Is Gentoo Linux an anachronism?

When I started visiting the Gentoo Linux discussion forums in 2007 there were at least three pages of posts daily, if not more. These days there is usually one page. I’m sure the number of Gentoo Linux users has dropped significantly since then. Interest in the distribution has certainly decreased since its heyday: Google Trends – gentoo linux.

I don’t think the drop in interest is limited to individuals either. Articles such as ‘Flying Circus Internet Operations GmbH – Migrating a Hosting Infrastructure from Gentoo to NixOS‘ lead me to suspect that some companies have switched to other distributions over the years. NASDAQ’s use of ‘a modified version of Gentoo Linux’ was publicised in 2011 (How Linux Mastered Wall Street) but I do not know if it still uses the distribution and, in any case, that is only a single significant entity. I personally have never come across another user (corporation or individual) of Gentoo Linux, although I do know several companies and individuals using distributions such as Ubuntu and Fedora.

Gentoo Linux is certainly not for everyone. In recent years the user base seems to have settled down to a smaller number of people, primarily consisting of enthusiasts who appreciate its advanced features and are prepared to put in the extra effort and time required to create and maintain a working installation. I’m sure it also still has a place in some specialised commercial applications, but I have my doubts its deployment comes anywhere near that of the major distributions such as Ubuntu, Red Hat, Fedora, etc. If I were only interested in using an OS that enabled me to perform typical personal and professional tasks, I wouldn’t be using Gentoo Linux. Some people touted Gentoo Linux’s configurability as giving it a speed advantage over binary distributions but, having correctly installed and used Gentoo Linux and various other distributions on the same hardware, I cannot say I noticed an improvement in performance.

I think one has to choose the right tool for the job. I wouldn’t dream of installing Gentoo Linux on any of my family’s machines or on older hardware. Personal experience doing the latter has taught me it is a waste of time (both installation itself and subsequent maintenance). I installed Lubuntu on my family’s desktop machine because it is a reliable, low-maintenance OS with automatic update notifications and painless, fast updates. On the other hand I installed Gentoo Linux on my laptops because I want to tinker with the OS, configure it exactly the way I want, be able to apply patches to source code easily, install multiple versions of the same application (‘slotted applications’), learn more about how the OS works, and experiment. You can do that too with a binary distribution, but with Gentoo Linux I feel I know a lot more about the kernel, OS internals, package management and package customisation than with a pre-canned binary distribution. It really is good for learning about Linux in more depth than a binary distribution.

My old Compal NBLB2 laptop with a first-generation Intel Core i7 CPU is eleven years old and I have never touched the package installation log file /var/log/emerge.log since installation in March 2010. Ten years after I first installed Gentoo Linux on it I ran the command ‘qlop -c -H‘ out of curiosity to see how much time had been spent building packages over its lifetime. The reported statistics were as follows:

total: 492 days, 5 hours, 47 minutes, 44 seconds for 67841 merges, 4295 unmerges, 446 syncs

That’s roughly 13% of its then 124 months ‘life’ spent compiling.

It has an Intel Core i7 720QM CPU (1.6 GHz but throttled to 933 MHz by Compal due to Compal’s PSU size, although I bought a higher Wattage PSU a year ago and it seems to run at 1.6 GHz since then). It has always had KDE installed, and numerous upgrades to KDE have kept it busy compiling. Each version of LibreOffice, qtwebengine, Firefox etc. has also taken a very long time to compile. Until I removed qtwebengine and the few packages dependent on it this year, even with jumbo-build enabled qtwebengine took more than a day to build. Admittedly I did have trouble some years ago with the HDD becoming almost full with temporary directories and files over a long period of time (/usr/tmp/portage/ contained a whopping 30GB of directories and files until I cleared it out), which also slowed things down, but that is no longer the case. Unfortunately that laptop has ~amd64 (Gentoo Linux Testing) installed rather than amd64 (Gentoo Linux Stable), so it’s not possible to install the binary package of LibreOffice due to dependency conflicts. As all the big packages take so long to compile on this particular laptop I ended up merging the firefox-bin package rather than the firefox source code package, and I use Microsoft Office 2007 running under WINE rather than LibreOffice.

My Clevo W230SS laptop (fourth-generation Intel Core i7-4810MQ CPU @ 2.80GHz) running Gentoo amd64 (Gentoo Linux Stable) with a few ~amd64 (testing) packages is six years old and I have not touched /var/log/emerge.log since installation in April 2015. Five years after I first installed Gentoo Linux on it I ran the command ‘qlop -c -H‘ to see how it compared to the older Compal NBLB2 laptop running Gentoo ~amd64 mentioned above. The reported statistics were as follows:

total: 53 days, 11 hours, 3 minutes, 31 seconds for 24494 merges, 1717 unmerges, 169 syncs

That’s roughly 3% of its then 64 months ‘life’ spent compiling. Nowhere near as bad as my older laptop, but still a lot of time spent compiling. The merge time for qtwebengine 5.14.2 was 4 hours 25 minutes with that fourth-generation Intel Core i7 CPU, but later versions of qtwebengine take even longer to build.

I personally would now only consider installing Gentoo Linux on a machine with at least 16 GB RAM and a CPU with at least four cores and a speed of circa 3 GHz or more. Additionally, although I have been a user of KDE in Gentoo Linux all these years, I would probably switch from KDE to a simpler, less resource-hungry and less feature-rich (some might say less ‘bloated’!) desktop environment such as LXQt in new installations of Gentoo Linux.

One thing that has improved a lot since I started using Gentoo Linux over a decade ago is the package manager Portage, at least in terms of dependency resolution and blockage handling. I used to have to do a lot more work to resolve problems during package upgrades; ‘merging world’ (upgrading installed packages) is generally a lot less troublesome than it used to be ten years ago. Portage is a lot slower than it used to be, but that’s because it does a lot more than it used to do. I used to have to use revdep-rebuild – a utility to resolve reverse dependencies and rebuild affected packages – frequently, but not any more. Building software from source code takes time, though, so plenty of RAM and a fast CPU are important for installing packages, however good the package manager itself.

Some people maintain that the reduction in posts in the Gentoo Linux Forums could just mean users have fewer problems these days compared to earlier years. However, I have my doubts that would account for the much larger number of pages of ‘posts from the last 24 hours’ in earlier years, nor for the big drop in Google Trends statistics since 2004. Posts from new users do appear from time to time in the forums, so I suspect there are simply not as many new users as a decade or more ago. There are also posts from long-time users when there are major changes such as an upgrade to a newer version of Python or a profile change.

Another argument against a drop in popularity is that many of the users in the high number of users online in a 24-hour period in earlier years were spambots. I used to be a moderator of the Sabayon Linux forums, so I’m well aware of the phenomenon and I had to ban quite a few spammers & spambots in my time. But I’m not buying for one moment that the majority or even a significant number of the 1850 users logged in to the Gentoo Forums on 30 December 2004 were spambots. I am aware of puerile, more-recent attempts by a few lone individuals to boost the distribution’s exposure, such as ‘Gentoo Linux Forums – I’ve just set up Gentoo on distrowatch as my homepage‘ but I doubt very much that has had any impact on uptake. Mind you, such antics are not confined to Gentoo Linux; I’ve seen similar posts in the forums of some other distributions.

I think former Gentoo Linux developer and Council member Donnie Berkholz got it about right in his 2013 article Ranking Linux distributions, and the decline of the traditional distros.

A discussion on Reddit in 2016 indicated that other Linux users have noticed a decline in use of the distribution: Why did Gentoo peak in popularity in 2005, then fade into obscurity?.

The decline in use of Gentoo Linux is not just due to lower uptake by new users; veteran users have also moved away due to its demands on time and effort: ‘Au Revoir, Gentoo – Sell Me A New Linux Distro‘. There are occasionally posts in the Gentoo Linux forums by previous users announcing that they have started using the distribution again, but I strongly suspect they are exceptions to the general trend.

Gentoo Linux is not as popular as it used to be, and there is no way of dressing it up any other way. However, Gentoo Linux can still be worthwhile for the Linux enthusiast and ‘power user’ who enjoys tinkering and learning more about Linux internals, and who does not mind the significant additional time required to maintain it, and the time, effort and extra energy consumption required to compile packages. But I would not recommend Gentoo Linux if you just want a Linux installation in order to perform typical desktop tasks such as browsing the Web, sending e-mails, word processing, working on spreadsheets and so on.

Hardware has become much more powerful since Gentoo Linux’s heyday, and drivers have improved significantly (I shudder to think of the time I spent years ago getting Linux to work with some devices), making the optimisation and lower-level tinkering that Gentoo Linux facilitates less of a necessity. Furthermore, binary distributions have improved noticeably over the years, becoming easier to install, more user-friendly, easier to maintain, more reliable and better-looking. The improvements in binary distributions have, in my opinion, also contributed to the drift away from Gentoo Linux.

Nevertheless, I believe Gentoo Linux will not disappear; it is rather unique and there will always be people who enjoy the challenge of developing it and/or using it rather than a binary distribution. Furthermore, the additional control Gentoo Linux offers those who are prepared to put in the extra time and effort to use it, plus its high degree of ‘customisability’, make it attractive to certain users or for certain specialist applications. Then there are those who simply prefer not to follow the mainstream and want to try something different. I certainly hope Gentoo Linux continues long into the future and manages to maintain its distinctiveness, including the ease in not using systemd if the user so choses. Using OpenRC – which has never caused me a problem in over a decade – instead of systemd has become increasingly difficult for many Gentoo Linux users because upstream software is increasingly being written specifically to use systemd and would require significant effort to patch (KDE Control Module Plasma Firewall being a recent example). Portage is an excellent, powerful package manager, as is the accompanying suite of tools, and I don’t think there is anything that can beat that (probably one of the reasons the developers of Google Chrome OS opted to use Portage). Now, if only someone could release a machine an average home user could afford that could compile source-code packages such as qtwebengine, LibreOffice and Firefox in, say, one minute, perhaps Gentoo Linux’s popularity would increase! πŸ˜‰ Until Moore’s Law results in manufacturers of home computers catching up with the build requirements of Gentoo Linux, the distribution will definitely remain a niche player. Personally, that does not bother me, although I must admit I am finding the time and effort to maintain my installations rather irksome these days.

About Fitzcarraldo
A Linux user with an interest in all things technical.

7 Responses to Is Gentoo Linux an anachronism?

  1. Silvio says:

    Can say that I have been installing Gentoo on my desktop machine but got problems compiling big packets as KDE, don’t know why (i5 and 4 GB RAM).
    After that I discovered Calculate Linux (Gentoo based) and I love it.
    “Pure” Gentoo Is for people wishing to work on the system instead of using it in my opinion.
    A simple user wants easy life and Linux Mint is the best in my opinion.
    Anyway, I love Calculate Linux (CLD = KDE flavour) and it remains my number one πŸ™‚
    Cheers!

    • Fitzcarraldo says:

      I keep meaning to try Calculate Linux. I have a redundant HTPC lying around, so one of these days I might get around to installing it on that to check it out.

    • Silvio says:

      You will fall in love too I think πŸ˜„
      Don’t forget to check the forum (English section not “rich” indeed but some useful news there), good to surf into the site too before installing.

    • Fitzcarraldo says:

      “…don’t know why (i5 and 4 GB RAM).”

      One word, Silvio: RAM! Upgrade it to 8 GB or more and you would have more success. Mind you it is probably not worth bothering. My old Compal NBLB2 laptop used to have 4 GB RAM and it was a pain trying to merge world (and eventually impractical to install the likes of qtwebengine and LibreOffice). I eventually upgraded it to its maximum allowable 8 GB and I can now use it, but still have to use firefox-bin and Microsoft Office because compiling the source code is still too much of a pain. I also recently removed qtwebengine and dependent packages (see an earlier blog post of mine) after it took 24 hours to compile, which is just ridiculous.

      • Silvio says:

        Yes! Thank you for the hint Fitzcarraldo, I was thinking to do it. Am not home now, I am abroad. I will do it when back home or… assembling new desktop machine if I can.
        Cheers!

  2. The Mighty Buzzard says:

    Try using one server as a build box and BINHOST for the rest. Compile once, deploy binary packages from it to everywhere else by adding -b to the build box and -gK to the others. Works beautifully if you have more than one VM with the same virtual architecture.

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