failing like never before


Mirror, Mirror, Who’s the Oldest of Them All?

I'll admit, that my Arch updates haven't exactly been occuring with religous regularity, but I never allowed more then a month at most to pass between full system updates on my Arch machines". But today, when I decided to do a full update I was surprised to find that all my packages were already update. Especially since I remember seeing the same message on the last update. Some digging through my log files revealed that the last time one of my system updates actually updated something, was in August of last year. Which means that four months have passed without my system actually being updated. Oh sure, I issued a system update command pretty regularly every few weeks, but no packages were ever updated.

This is Not Good.

Some more digging was required, and it was revealed that the mirror I've been using,, hasn't been synced to the Arch repository in a very (very) long time. This is also Not Good. But perhaps even more worrying then Virgina Tech's laxness, is my laxness and unawareness. How could I have not notice that various programs on my laptop were several versions old, or that my system upgrades were never doing anything!

So I am doing a massively huge upgrade right now, and I fully expect it to wreck serious hell on my system. But at least that's better then walking around completely oblivious to the various known security holes on my laptop.

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My Time with Arch

I've been a proud and content Arch Linux user for a little over one year and nine months now, far longer then I've spent with any other Linux distribution. Arch put a happy end to my constant distro-hopping lifestyle, and I've been so pleased with its simplicity and performance that I've spared nary a glance at any other distribution over these past 21 months. But in more recent times, I've been having some disagreements with my Arch system and so I've slowly started reverted to frequenting the old haunts of my distro-hopping days (i.e., and  other such distro news sites).

Stability has always been a much touted feature of Linux in general, but some distributions lay a greater claim to that attribute then others. Arch in particular has tended to be slightly more bleeding-edge then other distros, sacrificing stability for the newest features; packages are updated in the repository as soon as new versions are released and with  a relatively minimal amount of time (extremely minimal compared to other Linux distros like Debian) spent in testing in an Arch environment, just enough to ensure that the packages don't completely break the system. While this strategy has its benefits, namely that it allows users to get the latest and greatest software right when it comes out, it comes at the cost of stability (and security to some degree). And the more packages that I've added to my system, the more I've started to notice just how unstable Arch can be.

I generally run "pacman -Syu" to do a full system update at least every week, and I try not to let my system stay without an update for three weeks at the longest, so in general I'll stay pretty well up-to-date. But it has not been uncommon, that after performing a full update, that my system completely locks up or goes completely nuts. Take for example, just a few weeks ago, when a full system update made my Arch Linux partition completely unbootable and required that I boot a live CD and futz around in the configuration files. When my laptop was finally usable again, I had to mess around some more with my wireless drivers to get them working again. And lately, after my most recent system update, I've been having some problems where my laptop will occasionally freeze up and become totally unresponsive to everything except a hard reboot, and system logs show no behavior to be out of the ordinary. Of course, not all of the breaks in Arch have been this bad. About four months ago, a system update made it so that I could no longer hibernate, a problem which was easily remedied by a quick visit to the Arch wiki and a few short commands. Sadly, the list of weird errors goes on (although its not that long).

Two years ago, when I was moving off of Debian testing, Arch's bleeding edge packages were quite welcoming, but not that I've matured a little bit, I don't care as much about the latest features (Lets face the facts, the programs I've been using the most these past few weeks, have been vim, GCC, SVN, and Zoom). My first priority these days, is getting shit done. And if my laptop decides to go bat-shit-crazy now and then, it seriously hampers my ability to work properly. I don't mind a few bugs now and then, and I could probably even live with a rare kernel panic, but sometimes I get the feeling that Arch is maybe just a little too bleeding edge for me.

I mentioned earlier that another one of the costs of having the latest and greatest software, is security. A lot of the newest software releases tend to be not as well hammered out and therefore are slightly more prone to have security holes. I'm only a slightly paranoid Linux user, so while the lack of security is a little worrying to me, its not a huge deal breaker. Arch's lack of solid support for more powerful RBAC security modules like SELinux or AppArmor has also been a little worrying to me. I would love to be able to slap on some powerful RBAC policies on my laptop to give me greater piece of mind, but Arch's normally awesome wiki is a little lacking in help (although it seems that reccently, the SELinux page has gotten a little more meat to it).

This next point is a rather silly and illogical thing to hold against a distribution, but I feel that it needs to be said because its entered my thoughts a few times in the past year. Whenever I go in for an interview, I generally try to play up my Linux expereince (which is not incredible, but still fairly impressive enough). The logical question for an interviewer to ask of course, is "what distribution(s) do you use?" As soon as the words "Arch Linux" comes out of my mouth, I can see the interviewers knocking some points off of my interview. People always assume that Arch is just another one of those random "edge" distros that is basically just an Ubuntu/Fedora knockoff with some sparkles thrown in, and no maybe how much I explain it to them, I know that they don't respect an Archer as much as they respect a Slacker. So yeah, I'm a little shallow, but I do care about what people think about me, especially in interviews. A part of always wishes that Arch was just a little more mainstream and a little more well known.

So I've taken some pretty mean shots at Arch, but my comments shouldn't be miscontrued to indicate that hate I Arch. Quite the contrary in fact, I've loved using Arch. My old Arch review enumerates out more clearly the points of Arch that I really like, but I'll list them out here quickly.

  • Fast! - Compiled for i686 and lightweight with no extra cruft thrown in
  • Clean - there is nothing on my Arch system that I didn't put there
  • Simple - things tend to be very straightforward and elegently simple
  • Awesome documentation and user community - Arch's comprehensive wiki is in my opinion, one of its strongest selling points, also the forums are quite helpful.
  • Rolling updates - its nice not to have do some big update every six months...

All the reasons that I first came to love using Arch still hold true, its simply that as time has worn on, I've changed a bit: I don't care as much for bleeding edge features, stability and security have become bigger issues, and I've started caring about what other people think about me. So I've been asking myself, "is Arch still for me?" And I think the answer might be no. I purchased a used IBM Thinkpad reccently, and I don't think Arch is going to be my first choice for it.

It seems like its time for Arch and I to "take a break" in our long relationship. But don't worry Arch, its not you, its me.

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A Simple Arch Review

I once thought that Debian, with its rock solid stability and simple package management, was the answer to my distro-hopping madness, and that no other distro could fit my needs as well. But Arch Linux has managed to surprise me, satisfying my needs in ways Debian never could. (Did that sound weird and strangely sexual or what?)

The Arch Way, the five governing principles behind the development of Arch Linux, dictates that Arch should be: simple, have code-correctness over convenience, open, user-centric, and free. Elaborating on the principles would be too time intensive for this review, but the general gist of The Arch Way is the age-old engineering adage, KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid). And Arch is simple. Most Linux distributions that claim to be simple, like Ubuntu or Mandriva, are merely simple to use for new Linux users, but Arch is a minimal, streamlined, and elegantly simple distro. Like Slackware, Arch's base installation is quite Spartan, including only the kernel and the bare minimum packages needed to create a stable OS, requiring the user to do all the rest of the configuring and installation of non-essential packages.

Arch Linux: a simple, lightweight, Linux distribution

Happily enough, unlike Slackware, Arch uses binary packages compiled for i686 so that users don't have to compile their programs from source (not a very difficult process usually, but quite time consuming). Because Arch's packages are optimized and compiled for newer i686 CPUs, users can expect a noticeable performance increase over distributions, like Debian, that use i386 packages. However, this also means that Arch will require a slightly newer CPU, a Pentium 3 or newer, whereas Debian can run on any 32-bit Intel-based processor. Arch also offers a 64-bit version, in addition to the 32-bit i686 version, if you want to be able to add more then 4 gigs of RAM to your system.

Arch's package manager, called "pacman," is reminiscent of Debian's "apt-get" and just as easy to use. Pacman can handle the installation, removal, and upgrading of programs, and also resolves dependencies with a single simple command. If I want to install Banshee music player, all I have to do is open a terminal, become root, and type "pacman -S banshee." Pacman also allows for Arch's rolling release system, a system based upon on incremental upgrades. Unlike so many other Linux distributions that make a big fuss about new releases, Arch's release version is essentially meaningless; a release ISO in Arch is simply a snapshot of the core repository with a fairly simple installation script. In order to upgrade my system to the newest kernel and software packages, I merely have to type "pacman -Syu" to fetch the newer packages from the repositories, so that even if I had used the three year old Wombat release, after an update my system would still be as up-to-date as if I had used the new Overlord release.


HP dv2910us (dv2700) – Installing Linux

I've decided to shorten this section down significantly, as it is probably the least significant part of this review (for most people), and for me to do it due justice would require quite a lot of time. I'm planning on writing an article later, more specifically aimed at installing Arch Linux on the dv2910us.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Ubuntu Hardy Heron Live CD ran great on my dv2910us. I'm not much of an Ubuntu Fan these days, (although I don't hate it) but I couldn't help but be impressed by Hardy Heron. Everything worked great right from the Live CD, including wireless and suspend to RAM, without any tweaking required.

Last week, I finally decided to go ahead and install Arch Linux on my dv2910us. I started by just trying to use gParted to partition the drive, running from a Live CD, but after using gParted, Vista crashed and refused to boot and so I was forced to do a system restore and use Vista's tool for resizing partitions, which turned out to be pretty useless. Vista does this lovely thing where it makes a bunch of huge system restore points and pagefiles, scatters them across the disk, and doesn't bother to inform you at all about them. The only way I could even see pagefile.sys was to run the command prompt as root and then "dir /a" to list the system files. All these special system files prevent the Vista partition tool from shrinking a drive more then 10 or 20 gigs. Eventually, I was so fed up with Vista and its craptastic goodness, I was forced to retry gParted and happily enough it worked the second time!

Part of the reason that I bought the dv2910us, was because of the abundance of Intel hardware that it has. Intel tends to be a little more Linux friendly then many other companies, they open up the specifications on their hardware and write drivers for most of their equipment. Unlike my old desktop's ATI x800 xl graphics card which nearly drove me mad, the dv2910us's hardware was pretty simple to set up and use. The only thing that I haven't configured yet is the webcam, but judging by Arch Linux's wiki, it appears doable. [EDIT: August 19, 2008. I was able to get the webcam working easily enough with Skype by using the r5u870 (Ricoh) driver, and Arch Linux was able to detect the HP Webcam as a usbcam.]

The HP dv2910us probably isn't the most Linux friendly laptop around but its still quite useable; from my experience, all the hardware can be configured with relatively little fussing around. While HP doesn't have quite the reputation Lenovo does with the Linux crowd, I think HP has done a pretty good job, even if they weren't trying to.