I had always found my main computer – Athlon XP 2000, 1Gb RAM, 2 x Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9 120Gb SATA discs software RAID 1 – to be less of a performer than I might have hoped. Granted, it's a busy machine, running my mail server, weather station, intranet, KDE and any desktop activities that I happen to have on the go. Still, two decades of working with various flavours of Unix gave me better expectations for a machine running a nice, tight, operating system.
That last decade of Unix has been in the form of Linux – for the most part SuSE. Having got to a point where I had totally sickened of RPM builds that did not do what I wanted them to, and with each release of SuSE getting slower and giving me more problems, I started killing off the RPM builds, and building everything from my "essential software" directory with an horrific and hard-to-maintain BASH script. Yes – almost a distribution on a distribution. (And it worked on SuSE, Slackware and Fedora, which was pretty neat.)
When my aged Toshiba laptop died – again, it's a veritable patchwork of repairs – it took me two days to get OpenSuSE working on it; not bad for a binary distribution. Working, that is, for a given value of "working". It was so slow that it was actually unuseable. After a brief consideation of Slackware plus my essential_software solution, which I have found performs quite well on older boxes, I decided that if I was going to do a load of builds, I should consider a compiled distribution. Enter Gentoo. [Note: Gentoo can almost be a binary distribution as well, using Stage 3 tarballs.] Believe it or not, despite the age and a broken RAM socket which leaves me with only half the required memory, that old Tosh is running better than ever before.
Inspired by my experience with the laptop and with increasing frustration with SuSE on my main machine, I decided to put Gentoo on my main machine. No small task, as it meant transferring all of its functions to other machines. The first step was to go to a hardware ADSL router/firewall, rather than using an ADSL modem and kernel based firewall/NAT. (No more upsetting my wife by killing the Internet connection when I need to take the main box down.) The second step was to get Gentoo running on an old Duron-based test machine. After some fun and games getting the Stallion serial controller working (broken kernel .config file), I started transferring functions one by one from the main machine. This took a little longer than anticipated, as I decided to set up fax software (Hylafax) and replace the mail system (was Sendmail, now Postfix) along the way.
To cut an already long story short, I set up Gentoo on the main machine. It wasn't quick, as there was a lot to compile, and I had some fun and games getting the kernel to recognise my SATA drives. However, the performance increase is truly amazing. I can issue a reboot and have it back in under a minute – half of that time just hanging around in BIOS.
When operating, I found that I had a few things missing. A couple of quick emerges later, they were not only there but working (unlike my experience of RPM builds). I love Gentoo, at least until I find something annoying.
Kudos to the folks on the Gentoo Forums for helping me with various issues that I encountered. A most supportive community.