Arch for Debian users

October 18, 2011

I'm a long-time Debian user, since the mid-90s or so. I like their technical decisions some but what I really like is their culture and goals. I still wear with pride my old Debian shirt from the time I helped staff a booth at a conference. Later I reluctantly switched to Ubuntu after I repeatedly couldn't get my laptop wifi/sleep to work.

I recently got a new desktop system and hesitated when considering what to put on it. I don't much enjoy fighting with details and would prefer a system that just works, but I'm tired of fighting with CADT-developed GUIs; both Gnome3 and Unity are too heavy and fiddly for what I want — browsers and terminals.

I probably should've gone with Debian, but when I thought to my memories of it I also remembered it being heavy with policy: how the alternatives system always somehow picks the wrong program, how dpkg takes forever to update its database on each run, how the available software is always out of date. My work on Chromium has made me increasingly convinced that Linux distributions and policies are actually kind of the enemy of progress in the Linux world. I wanted something more minimal.

Over the years I've glanced at gentoo once or twice but I think the optimization fixation and building software from source is silly. And then there's Arch, which I'd ignored as a gratuitous gentoo clone. But recently I glanced at their home page again and saw their primary slogan is about keeping it simple, and thought: if there's anything I want after "working", it's simple, so I thought I'd give it a spin and report back for others like me.

System and culture overview

Out of the box your new system boots to a terminal and that's it. Installing even ssh or X is left to you. If I were to summarize the total Arch experience briefly, I'd say it's user-friendly if you know what you're doing.

Most questions I've had have been answered by their extensive wiki, which has been consistently good. Everything I've needed I found with simple Google queries: e.g. [arch ssh] brings up the wiki page that decribes both how ssh is installed and what you might want to configure.

Needing to know what you're doing contradicts my goal of Just Working, but there's a point where the other goal of Simple wins. I haven't yet figured out the balance, but lately I've been on a simplicity kick.

For example, I knew that I had to install X and a window manager to get a GUI, and that that the keyword ACPI was the right place to start to look into power management (which also reminded me to set up CPU speed downscaling). For all of those instances, sticking the terms plus arch into a search found me a page that described it in straightforward terms.

(That previous paragraph surely provokes a "buy a Mac" response in most people — almost including myself — but lately I've come to see ease of use as something that trades off with control: Mac window management drives me crazy, so I'm willing to pay a bit more in terms of fiddling if it means I can change the things I care about.)

In sum I found getting my system working the way I want it to pretty easy, but I imagine if I didn't know how to describe the parts I wanted it would have been frustrating.

Packaging overview

Much like Debian, software is built centrally upstream and downloaded as packages, and there's a local dependency database that you can sync and query. There's no concept (as far as I can tell) of releases, or stable vs unstable, just "current"; it seems a recipe for disaster as soon as a large system update is needed but I'm withholding judgement.

I especially enjoyed, keeping with the theme of simplicity, that packages are typically named just like upstream. There is no split between binaries/dev/doc. So e.g. instead of libcairo2-dev you want to install just cairo which includes binaries as well as headers and man pages. Similarly, the actual package files (not that you deal with them much) are tarballs of the build tree with one extra metadata file.

(The one major exception is that they renamed /usr/bin/python to /usr/bin/python2, and most packages involving python are named like python2-foobar with python-foobar as the Python 3 version. It'd be nice if we could go back in time and change every program to agree with this renaming, but that's not gonna happen; I fixed this with a symlink.)


So far everything I've looked for (including Chromium) is part of the main software repository. (I was pleased to see their package of Chromium includes the sandbox unmolested as well as the non-free codecs. I remain regretful that Chromium is a total beast to build.)

But there is also a notion of experimental software, which is collected in a separate repository (called AUR) of user-submitted build scripts (called PKGBUILDs). You are required to compile such software yourself. I noted with some amusement that my Ninja build system is available in it.

Once you have downloaded a build script, the makepkg command (analagous to dpkg-buildpackage) runs it and produces a package that can be installed with pacman. It appears there is no recommended way to fetch these from AUR, though I've seen many online mentions of yaourt, which seems fine enough (though the gratuitous colors in its output are a bit annoying).

Apt/dpkg vs Pacman

Pacman lays out its subcommands in a different arrangement than the Debian suite. I found it only took me a day or two for the new flag names to become natural.

There's only one tool: pacman, which subsumes apt-get, dpkg, dpkg-deb, etc. It's surely missing some feature of those tools but I haven't noticed yet. All commands follow a pattern: first there's a mode flag with a capital letter, then sometimes a submode with a lowercase letter. The important modes are:

Software setup

Daemons like ssh install a startup script in /etc/rc.d but it's also left to you to link them in to startup (/etc/rc.conf contains a bash array listing scripts to start/stop from the rc.d directory). This is described in the install instructions, but I note it in part because this strategy is a perfect example of the sort of simplicity I was hoping for: no update-rc.d script, no symlinks prefixed with numbers, just one file that says what to run. (On my system, that file, which covers locale, kernel modules, network setup, daemons, etc. is just 21 lines long if you don't count comments or blanks.)

I had expected getting the NVIDIA binary-only X drivers to be a hassle, but much like everything else, searching for [arch nvidia] brought up a wiki page that made it simple.

When running one tool I found it wanted to bring up an editor. It brought a happy tear to my eye to see it request I set $EDITOR in my environment. I didn't realize how much I disliked Debian's alternatives system until I was free of it.

Third-party software

A few weeks after feeling comfortable with the system I thought to try setting up my printer, which I didn't expect to work. (Read more about my printing fiasco.) The vendor actually provides a source tarball of their Linux packages (I picked the printer in part for its Linux support) but that tarball contains binary shared objects, which were 32-bit binaries, which my system had no support for... and I expected all of this was going to be a huge hassle.

But it turned out in the user software repository someone had already set up a script to fetch Pixma 870 drivers, and it worked just fine. I am still a little amazed it works. I think I just got lucky.


Current versions of everything, simple tools, binary packages, good docs? Sounds too good to be true, and it likely is. It remains to be seen how hard it will break on updates, but otherwise so far I'm pleased.

I suspect I wouldn't run Arch on a server (where I'm more interested in centralized management and getting timely security updates) nor on a laptop (where I'm more interested in having someone else work through the power management and wifi soup), but for a desktop workstation it seems like just what I wanted. We'll see.