In surprise move, Gentoo Linux starts offering binaries

The most successful compile-it-yourself Linux distro now has compiled, packaged executables

Gentoo now offers 20-plus gigabytes of pre-compiled binaries, from desktops to office suites, to speed up installations and updates.

In news so unexpected that the Reg FOSS Desk originally thought it was an oddly timed April Fool prank, the Gentoo project revealed the move just before the end of December in a post titled Gentoo goes Binary!

Gentoo supports a very wide range of types of computer these days, including both 32-bit and 64-bit x86 and Arm, both 32-bit and 64-bit big-endian and little-endian PowerPC and IBM POWER, along with nine other architectures from Alpha to SPARC. For now, the full range of pre-compiled binary packages focus on x86-64 and Arm64, for which the project offers, in its own words, ">20 GByte of packages on our mirrors, from LibreOffice to KDE Plasma and from Gnome to Docker. Gentoo stable, updated daily."

The project Wiki also offers both a quick start guide on how to configure the new binary-packages repositories, as well as in-depth documentation. Binaries are distributed in the existing binary package format, called GPKG.

The many other platforms aren't left out: for them, the precompiled packages are restricted to the core OS and receive weekly updates. It's entirely reasonable to focus on the two CPU architectures that are the most widely used today, but the irony of this is that people on older, slower machines, such as PowerMacs and x86-32 machines, will suffer the most from slower installation times due to how long compilation takes.

Although this is exactly how basically all other current Linux distributions work, it is a significant departure for Gentoo, which previously was an almost entirely source-based distro. Most distros are constructed from binaries: thousands of pre-compiled executables, compiled from their constituent source code on server farms owned by distro vendors. Gentoo, though, is different. While the install disk that gets you started must by definition be pre-compiled, up to now, when you install Gentoo, it fetches the source code and compiles it on your machine for your machine, specifically optimized for your computer's specific CPU and the individual functionality and configuration you chose.

Both approaches have pros and cons. The usual way, when the vendor does the compilation, binaries are built fairly generically for lowest-common-denominator hardware. As we have covered recently, this has put implementation hurdles in the path of distro vendors, requiring various innovative solutions. However, it makes for software that is much quicker to install, it simplifies testing, and facilitates automated deployment. When components require updates, a frequent occurrence, then either new binaries are sent out, or even just the difference between old and new binary files is downloaded.

The main benefit of the Gentoo method is that packages are compiled with your preferred optimizations for your computer's CPU. Users of other distros have mostly ignored this, or even mocked it, considering the generally relatively modest performance improvements not worth the extra work – but the approach contributes to Gentoo being an extraordinarily customizable distro, allowing more personalization than pretty much any other OS.

As a result, there are a number of downstream distros based on Gentoo, some among the most-used forms of Linux. For example, Gentoo is the basis of Google's ChromeOS, as well as the late CoreOS Container Linux. The latter was acquired by Red Hat, rebuilt on a Red Hat basis and the previous distro discontinued, but Kinvolk forked the original distro and continued it as Flatcar Container Linux, only to have it subsequently bought by Microsoft.

If nothing else, large sums of money have been paid for Gentoo-based products… And they continue to be: Uniontech, one of the leading paid-for Chinese distros, is proud to have three million users, which reinforces ChromeOS's status as the most popular desktop distro.

For Gentoo users perturbed by the loss of optimization, we much enjoyed the project's own helpful summary:

But hey, that's not optimized for my CPU!

Tough luck. You can still compile packages yourself just as before!


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