Out of Ubuntu’s Bed to Hairy Arch Linux in a Dark Alley

I’ve long used LVM for servers, since it gives you such flexibility with your storage. A few years ago I started using LVM on my workstation as well. I experiment with things. The flexibility LVM gives you for creating new “drives” and partitions out of any old thing is incredibly convenient when you experiment a lot.

For a good long time, Debian’s install process has supported installing to and booting from LVM “drives”. So to, by degrees, has Ubuntu, at least through their “alternate” install method, which I’ve had to use on my workstation.

Now, considering my disillusionment with Ubuntu ( Ubuntu and I – Beauty Isn’t Enough ), I’ve decided to leave it behind for a brief life of experimentation with other fish in the sea.

My first thought was to give Arch Linux a whirl. The amount of noise and adulation people generate about it borders on the cultish. They consider themselves “advanced”, which is nice. They seem to consider themselves advanced because it takes a certain amount of tinkering to successfully run and maintain Arch. Interestingly, many Arch users also claim Arch is easy. C’est la vie, and I’ve learned it almost always takes getting naked and swimming for yourself before you make any judgments.

Several weeks ago I tried Arch for the first time. I thought, let’s see what so many of these tech heads are raving about. But after the install process couldn’t see my LVM volumes, and wanted to install on a single drive partition, I immediately tossed it aside. Of course, I could have gone and made sure lvm2 was there, and the raid modules, assembled my RAID and LVM volumes from memory or printouts, and then started the install process again. But I know that route. And the first boot afterward will fail – then I’ll need to go rebuild the initrd images with the proper drivers, and re-copy all my definitions in the new installation for RAID assembly because the install process won’t be smart enough to remember to copy down what’s there during the install. And that’s fine. It’s a good way for people to learn. But I’ve already done that enough times. For me, it’s simply a tedious chore.

Last night after deciding to give everything a new try, I downloaded the latest Arch install and gave it another go. None of my LVM or RAID drives showed as targets for the install, but upon looking from a terminal, I found Arch had detected my RAID drives and started them, and had also assembled my LVM volumes on those drives. None of them were showing up as a target in the install scripts, however.

So I used the terminal to delete a logical volume and create a new one, then checked again. For some reason, the LVM volume now showed up as a target for install. This is excellent – I was thrilled to see this. Obviously, the Arch people are considering that some people might want to easily install on more than 1 partition of 1 drive. They are so wise. Almost as wise as Debian was gods know how many years ago. Yes, I remember going through these same hassles with Debian long ago. But not any more. If it’s bootable, Debian will offer it up as a candidate for install.

And more importantly, if you offer it up as a candidate for install, and you install to that medium, it’s just as important than when you reboot the computer, your boot will work off that same medium. It appears Arch is still working out their thinking on this. Or trying to find someone to exert the time and effort required to make it work.

I got that impression a lot from my couple go’s with Arch. Their finger in the Linux pie are minimal. They let people build their own systems how that person wants to. It’s almost a mantra. But you have to really watch yourself if you justify your own laziness or incompleteness by saying, we leave this incomplete to help others be free to do what they want. Lines have to be drawn somewhere if you offer an install method at all. They are doing great with Arch. But the install process doesn’t offer freedom and flexibility, it offers an install into one partition of one drive, out of the box.

You always have to ask, does something done for you make you more free, or less free? It depends on what it is. There are a very finite number of ways to assemble mount points. And yes, you are free to go do it yourself, to assemble yourself, and make it work after the install. And that’s great. But it does take time and effort, time and effort that has been, and can be, pretty easily automated.

As another example, the install process during grub install offered up the grub menu file for you to edit – to customize however you like. Out of all the operating systems I have installed on this workstation, the only one listed for booting was Arch Linux. I could have gone to a terminal and reassembled all I needed to, to find the devices and images necessary in all the others, then copied them all into the Arch grub menu file. But I’m not going to. There are simple tools out there that will do that for you. It’s quick and dirty to offer up a generic grub menu file with only your own thing in it. And I’m not complaining that they do that. It’s just not right for me. And it’s not giving me any more flexibility or freedom. It only lays the burden of work on me – a burden that didn’t need to be there.

But again, it’s super great for learning. God help you all who try figuring out device names or UUID’s with RAID and/or LVM in different ways that different kernels and grub builds might best expect them during boot. And dealing with the creation of proper initrd images, based on what you have, rather than what you hope you remember you have, or might assume was built in. Arch truly is great for learning.

Maybe it’s great to use on a day-to-day basis, too. I love having the newest releases of software. I have very little confidence in rolling release distributions, though. In my experience, invariably, things break. Often badly. But never so bad you can’t fix it. If you have the time and inclination to devote to such things. But I can’t say anything about Arch regarding this, from my own experience. Many claim the Arch rolling releases have been flawless for them. Yet others claim it’s been pretty good, but sometimes things break. From my experience, to me, this means, yes, it breaks. And this makes sense considering their approach to scripting the install.

They’re bringing it together, though. Obviously there are some very good and smart people working on it. From just the last two releases, they’ve progressed leaps and bounds. I really like what I’ve seen of it. And I trust the gooey lovey gushings of people and friends who tirelessly go on about it. I might be the same one day soon. But not today.

I have to mention, you Windows and Mac people, if you’re reading this – it may sound like bad talking Linux here, or Arch, or any other things. But it’s not. You guys don’t even have the capacity to have arguments or discussions about such things as these. One day you may. But it doesn’t seem likely at all. There is no freedom of choice on nearly any level, after your one choice of proprietary OS.

Next in this series: Tempted By a Sexy Debian from the Future