Mandrake -> Gentoo a.k.a. "Mandrake Expatriate Syndrome"

by greenfly

Preface/Addendum(Added 2003-07-30)

It was brought to my attention that some people on the gentoo forums think that I'm the guy who posts some sort of anti-Gentoo threads on Slashdot. 1) No that's not me. 2) No, I don't know who that is. 3) Why in the world would someone think I'm that guy? Because I posted a page that happens to be somewhat critial of Gentoo? For what it's worth, on Slashdot I'm "greenfly" UID 40953, and I spend very little time posting on there (as you can see looking at my comments). I'm not here to troll or flame Gentoo, these are just some observations I've had about it -- specifically some theories I've had about why I've seen so many Mandrake to Gentoo converts.


I've never quite understood the popularity of the Gentoo distribution, let's get that out and in the open to start with. I've always figured that if you want to run Linux "from scratch" you actually use the Linux From Scratch distribution; if you want automated updates, you use Debian. As someone who has used BSD systems with "real" ports, I never understood the concept of having a source-only distribution, and automating updates... it simply creates a lot of overhead if you want to have an up-to-date desktop system, and in the case of Gentoo, it causes you to run quite a bit of untested software (See, at least in the BSD system the ports tree is better tested, and you always have the option of pre-built packages, plus on a production server you aren't going to want to update much beyond patching as needed.)

I've debated these points and more with Gentoo users I have come across, because I simply couldn't understand why anyone with any lengthy experience with Linux or Unix, would think this was a good idea. I expected them to realize that for the most part, recompiling from source doesn't magically make all programs faster.

Anyway, in talking with these people I started to notice a pattern or two, and discovered that a great many of them had switched to Gentoo from Mandrake. After I thought about this for awhile, I realized that this made quite a bit of sense, and explained a lot of the questions I had. I call the mentality behind switching to Gentoo from Mandrake "Mandrake Expatriate Syndrome" (MES) and here I will attempt to lay out some of the rationale behind it.

When you hear a Gentoo user talk about their distribution, usually the first thing you hear is them saying that building from source generally, and a Gentoo system specifically is "so much faster" than any alternative. Of course, these sorts of things are often hard to measure, and are usually just anectdotal accounts anyway. Of course, if you had to sit through X compiling, you'd probably like to think that all that time wasn't for nothing.

Now, this isn't the first time that "optimized packages" have been touted -- Mandrake Linux has made a big deal in the past that they had 586-optimized packages, and I remember hearing people at the time discuss, again, how it is "so much faster" that way. Of course, Mandrake likes to attract people who haven't had much experience with Linux, or even programming, so often they don't know any better than to believe that their 586 packages are substantially faster than the 386 packages everyone else is using. Also the Mandrake system typically doesn't encourage people to do a lot of compiling themselves, so they don't tend to learn this lesson from experience, either.

"From Scratch"
Another thing you hear from Gentoo users is that they have a "much better understanding" of their system on a "low level" because they had to do so many things "by hand" and "from scratch". Now, it is common knowledge that Gentoo has a lot of programs set up to automate the features it touts. You run a command line program, and it grabs and builds all of your packages and installs them for you. The rest of the system configuration is about as "low level" as Debian, Slackware, or any other distribution that expects you to edit config files sometimes.

Now, why would anyone think this is "from scratch" or a "low level learning experience"? Well, if you are coming from a Mandrake background, where you have most things done for you, including compilation, system configuration, hardware detection, etc. watching gcc output might very well be "low level" to you, as well as editing config files without a GUI. Heck, running a package manager from the command line might appear to be "from scratch" if you were used to GUI Mandrake tools.

"Quality Assurance"
You sometimes see Gentoo users talk about how their system helps them easily keep all their packages up to date. Of course, the downside to this is that with the Gentoo system, you have a QA department of one. You are really the first and last person in the package testing system. I know that even with Debian sid, sometimes packages get held back for a bit so they can be better tested before releasing them to a ton of users. Even with that, sometimes Debian sid packages have problems that the package maintainer didn't see (or simply made a mistake). On Gentoo, you are either stuck with potentially untested programs running on your system (or possibly beta/CVS programs), or not upgrading.

Now, what other distribution is known for its poor QA system? I remember that I used to recommend Mandrake to newbies wanting to try out Linux, because it walked them through the difficult parts, and generally was aimed at making things simple. The downside was that Mandrake also decided that it was best to run the very latest and greatest software possible, whether it was well-tested or not. As a result, once something broke, the newbie was high and dry, as broken Mandrake systems were not typically easy to fix (and especially not for a newbie) and as a result, you have a new Linux user thinking "Gee, this isn't any more stable than Windows." I mean, come on, the latest Mandrake release of a few months ago, 9.1, touts having the Linux 2.4.21 kernel which is not even released yet! I believe Mandrake uses some sort of time-traveling device to retrieve software from the future, then somehow manages to still not test it before packaging. Being introduced to Linux with this mentality means that when you are presented with Gentoo, which has about the same amount of testing, you don't think that anything is wrong.

Some Psychology -- Conclusion

My theory is this, that what happens is that you have a user to whom Mandrake is his first real distribution (he might have tried a few others and failed previously). While he appreciates the automation, and newbie-friendly programs, he also has gotten somewhat comfortable with Mandrake Linux, and is starting to feel confident about his Linux knowledge. This user might also have had to deal with some hostility and elitism on the part of users of other distributions, telling him how "Mandrake Sucks!" and possibly telling him to use a "real" distribution or some other taunt along those lines. That sort of outside pressure might often push someone who is feeling somewhat insecure about his "newbie" status, toward a distribution that might earn him more respect.

Enter Gentoo. This user hears that it is "from scratch" and is optimized, maybe even moreso than his optimized 586 Mandrake packages. Plus he hears that it compiles all its packages, which sounds impressive, but it automates it, which means hopefully it won't be that hard for him. Then, he sees that there are good easy docs that walk him through all the steps of setting it up, so even though it seems kinda complicated, and "from scratch" editing config files and actually compiling source code, all the automation and instructions make it bearable.

After a day or two, and all of his packages are compiled and installed, he feels better about himself, here he has this fairly "elite" distribution that he even compiled himself! Plus, he doesn't have to worry about being looked down upon as a newbie like he was when he used Mandrake. Plus his system just feels faster, and all of his Gentoo-using friends say theirs feels faster too, "Boy, those optimizations must really make a difference!" Plus as long as he doesn't need an upgraded package right away, he can just run that one command-line program he learned, and after his computer runs overnight, everything is all upgraded.

Makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, obviously you can't generalize about all users of any Linux distribution like this, but there are a certain subset of Gentoo users (and current Mandrake users) that fit this profile. Hey, next time you see a Gentoo user brag about the speed of his system, ask him if he used Mandrake before switching. Chances are, he will say "yes."

Addendum (Added June 4th, 2003)

In this section I will add links or quotes of comments that I find as I browse the web, that happen to support my point.

Found on Slashdot:

"I think the BEST thing about gentoo is the installation process. I finally learned how daemons get started, how to set up networking and NFS. All these things were either hidden from me behind GUI utilities or prevented from working properly by services that I didn't know about on more 'turnkey' distros."

"Mandrake is cool because a newbie can get it to work. Gentoo is cool because a newbie can become a knowledgeable user after a few installs."

Thanks to Gentoo I finally understand HOW all this *NIX stuff works under the hood and I am MUCH more competent on any *NIX box. I no longer cower in fear of the bash prompt, instead I command my boxen like a pro.

Another Found on Slashdot:

"I have used Mandrake as my server OS, desktop, and laptop OS for years now (since 6.x if i rememeber correctly). I really like the some features that Mandrake has (the Control Center, drake, etc..). But I have started using Gentoo, and now i'm in love again. The last Mandrake install 8.2 was easy, everything worked off the bat. With Gentoo you have to work a lot at the beginning and have a lot more control."

Selections from Comments in this mandrakeforum article

"I've been using Mandrake for years and a few monthes ago I compiled Gentoo on my desktop out of curiosity.

Compared to Mandrake, It loaded about 10 times faster, I had virtually no dependency problems and in the end i really felt that it was well worth the 8 hours of compilation. (I can now also compile whatever I need without much problems)

I still love Mandrake, I'm using it for my server (a weaker machine), it has the best admin tools in the linux world. "

"The last time I touched Mandrake was about 8.0. It was the last distribution I had installed on my home desktop before installing gentoo. I must say, there are a lot of things to like about Mandrake. It does indeed have a very cozy install process. I had a bit of trouble booting from their install CD(It didn't like my Plextor SCSI CD Drive.), but once I had it installed, the system felt like it was put together by a very professional group of developers."

"And for those who aren't convinced there is a problem with the current state of package management in linux systems, where do you think all these new gentoo users came from? That's right, they performed a MASS EXODUS from distros that use RPM-based package management. Sure, some of them didn't like what they saw when they arrived. But a lot of them did."

"I personally have other reasons I like gentoo besides package management. Its complete lack of a graphical install has in many ways been its greatest gift to me. You see, I like to know how the system works. I want to know what is going on at all times and that is why I make a good sys admin. With gentoo, you have complete control over the install process. You couldn't possibly find an installer that gives you as much flexibility as your basic command line. And as someone pointed out, the gentoo installation docs are the most thorough and useful install docs I have ever read. If you really want to know how your linux box ticks, you won't find a better learning tool than gentoo."

Review of Gentoo 1.2

"I have been using Mandrake in various flavors over the past few years mainly because Mandrake represents a 'sane' set of defaults I expect in a Linux desktop environment. Still, I make it a point to install and use other Linux distributions. The end results are I always learn something new and exciting, but usually find there is something(s) I do not like, so I'm never motivated to switch.

Lately, I've been hearing some really nice things about Gentoo Linux and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I actually had one of those rare occasions where I had the entire weekend to myself with absolutely nothing to do. So I pointed my browser to the Gentoo Linux website, located the x86 installation instructions and off I went. "

"If someone were to ask, I'd highly recommend Gentoo Linux 1.2. Even to the novice. That is if its already installed or at the very least the novice has an elmer holding his/her hand during install/configuration. Configuration is pretty much all manual. Performance is impressive. Felxibility and ease of upgrade is outstanding. I think I will stay with Gentoo Linux for a while."

A New Case of MES found on

"i've been using mandrake for quite a while now but am installing gentoo on another computer as i write this :-).. i'm hoping it will let me easily tweak/modify the source code to apps before compiling them.. messing with SRPMS is a pain in the butt.

gentoo's emerge command is pretty slick but it sure seems to take it's time downloading and compiling.. :-\ it's compiling x windows right now (zzz. nap time).. on the other hand, it's totally amazing that i've actually compiled (about 50?) apps on my system so far without bombing out of any ./configure's or make's with errors.. :)"

A handful of testimonials found on gentoo forums

"I came from Mandrake 9, and while I was using it I never(not once) got their graphical RPM package manager to work. I could install rpm's at the command line, easily enough(if fishing all of the depencies, downloading them, and installing them manually, and in reverse order counts as *easy*). I also did some source compiles(gcc was fine on the system, at least), but still, I was manually downloading source tarballs, reading the README files to find out what dependencies I needed, etc."

"I discovered Gentoo in late February, and when I read about Larry the Cow, and the Portage system, I was sold. I only hesistated a week or two because maybe I thought it was too good to be true(actually, I think I waited to install on spring break, since I had to have my linux box working for classes)."

"I too came from Mandrake (first 9.0, then 9.1), and I've got to agree, moving to Gentoo was a real revelation. What a mess it was to chase the web over for rpms and their dependencies! Portage is pure bliss in comparison !! These days it's all I can do to stay away from the development kernels and moving to ~x86, so as not to spend every free moment tweaking my Gentoo box."

"Mandrake _was_ the best Distro for me around their 8.0/8.1/8.2 release and i really thought this was the way to go for Linux. Then they unfortunately got into cash troubles, had to fire a few people and since then it (9.0/9.1) really sucks.
The drake tools are extremely buggy - it was impossible for me to install grub as a bootloader instead of Lilo because that stupid wizzard just ignored me.
If i hadn't discovered Gentoo i would be stuck with SuSE or some other RPM hell.. "

A Gentoo Forum user explaining the Gentoo learning experience as it relates to evangelism

"I don't see how Gentoo's out-spoken users is a bad thing. We may have people who pretend to be 133t because they can get an install finished by reading the Install guide, but at least these newb don't stay newbs. I see people all the time pretending that they are 133t just because they use RH or MDK or's the fact that they can somehow manage to install "Linux" by clicking on dialog boxes and follow wizards that makes them so 133t, I guess. That's far different than an excited Gentoonewb who makes his first successful install and in the proccess knows more about his/her box and *nix in an hour's worth of work than an RPM-newb ever does. People are outspoken because they love a distro that can keep them up-to-date, teach them how to use *nix while not pretending to be windows, and take them away from hand-holding.

Gentoo is a community effort, more so than any other distro out there. People talk because that's the way that Gentoo works."

A case of reverse MES

"The Gentoo install was like finding a forest, cutting down the trees, breaking a leg, getting out of the hospital, coming back, taking out the stumps and clearing the land of rocks, planting wheat, building a mill, making flower, making dough, then building an oven in which to burn it to a crisp, stealing a cow, milking it, churning the butter, picking berries, making jam. YUMMY! Breakfast is ready, but you don't have time to eat because it's time to update everything, including GCC, which also means a complete recompilation of everything."


"The funny thing is, I DID eventually get it installed after a long battle with the portable, but was so disgusted and mad I stuck the first Mandrake 9.1 PPC cd in the slot, and when through their install. It took 30 minutes with everything up, including networking, and all the same latest utilities. I'll never talk bad about Mandrake again. Mandrake isn't a newbie distro either. It's just easy to install. It has the same hackin'/crackin' apps any other distro has, and more! In fact, I may just stick 9.1 on my main box for networking and to act as a gateway."

You can't make this stuff up. More MES on the Gentoo Forums

Personally, I just find the speed boost a happy side effect of running Gentoo. It is apparently quicker than my old Mandrake install, but that's a very subjective thing. It's quite hard tell if it is actually quicker.

I think the biggest benefit of running Gentoo is that it's a learning experience. I'm pretty good with computers, and managed to install Mandrake with no problems - but I didn't really know how it did anything. I did look into Linux from Scratch, but decided that was a bit much - Gentoo is a very happy mid point.

After 37 installs, another Mandrake expatriate finds peace in Gentoo land

Before christmas I was a fed up Windows user, it held my hand too much, tagged me along with everything. Was I learning anything from using windows? Nope, the only thing I felt that was productive was Visual basic, which i've became quite well trained in. So after wanting more out of my computer, I decided to move onto the Linux route, starting with Mandrake.

I used Mandrake for 3 days, and uninstalled. Don't get me wrong, mandrake is nice, but its just another "windows alternative", it holds your hand too much. So I went in search of a distro that offered more, and gentoo seemed the most appealing. Tricky, brain puzzling install and lots of configuration - Something I could get my teeth stuck into. So after downloading the .isos, I started my journey into gentoo land.....

Ok yes, I followed the instruction manuel on installation, and failed a few times. Actually I counted 37 installs/reformats, but I did it. I installed gentoo succesfully with the help of this forum, and the use of my brain. I'd learned so much out of just installing the operating system, like how to use the commandline's commands etc. After re-booting I was presented with a commandline, and it was there where my gentoo installation came to life.

Firstly I had to install my network drivers (because of a bug in the install disc) and re-compile my kernel, With the help of this forum (again!) I managed to connect to the internet and start emerging everything I possibly could. Starting with KDE/Xfree, which wouldn't work on startup because I needed to configure my Radeon graphics card, which took some in-depth reading and configuration, and then BANG, I was on! KDE loaded up and I was presented with a GUI.

Oh, you'll have plenty of spare time -- MES found on Windows XP forums

I've had several servers/workstations on Mandrake versions all the way up to 9.2. Mandrake is good as a Linux introduction and makes for a decent server. But when you need more power and more control on the workstation side, Gentoo seems to be the way to go. Gentoo's documentation is hands-down the best written documentation I've ever seen. It even rivals Windows documentation since Windows hardly has any these days!

If any of you take the Gentoo challenge, please let me know how it goes. I want to try to get it installed here at home sometime this weekend, so we'll see when I have some spare time