Opinion: Arch Linux and Stability
Article posted 04/02/2014
Arch Linux, the popular rolling release Linux distribution, seemingly has a reputation as bleeding edge, elitist and sometimes unstable. Bleeding edge? Most seem to agree it is. Elitist? I'll leave that to you to decide. Unstable? Perhaps, perhaps not, which is what I will now try to give my take on it as a full time Arch Linux user.
Firstly, this isn't supposed to be a "why you should use Arch Linux" piece. It's more of a "is Arch Linux really so unstable as some make out?" piece.
I do not mind which distribution you use, as honestly at the end of the day it's all Linux. A Linux distribution, generally speaking, simply decides how you, as the user, keep control of your Linux operating system and how and what software and updates are delivered to you. How this is done and how much fine grained control is left to you is up to personal taste, which is why we have so many choices in the world of Linux distributions.
Now, I do use Arch Linux as my "daily driver" on my desktop computer. I use Debian Testing on my netbook simply as it's slower moving in terms of daily updates and also as it seems to be somewhat lighter on resources than Arch (I know, I know... it may be surprising, maybe it's an article for another day) but otherwise I always use Arch on my primary computer. I do everything, from gaming, web browsing, coding, web development and even writing this very article, in Arch.
So I wanted to talk about whether you can consider Arch Linux to be stable enough for productive use. I'll be honest right now: I'm not likely to give a definitive answer. There's too many differing situations and use-cases for that to be possible.
Updates, updates, updates...
Alright, instead of rambling away, let's start with the screenshot below...
At the time of the screenshot, about a day or so before this article, you can see on my Conky that my system uptime reads almost 58 days and my available updates reads about 372 packages. Obviously, I have left it a long time between updating my system and doing any reboots. Mostly because of being busy, lazy etc but also because the system was working so well and I was doing a lot of actual work in the operating system, I figured I would leave it longer than usual before doing any software updates/upgrades.
I think this example is fairly extreme, at least for me, as I usually perform the updates in my Arch system at least once a week. It's most likely not actually recommended to leave a fast moving rolling release system such as Arch such a long time before performing updates and (if system components are updated) reboots, but it can be done with some care.
So I can use Arch for productive purposes?
Whoa, cowboy. Yes you can, but as anyone experienced with Arch knows, you must use due diligence.
For example, if you were having a week where you were doing presentations from your Arch Linux machine, let's say for your class or something, you could do what I did and simply choose a point where your system is (as far as you have tested) completely stable and just... leave it. No updates, no changes to your precious software or system libraries. No worries.
The counterpoint to this however, is of course during this time you won't be receiving security patches/updates and the longer you leave your system updates in Arch Linux, the higher the chance that your next upgrade won't be quite so smooth, as Arch is intended to be kept up-to-date fairly regularly.
In terms of security, it's unlikely to be a problem, but not impossible. In terms of upgrading after a period of time (but you should do this regularly anyway), you must, MUST check on the Arch Linux website for any notices or announcements that inform you of particular maintenance tasks that need doing during an update, which does happen from time to time, what with Arch being a very hands-on distribution and all.
Keep in mind, the packages in Arch Linux, so long as you're not using the Testing repository, are actually meant to be stable. The distribution isn't meant to be an unstable testbed unless, again, you went and enabled the Testing repo. In which case, get to that bug reporting and help out!
However, due to the very fresh nature of the software in Arch and the very quickly moving rolling release, something... somewhere, will break at some point. The severity of it purely depends on what it was that was broken and how important it is to your specific uses.
For my uses, Arch actually very rarely ever does anything wrong, but I still take care and be that little bit more cautious than I perhaps would in something like Debian.
All this being cautious and scared sounds silly! My operating system should take care of itself!!
Then a distribution like Arch Linux isn't for you. And that's okay.
I use Arch Linux myself because I find that the up-to-date nature of the software and drivers etc suits me best, plus what is available in the stock repositories combined with the AUR (Arch User Repository).
Actually, on that note, the AUR can be an issue for some people, as due to it being maintained by the users, there's bound to be some packages or configurations that aren't quite right. My experience with the AUR has generally been okay, but like a lot of things in Arch, you should keep an eye on the comments section in the AUR for any potential problems or fixes to do with a specific AUR package.
I don't think anyone should be "scared" while using Arch though, at least in terms of the stability. It is basically, in my opinion, a fast moving but stable operating system that you simply must have a bit of knowledge and a will to get your hands a bit dirty now and then.
Updates, updates, updates v2.00
After I took the screenshot that I showed earlier in this article, I did actually perform a full Pacman (Arch's package manager) sync and system upgrade.
It went smoothly and once I rebooted, everything has seemed to be completely fine and unchanged, in terms of running smoothly and without crashes. But I did of course, check the Arch Linux website beforehand and just generally watched the upgrades take place casually, for any potential errors that might crop up. But it went as well as could be expected really.
Would I still feel as confident taking my Arch system along to some important presentations or the like, as I would with say Debian Stable or even Ubuntu LTS?
No, probably not. But still, with again some of that due diligence and being conscious of potential issues, I would be confident enough. Better the devil you know, you know?
I wouldn't however, personally ever use Arch Linux on a server or even a more casually-used machine (like my netbook).
So, in summary...
95% of the time, that is my experience with Arch Linux. So long as some care is taken and you don't rush in and do something silly without any knowledge or consulting that amazingly good and famous Arch Wiki, things should go okay and be quite stable. But occasionally, they won't.
Of course when it comes to updates and bugs/instability creeping into software, it can happen in any operating system out there. But with Arch Linux, it is bleeding edge and the updates tend to come pretty fast plus the distribution is meant to be more hands-on in it's approach, so there is that little bit extra risk.
Whether the pros of Arch outweigh some of these cons, is purely dependant on you and your tastes or requirements in a Linux distribution.
Anyway, I think that's it.
If you have any comments or notes you wish to add, feel free to submit them below as always. And of course, I can't claim to be an expert in everything (anything?), so if you feel there's some information I may be wrong about, don't hesitate to give your side of it.