Lost Art of Arch Linux

Dec 23, 2021

In the 80s' a programmers origin story probably included the Commodore 64. It was a low-end computer that was sold in retail stores instead of electronics stores. These hackers might have taken one apart and put it back together or written a BASIC compiler for it (Gates got started on the Altair 8800 a decade before).

But programmers like me didn't start with the Commodore 64. The Commodore 64 of the 2000s wasn't even a piece of hardware. By then, most programmers weren't interested in learning how to solder or ordering circuit boards. Instead, there were higher-level pure software abstractions to play with: open source operating systems like Linux.

There was an explosion of Linux distributions in the 2000s but one stood out for hobbyists called Arch Linux.

Arch Linux took a much different philosophy than the distributions who tried to package Linux with bells and whistles for end-users in an installation script. Arch Linux didn't have an installation script. Instead, you'd download an installation image onto a USB drive and follow the instructions on the insanely detailed ArchWiki. Arch called this approach user-centric, as opposed to user-friendly.

To install it, you'd set up each part of the operating system in a painstakingly manual way. Partitioning the disks, formatting the partitions, configuring the network, setting up a boot loader, installing a window manager, and even configuring basic things like laptop suspend and hibernate and bluetooth.

But it was maybe the community that was the best part. The wiki was so good that it wasn't just a reference for Arch Linux, but most other Linux distributions. It was the place to learn system administration. In a time before Slack and Discord, Arch's IRC channels were the place to ask and receive help from experts. I'm deeply indebted to the seasoned programmers that answered the questions of a curious teenager.

Arch Linux is still around and has become one of the most popular distributions to run as a user. But it's not longer the "Commodore 64" of today's up and coming programmers. Containers and lightweight virtual machines have changed the game again. Now, a curious hacker might not even use Linux as their desktop or laptop OS. Instead, they might spin up ephemeral containers with a reproducible configuration like NixOS or run a minimal container-native operating system like alpine.

Gone are the days of hackers becoming experts at system administration. Much like the hobbyists felt like they were tending a garden with their homebrewed computer chips, hackers felt the same way about their homegrown operating systems and networks. Now, it's something new – a higher level mix of cloud and APIs.