Distro hopping

A personal story. When too many options are at hand, one becomes uneasy and tends to forget what actually matters.

So, since I broke out of the Windows mindset (for good) with a bit of help from Ubuntu Budgie, I was quickly reminded why I don’t like Ubuntu. Not that it’s bad, but it isn’t for me. Anyway, I eventually went with Linux Mint & the cwm window manager, just because it had some of the required drivers for my new laptop (no, part of them being proprietary doesn’t bother me much).

The cwm window manager is quite an experience, albeit a minimal one. It deserves a separate post in the near future, just to document it.

Ideally, I would run FreeBSD on my laptop (which I’ve tried, but for some reason Xorg simply refuses to detect my keyboard and USB mouse, no matter what configurations I try - and I did try a lot, exhausted the Handbook and the Forums, plus other guides), but since I have a couple of issues getting it to run properly and given that I work with Linux a lot, I reconsidered options from my past 15+ years of experience as a Linux user:

So, I highly regard FreeBSD because it’s a ‘system’, not a kernel and a collection of software scattered all around. I am currently learning FreeBSD and will do my best understanding its inner workings. Most probably I will end up getting a FreeBSD VPS and host my own email, git & web servers using ‘jails’, but that will take a little bit of time.

That being said, the other option was openSuSE, because it is as close to a ‘system’ as a distro can be. Even though some consider it to be bloated, I don’t find it to be so. Yes, it has its own perks and ways of doing stuff (just think about YaST and how you need to use netconfig scripts instead of resolved for OpenVPN, just to mention two minor things). Back in the day, I loved KDE. I found it to be nicely designed and I do like a desktop environmnet that’s well put together (even though I’ve been using cwm, i3 or dwm for the past two years, until I reached some kind of a revelation which, again, deserves its own journal entry). So, openSuSE Leap 15.2 it is!

The installation process was smooth and clear. All hardware works out of the box and I must admit that, after using the hell out of cwm & i3, KDE is a breath of fresh air (or so it would seem, for short while). And it shows that SuSE has been a major contributor to the KDE project for years on end, because it’s very well integrated with the whole system. Everything looks neat and runs great. I managed to configure all my work-related tools in almost 30 minutes, including OpenVPN (and learning about how openSuSE uses ‘netconfig’ instead of ‘resolved’). It is also a good occasion to properly learn how the firewall works.

Also, I am surprised that the documentation is so great. It may not be the ArchWiki, but I feel it gets close. Also, being actively developed & maintained by an important company in the Linux world really shows. A lot of resources have been invested into making this system as it is today.

Other tools developed by SuSE caught my attention recently due to work-related interests: Open Build Service, openQA and Kiwi are great projects! And the software test engineer that lies inside me is highly stimulated by openQA.

But, about three days into using openSuSE, I start noticing that KDE4 is quite the resource hog (compared to dwm or i3, but the comparison is unfair and pointless because those two tiling window managers are not “desktop environments” and they do not offer nearly enough to even be compared with KDE). I guess that a few years of using only minimalistic window managers do that to you, transforming the user in more of a tinkerer more obsessed with the tools at hand rather than the work one should perform using those tools. I was still not really convinced a bit of on eye-candy won’t hurt me and I was still a bit fixated on the idea that systemd might not be sutiable, wondering ig I could live without it.

So, again, I’m on the lookout. And I seem to have forgotten a distribution that is quite new compared to the ones I thought about in the first place.

Enter Devuan GNU+Linux 3.00

When Debian decided to switch to systemd, a part of the developers left the project and forked Debian, replacing systemd with SysV init or OpenRC (the user gets to choose which init system is installed right at the end of the main installation process). So, basically, this is Debian without systemd. And, quite frankly, it kinda felt it was actually what I’ve been looking for all along. Since I have been using Debian or Debian-based Linux distros for a long time, I was quite familiar with the environment and some of the tools I use for work are meant to work with Debian or Fedora/CentOS.

After adding the non-free Atheros 10k firmware to a secondary USB stick, I fired up the Devuan installer and basically replaced openSuSE. SysV init is familiar, fast and very easy to use. The whole distro is stable and efficient, because it’s Debian (but a more efficient version of it). That was when I realised that, out of all minimalist window managers, cwm is my favorite (it’s not a default on Devuan, I had o install it, give ul the SLIM login manager and use my own .xinitrc). It felt like home. I had been constantly using it for almost two months already and whenever I got my hands on another WM, I tended to use the same keyboard shortcuts. Now, that’s a sign of me getting really familiar with it. More on cwm in a future post.

But then, a week or so later, while I was lying on the couch next to my wife & son, something struck me.

The illusion of productive minimalist tools

After all this time I spent using i3, dwm or cwm (went through all three in about 4 years) along with st, byobu, tmux and many others, am I really happier? Am I more relaxed and productive at work? Am I less anxious? Do I smile more often? The bitter answer was: NO.

Again, this is from the user’s perspective, because from the Systems Administrator’s POV, tmux & the like remain highly valuable tools for dealing with headless servers.

After all, I love Linux. The concept, kernel, ecosystem & the whole community with all its differences. I have been hooked on free & open source software for a very long time already and it’s impossible for me to live otherwise (trust me, I’ve really tried!). But I also love modern hardware. I love editing photos I take during my hikes, cycling trips or whenever I feel like taking photos (I’m talking about my DSLR camera) and I like stiching family videos together just to make a nice memory of it. That requires my computers have decent video adapters and modern CPUs, and the drivers for those pieces of hardware are impossible to use on operating systems that are designed for other uses (embedded systems, servers, firewalls, etc.) or that are simply born to embody a protest, like Devuan, Void Linux (a great technical playground, but they aim at using musl instead of glibc, which they say it’s more efficient and bloat-free), Arch Linux (along with Gentoo and other similar ones), Parabola or other FSF-approved “libre” distributions (I really NEED to write down my thoughts on the FSF & Richard Stallman).

I need a system I truly like, not something that gets in my way. Something coherent, refined in time and devoted to the Open Source Community. So, just like that, I had finally set myself free of all the obsessive tinkering (or “RICE-ing”) with obscure desktop solutions and protest-distros. openSuSE it is! And, somehow, I feel my distro-hopping days are finally over. I ended up with a system that just works, but an open system nonetheless.

I did learn a lot in the last 4 years (the Suckless Ubuntu project did give me great opportunities to further learn new things about Linux as a whole), and I believe it was worth it.