given Manjaro’s popularity, it’s filling a need for users who want a simpler Arch implementation — even at the cost of control over their system.

I played with Manjaro for a few weeks and ultimately, it wasn’t for me. But after exploring the distro and researching it, I was curious about the project, so I reached out to the project leaders, who shared my questions with some other Manjaro team members.

Manjaro’s ultimate goal seems to be creating a user-friendly, stable, rolling distribution. It’s a bold goal, but one that speaks to a lot of users.

  1. What is your name, title, and role within Manjaro?

    Philip: My name is Philip Mueller. I’m one of the project leaders of Manjaro. I work with a lot of aspects of the Manjaro project.
    I created ManjaroISO, our install-media creation tool, and work on MHWD (Manjaro Hard Ware Detection tool), which simplifies the driver installation for all devices. One of my biggest jobs is package and mirror management. We have a tool called Boxit which gets all needed packages from Arch Linux and merges them with our own packages on our servers. Also I’m involved with the support team and answer as many questions I can.

    handy: Support team member. I provide support where I can to forum users and write tutorials and wiki pages.

    Verändert: Support team member. I provide support where I can to forum users.

    Quantum is a former support team member.

  2. How would you describe Manjaro to a new user?

    Philip: Manjaro is a user-friendly community around an Arch-based distro. You find people who use and share their experience with and about Manjaro. Everybody is welcome to find his place in our community. And yes, it is an OS for beginners willing to learn and those who want to have full power off their system.

    handy: Manjaro uses the Arch rolling release package management system which I consider to be the best package maintenance system available for desktop computer users. It enables a user to install once and then upgrade their system daily if they so choose. This system obviates the need to re-install their OS until their machine has the type of hardware failure that requires re-installation (most likely a HDD failure).

    Manjaro uses the packages from the Arch official repos which go through a relatively brief testing and integration phase, where the packages from the Arch repos are combined with the Manjaro specific packages; adjustments are made where required. The packages quickly move from unstable to the testing repo, before being made available in the Manjaro stable repos. All of this is being done in an effort to keep Manjaro as stable and reliable as possible, which is of course particularly useful to those inexperienced in the ways of Linux and/or the Arch rolling release system.

    Manjaro also uses tools to make its initial installation, including hardware identification and driver management, much easier than the Arch Linux method. This area, amongst others, is still in the process of being developed and improved.

  3. What are the plans for Manjaro?

    Philip: One of our plans will be to finish our graphical installer, which we are still coding on. The current one is borrowed from Linux Mint.

    Also we are working to optimize package management. Graphical tools are planned to improve the user experience with Manjaro. A start is our Manjaro Settings Tool. We will add more plugins in the near future. ManjaroISO will get a nice graphical interface so people can simply click their own system in a few steps to have a custom spin of Manjaro for their own needs. So there is a lot to come before we have a “final” Manjaro 1.0 release.

    Verändert: To make Manjaro the best operating system there is and eventually take over the world.

  4. To what extent is it a fork of Arch? How different are the two distributions? How similar are they?

    Philip: Manjaro is Archlinux - with extra spice. You can use the knowledge you already have from Arch Linux and do the same as in the upstream project. AUR support is there. You feel home right from the beginning. We added new features like mhwd, a graphical installer, and graphical tools for common uses. Multible kernels will enhance the support of different systems and additional extra modules for special hardware on each series. You install Manjaro once and simply update it.

    Quantum: Manjaro is deeply enhanced Arch Linux. We take care of all the basic configuration, so you can get right to actual work. If you have a background in Arch, you can leverage that knowledge and do anything you can do in the upstream project,

    Verändert: The kernel and the really cool Manjaro hardware detection are made by Manjaro developers. The rest is coming from Arch. There simply is no need to reinvent the wheel here: Arch rocks, it just isn’t (and doesn’t want to be) newbie-friendly. That’s where Manjaro steps in. It takes the best base around and adds tools to flatten the learning curve.

  5. What are the challenges of maintaining a rolling distribution? Is it realistic to expect rolling distros to work for newer Linux users?

    Philip: You have to have a concept to maintain the packages in a small team like ours. We use Arch’s packages since they are mostly stable and up-to-date, so we don’t have to worry much on outdated packages. With BoxIt we create snapshots we use to build our own additional packages and merge them to the whole. Those snapshots will be tested by our community before they got moved to the stable branch. So there is a small delay between Manjaro and Arch. You will find updates later in our stable branch than in the upstream project.

    handy: The main challenge as I see it is for users to become familiar with how the rolling release system works. That means how to use pacman in the terminal, how to use the GUI pacman wrapper(s). Work is going on to improve the GUI tools in this regard, so people shouldn’t forget that Manjaro still has a way to go before it reaches release 1.0.

    As far as the rolling release system and newer Linux users are concerned, I think that at this stage of Manjaro development, some fresh Linux users will find it too hard (especially if they have some kind of installation difficulty). If the user is prepared to learn how the rolling release package management system works (which as previously stated, will get easier in Manjaro’s future), they are very likely to fall in love with it, as it makes their computing life so much easier.

  6. There’s been some discussion within the Arch community about the stability and security of Manjaro. How do you respond to the accusation Manjaro isn’t as secure or as stable as Arch?

    Philip: We are as stable as Arch Linux is. Due our extra testing we might be even more stable than the upstream project. Having a slight delay might give you the feeling we aren’t as secure as Arch might be. I always tell users concerned about that to use our unstable branch, which we update almost daily, as Arch Linux does. You might find some quirks if you do so since we have to solve them first and test them later in our testing branch. You can choose how stable or bleeding edge Manjaro should be for you. You get stability over security on our stable branch since there is a week or so delay between stable and unstable. Also, there was some talk about our install medias using the same signature master key. This issue is solved since the 0.8.6 release.

    handy: There was a potential security problem pointed out in February this year (if I remember correctly) which was remedied shortly after. Beyond that, our stable repos being delayed a week or so from those of Arch, is very unlikely to pose a security threat to Manjaro. We prefer to have stability over instability in this regard. If a serious security threat arose that warranted quick action on behalf of the Manjaro package management team, then such action would of course be taken, pronto.

    Verändert: I would say that Manjaro is a tad more stable than Arch because packages are tested for another week before getting released from Manjaro. During that week, Manjaro might be less secure than Arch, because a package fixing a security hole might also been withheld. On the other hand, if some new package in Arch is insecure, it can be withheld by the Manjaro developers. That said, I believe neither Arch nor Manjaro are insecure or unstable.

  7. screenshot of The Arch Way from the Arch wiki

  8. Why do you think some in the Arch community (and within the Arch project) have had such a strong and negative response to Manjaro?

    Philip: As we “borrow” their packages we seem to be lazy packagers in their eyes. Also we do things they never would do — against The Arch Way — making Arch easy for beginners. Arch was always for experienced users. Now there are third-party projects shaking it up and down as they like it, and even being successful with it. Some hate us and some love us. We are different. Not everybody can be pleased. We love Arch Linux but there is always a possibility to change our base. Not everybody likes Ubuntu, Mint, or even Debian, but they all use the same base. We try to give our community an opportunity to do whatever they want to do with their systems and get support from a friendly bunch of people.

    Quantum: Some in the Arch community object to making Arch ‘easy,’ ostensibly lowering the bar for users. But our goal and purpose is to create a distro that is based on solid and current software, which is already set up so that you don’t have to spend days and weeks creating config files, installing GUI tools and every single little app and library, and tweaking everything. Our community has drawn users with all backgrounds in Linux, from beginners to the most advanced.

    Verändert: First of all, I’m quite sure that the majority of people that develop or use Arch like us as we like them. In the small Linux universe, you will always have some that think that any spin-off is done by leechers that don’t cherish the work of the makers of the original distribution enough. That’s in no way Arch-specific. People just think that the work that is being put into Manjaro should be put into Arch proper. Which is wrong, since Arch doesn’t want to be beginner-friendly. The developers want you to set up your system yourself and learn by doing so. Which is perfectly fine, it just isn’t for everybody. I had used Arch myself and failed miserably when it changed to systemd. I really tried hard to keep my computer up and running and found that I neither had the time nor the knowledge to do so for a long time. And while I’m familiar with the terminal, I prefer using a GUI application. While I’m thankful for the Arch developers’ hard work that Manjaro relies upon, I prefer to have a bit more of stability. That’s why I use Manjaro now.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Return to Xubuntu: A Review

screenshot of my Xubuntu desktop

A few months ago, I had a Linux first — I reached the end-of-support of a distro. I never thought of myself as a distro hopper, especially with my main laptop, but I guess I hop around enough to have never made it to the end-of-support.

I was using OpenSUSE 12.1 GNOME, and I loved it, but I saw end-of-support as a chance to really explore my options. I’ve messed around with a few distros on my testing machine, but nothing really grabbed my attention, other than the dearly-depart Fuduntu.

The Search

OpenSUSE actually lets you upgrade via disk (and rather scarily, live), but I didn’t want to upgrade two versions (12.1-12.2 and then 12.2-12.3), having to back up all of my work and settings, only to be back in a similar situation in less than 18 months (assuming nothing horribly broke). So even though I love OpenSUSE, it didn’t seem like the right option for me at this point in time.

OpenSUSE has a rolling release concept, Tumbleweed, that interested me, but I was never able to get it to work on my testing machine, a ThinkPad T43. I suspect the problem might have had to do with bouncing between GNOME versions, but I was never really able to pin the issue down.

I played with Manjaro’s GNOME edition on my testing machine for a few weeks, and that seemed pretty nice, but eventually an update broke my setup and I wasn’t able to even triangulate on what the issue might be. I don’t blame Manjaro, though. Part of running an Arch-based distribution means accepting a willingness to go through log files. I thought I was willing to do that right up until I couldn’t figure out the issue in less than a few hours. I enjoy trouble-shooting a lot of different Linux issues, but reviewing log files is completely unrewarding to me. It’s not a knock on Arch or Manjaro — it’s more a self-realization.

I also played with Linux Mint Debian Edition, another rolling release, but aesthetically it was a bit raw, and there seemed to be some concerns about the rate at which Mint pushes out security updates. In general, it’s a nice enough distro, but it felt and looked old to me.

The Bake-Off

With rolling releases ruled out, I decided to focus on long-term stability. That meant either an Ubuntu Long Term Support release (LTS; 12.04.2) or a Linux Mint one (Maya 13).

Now down to two distros, I had to think about the desktop environment issue. I love GNOME, but I haven’t had the most luck getting GNOME shell working in Ubuntu. In the past it’s been glitchy in a way I haven’t seen in other distros. Ubuntu now has a GNOME edition, but because it’s brand new, there’s no LTS version.

Poking around Ubuntu, I remembered how much I enjoyed Xubuntu back when I ran it a few years ago. While Xubuntu won’t push out Xfce-related updates as long as it will push the general Ubuntu ones, it felt long-term enough for my purposes.

Looking at Mint, I’m not a huge fan of Cinnamon or Mate, so I decided to try Mint’s Xfce version, too.

I installed Mint and Xubuntu side-by-side on my testing machine. As you might expect, they’re both very, very similar, what with Mint based upon Ubuntu. In the end, I decided to go with Xubuntu for purely aesthetic reasons. The default Xfce configuration was nicer, with a single panel across the top of the screen, much like my beloved GNOME. There was more contrast due to a darker theme. It shipped with the beautiful elementary icons already installed. The fonts and rendering were all sharper within Xubuntu (say what you will about Ubuntu, but no distro renders fonts better). Obviously, I could have configured Mint to look just like Xubuntu (it even has the elementary icons in its repositories), but it seemed like an unnecessary step. Why bother going to the trouble of getting Mint to look like Xubuntu when I can just use Xubuntu?

screenshot of Linux Mint Xfce desktop
Linux Mint Xfce

And so, with that, I was settled on Xubuntu as my new distro. Now, I had to get it on my main work machine, a ThinkPad T420.

The Switch

I moved my files over to the testing machine, just to make sure there were no issues with file versions. It was time well spent. OpenSUSE was using KeePassX 2 while Xubuntu is still on 0.4.3. Despite what the numbers imply, they are two completely different programs. The Linux version of KeePassX 2 won’t let you roll back a file to version 0.4.3, so I had to do it in a Windows version of KeePassX via a virtual machine. It represented work, but far less work than losing all of my passwords.

I had some PDFs zipped up with a password. For some reason, the PDFs wouldn’t open on Xubuntu. I had occasionally had the same thing happen on OpenSUSE, so I’m not quite sure that issue was, but the files weren’t anything irreplaceable, so I didn’t even bother trying to resolve the issue.

I had a virtual Windows XP machine in OpenSUSE. I archived it and reinstalled it in Xubuntu without any drama, other than that my flash drive was formatted as FAT32 and couldn’t handle the archive size until I reformatted it as NTFS. I didn’t pick up on the FAT32 size limitation until the Xubuntu virtual machine told me the archived image was defective. Once I reformatted the flash drive, moving the virtual machine over was effortless (and much faster than reinstalling a Windows image from scratch).

Once everything was working on my testing machine, I quickly installed Xubuntu on my main laptop. It was quick and easy, like most Ubuntu installs are. I appreciated that Xubuntu didn’t require me to manually configure my TrackPoint scroll, like so many other distros do. Although I had my files backed up on my testing machine, I was able to move them over using SpiderOak, and that was shockingly quick.

I’ve been tweaking Xubuntu and the level of customization is very impressive. As I’ve mentioned, I really loved GNOME, but there isn’t much you can do to change its look. Xfce is quite the opposite. Of course, I’ve been using that customizability to make Xubuntu look more like GNOME. I turned off the button labels so it just shows program icons in the top panel. I’ve mostly been ignoring the bottom dock, since it autohides. I might remove it at some point, but so far, I rarely see it. I installed the Microsoft fonts from the repositories and manually added Courier Prime, my favorite font. I set PCManFM as the default file manager and configured the application finder/launcher to come up with the Super/Windows button (one of my first Xubuntu tricks). I miss not being able to open specific files from the launcher, like I could in GNOME, but it’s really not much of an adjustment — especially with the gedit dashboard plugin enabled.

annotated screenshot of my Xubuntu desktop
Annotated Xubuntu

screenshot of my OpenSUSE GNOME desktop
My old GNOME desktop

Xfce is great at making tweaks very easy to implement. Keyboard shortcuts take a few seconds, where in GNOME they could be hidden in gconf and dconf configurations. Once you know what you want to do with Xfce, making changes is remarkably quick.

The biggest compliment I can pay my current setup is that it doesn’t feel different from my old one. I’m still able to launch things by clicking the Super button. If I have that ability in any operating system, I’m pretty happy. I appreciate the range of software available within the Ubuntu repositories. Everything is in there, where with OpenSUSE I often had to enable certain separate repositories to get software I wanted.

Lessons Learned

Changing distros is stressful. The main lesson, which I’m sure everyone knows, is to make sure all of your files are backed up. I back up everything to SpiderOak, but I also backed up my files to a flash drive, just in case something went sideways with SpiderOak (which it didn’t).

I’m lucky enough to have an old laptop I can use as a test machine. That was huge. It let me flag problems and resolve them before they were live on my main laptop. If you have a second machine you can test on, I strongly encourage you to do so. Especially if you’re going between different distributions.

Also, in general, when choosing a distro, think about what you really want. I started looking at rolling releases because I didn’t want to deal with reinstallations down the line. But with rolling releases, the cost for having to do a reinstallation every few years is having to be vigilant and observant on a regular basis. In the end, I realized I’d rather spend a day or two on a reinstall every few years than constantly watching and maintaining my system. I just don’t have the skillset to understand the implications of each update. I need a distribution that parses that information for me.

On a related note, try and spend a few weeks with a rolling release. Just about all of them are easy to manage at the beginning. But as you make changes and as updates come in, things can become more complex. Testing over time will give you more of a sense of if you have the tools to keep a rolling system running.

Finally, I really urge people to take Xubuntu for a spin. It’s a beautiful distribution that has a lot of nice default settings. I really thought more people would flock to Xfce when GNOME 3 came up. Some of the default implementations, or lack of implementation, can make Xfce seem old-fashioned and kind of ugly. Xubuntu does a great job of showing how contemporary Xfce can look and feel. It’s got that familiar, menu-driven interface that so many people seem to like, but it also works well via its own application launcher/finder. It’s fast and simple. I loved GNOME 3, but Xfce is just as impressive. Plus, it’s really nice to have my weather applet back.

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