Quest for Gaming

Arch Linux Philosophy

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Posted by: Daerandin
Lord Paladin

I've been using Arch Linux as my main operating system for close to 7 years now. Over the years I have seen a lot of people struggle with Arch Linux, and it would be a lie if I say that I also didn't struggle at first. When I first tried Arch Linux I was also fairly new to Linux in general, which means it was probably a bad choice on my part to try out Arch Linux. I did manage to get it installed despite my inexperience, the Arch Wiki is excellent and has very good and detailed descriptions of just about anything you need to know, an invaluable resource. However, just barely a month after installing I performed an update that messed up my system and I had no idea what caused it or how to fix it. I still don't know what went wrong, I ended up installing Ubuntu instead which I stuck with for roughly a year.

I did go back to Arch Linux, and I've been using it ever since. Things went much more smoothly on my second try, and there were some important reasons for that. For one, I had gotten much more familiar with Linux through Ubuntu, while at the same time doing a lot of reading on the Arch Wiki and Arch Linux forums. However, I still think the most important was to understand the Arch philosophy.

A word of warning to all readers. I have no affiliation with the Arch Linux project, except that I volunteer as a tester. Everything I have written here is how I personally perceive and understand Arch Linux. I do feel confident that I have a fairly good understanding of the topic, but there is always the chance that I see something differently to others. I honestly don't know if the developers, or the community at large would agree with my take on this.

I want to try and explain what the Arch Linux philosophy means for you as a user. With most Linux distributions you just install it and you will be presented with a complete system with a nice looking desktop and loads of applications. When you wish to perform an update on most other distributions, you just hit a button to update and everything is sorted out for you. With Arch Linux this is not the case, and it is by design. When you install Arch Linux, you perform all the steps manually. This is important as there are decisions to be made while you install your system, and only you can make those decisions. This makes it even more important to understand what it is that you are doing while installing your system. Once the base install is completed, it is further up to you to decide which additional software you want, and any additional configuration you might need. There are a lot of topics to cover, which once again means that it is important that you understand what you do and why. There are few defaults because the base system has so little included, only you know what software you have installed and how you have configured it. Just to give an example, at the time of writing a "base" Arch Linux install does not even include a text editor.

However, the place where a lot of users experience issues is in the continued maintenance of their Arch Linux system, or perhaps lack thereof. On my very first Arch install I didn't really do much in terms of system maintenance. I failed to realize that it was in fact my job, and I likely overlooked several warnings and errors leading up to a useless system.

Whenever you update your Arch system, which should be fairly often, you need to be prepared to perform some potential follow up maintenance. It is not often that manual intervention is required, but it is absolutely mandatory that you pay attention through the update process so you know if you need to do anything afterwards. Arch Linux is centered around the idea that the user is fully responsible for their own system. Many people have the expectation that system maintenance, and indeed, the responsibility for their operating system lies with the developers. That might be true for a lot of proprietary systems (Microsoft, Apple) and maybe even some Linux distributions, but nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Arch Linux. This all likely comes from the fact that the Arch Linux developers make Arch Linux for themselves, according to their own needs. This is one of the strong points of Arch Linux in my opinion, the development direction is not decided by the needs of a potential end user. This has kept Arch Linux simple and uncluttered by needless abstraction layers.

The community

I feel like this is also an important topic to touch. The Arch community has a bit of a reputation on the internet. I am not particularly active on the Arch forums, but I do read them every day. I like to know if there is anything I should be aware of since I use the Testing repository in Arch Linux, and every time I read about someone's problems and the offered solutions, I usually learn something.

Some people feel like the Arch community is a bit elitist. I do understand why it might appear that way sometimes, but I believe this comes from the different expectations in the Arch Linux community when compared to many other distributions. It all comes back to the Arch philosophy, you as the user are fully responsible for your own system. If you are having problems, you are expected to research your issue and learn about the software you are having problems with. Anyone asking for help on the Arch forums are expected to have done their homework and also search if the issue has been covered before. There are forum rules and guidelines that users are expected to both read and adhere to. Many forums do not enforce their own rules in a strict manner, but the Arch forums do and this seems to surprise some people.

Most of the time, the volunteers who are providing help on the forums have a tendency to nudge those they are helping to solve the issue themselves, instead of outright providing a solution. Not everyone seem to appreciate this, but this is also very much in line with the Arch Linux philosophy. Learn to research and solve your own problems, which in the long run is only going to benefit you. The ideal situation is where you are able to fully configure, maintain and successfully use your Arch Linux system on your own, for whatever end goal you might have.

So it all comes down to expectations. Many misunderstandings and issues have been caused by users having the wrong expectations. Arch Linux is a do-it-yourself distribution, and in order to use and enjoy Arch Linux you need to understand what that means and adjust your expectations accordingly. It does mean that you need to put effort into continuous maintenance, and you need to be conscious about the choices you make for your system. But that is what Arch Linux is all about. It is definitely not for everyone, but those of us who enjoy managing our system in greater detail usually find the experience to be immensely rewarding.

In conclusion, I do want to point out that Arch Linux is in no way "better", or "faster" compared to other distributions. Arch Linux is what you make it. You could end up with a very minimal and sleek system, or a fully fledged powerhouse with all kinds of applications, there really is no wrong way to set it up. Everyone who is using it as their main operating system probably put a lot of time and effort into setting everything up just the way they want it, and probably had to research topics they were originally unfamiliar with. So if you are new to Arch Linux and struggle with something, don't jump straight to the forums with the expectation that someone will guide you through everything. Instead, read the Arch Wiki on the topic you struggle with, then read the official documentation for whatever software is involved, look at existing examples online, learn to understand what it is you are struggling with. Chances are you will not need to ask for help at all, and you will end up with increased understanding of your own system. Then you will be much more successful in taking Arch Linux wherever you want. That right there is what the Arch Linux philosophy means to you as a user.

Categories: GNU/Linux, Free Software

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