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Have Linux Distros Gotten Too Tubby?

By Katherine Noyes
Apr 25, 2013 5:00 AM PT

The size of Linux's waistline has long been the focus of recurring attention here in the Linux blogosphere, even drawing occasional criticism from Linus Torvalds himself.

Have Linux Distros Gotten Too Tubby?

Recently, however, a fresh weight-related complaint was made -- not about the kernel itself, but about today's Linux distros.

"Linux fatware? These distros need to slim down" was the title of the InfoWorld piece that got the conversational ball rolling, and it's sparked quite a lively discourse.

'VM-Only Cuts'

Linux Girl

"As I prepped a new virtual server template the other day, it occurred to me that we need more virtualization-specific Linux distributions or at least specific VM-only options when performing an install," author Paul Venezia began.

"What I'd like to see is sanctioned and supported VM-only cuts of major Linux distributions, perhaps tailored for specific hypervisors," Venezia explained. "This would not necessarily increase the number of distributions available, but could be made possible through a single install option."

Over on Slashdot, bloggers had no shortage of thoughts to share.

'It's Called Debian Net Install'

"Got that," wrote Anonymous Coward, for example. "It's called Debian Net Install. Done."

Similarly, "apt-get install what-I-need-and-nothing-else," offered jedidiah.

"TFA was a complete exercise in BS," opined Freshly Exhumed. "Here's another example of how to do a slim Linux install: during a Mageia or Mandriva install, select the Custom option, deselect everything, click through to proceed but when it stops to check if you really, really want to have such a sparse choice, select 'truly-minimal-install' and you will get exactly what it says, without X or even man pages."

Down at the blogosphere's Punchy Penguin Saloon, freely flowing tequila generated even more ideas.

'Do It Yourself'

"In the immortal words of The Divine Tuxiness himself, Linus Torvalds, 'the Linux philosophy is, laugh in the face of danger,'" Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone began.

"Oops. Wrong one. 'Do it yourself' -- that's it," Stone added.

"I'm not certain that I agree it's worth a distro creator's time to produce a VM-only version of their product just to solve a problem that most Linux users will not encounter," Stone explained. "If Paul Venezia believes otherwise, it's an open source OS, and he's free to create them and distribute them himself."

"Please Cater to My Whims'

Indeed, "couldn't this be done by compiling from source?" asked Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien.

"Somehow this complaint reads to me like, 'Would the community please drop all of their other pressing business and cater to my whims?'" O'Brien added.

And again: "Why EXACTLY should they 'slim down' when the entire point is you can make the OS as fat or thin as you want?" Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed. "Even a Windows guy like me knows you can download ONLY the parts that you need and then package the results. If he doesn't want a 'fat' distro, why use one?

"I just typed 'Virtualbox Linux' and found a dozen pre-made virtual images that are ready to go... so what exactly is the problem?" hairyfeet wondered. "Why should the distros themselves use their limited resources to solve a problem that others have already solved?"

'I Don't See the Need'

In short, "maybe I'm missing something, but this seems to me to be a solution to a problem that was solved ages ago," hairyfeet concluded.

"I'm not sure if the distros need to slim down specifically for virtual machine applications, or if it is a more fundamental issue with the distros in general," chimed in Google+ blogger Brett Legree. "Regardless, an experienced Linux user will have no problem slimming down the installation to suit his or her requirements for virtual machine work."

There are also "more modular distros like Slackware, Gentoo and Arch," noted Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. "I'm not a specialist, but I don't see the need (yet) to have more than two or three good options."

'Removing Things Is Hard'

On the other hand, "I have to say, I agree" with Venezia, consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told Linux Girl. "Removing things is hard, and sometimes even experts leave things behind because (I'm guessing) one thing can look like another, such as an AWS install I did and wondered why it had XFS running (X font server, not the filesystem) in a stripped-down install.

"Some distros are better than others at this," he added.

"I have watched Debian move in the right direction and install less and less with each default release and reduce weird dependency requirements by a lot, although there are still too many ways to pull in Apache by accident (really annoying when the machine runs another webserver) or the classic install nagios-plugins to monitor your webserver and end up with Samba (windows file sharing)," Mack went on.

Still, "I should at least give them credit for the fact that it no longer pulls in things like the Novell NetWare client," he concluded.

'I Install Just the Bare Minimum'

Last but not least, blogger Robert Pogson was also impressed with Debian's efforts.

"As a fat person, I can relate to the problems of fat software," Pogson began. "Fortunately, I use Debian GNU/Linux, so I can control the installation/maintenance process in detail and choose Xfce 4 over GNOME/KDE/Bloat."

In fact, "rather than taking the default installation, I like to install just the bare minimum to get a bootable system and then add slimmed-down desktop environments and applications," Pogson explained. "I skip otherwise worthy applications that depend on KDE/GNOME simply because I want applications that work for me without diverting the awesome power of my computer to trivial/useless features. My computer can easily run any GNU/Linux distro, but why waste the resource?"

'Afloat in the Bloat'

There was a time "about a decade ago when all distros of GNU/Linux were lean and lively," Pogson recalled. "Then developers began to assume that M$'s slapping on layers of paint on the old barn was the right thing to do to attract users."

In fact, while "there may be some minority for whom feature-bloat is attractive, most of us have computers to create, modify, store and present information efficiently and quickly," he added. "Bloat that may be competitive with that other OS is not attractive for most. A lean, athletic system with impressive performance is."

Pogson's advice? "Learn to use an installation program like Debian's to keep things simple and fast," he explained. "The benefits will last the lifetime of your hardware -- a lot longer than the time your hardware can stay afloat in the bloat."

When hardware gets to be about eight years old, "it may indeed become slow by modern standards, but even then its life may be extended by using it only to show pix and send clicks to GNU/Linux running on a newer, faster computer," Pogson suggested.

"The venerable X window system still found in GNU/Linux makes that easy to do," he concluded. "Learn to use it and any replacement that follows to create the ultimate in lean and lively systems, a thin client."

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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