Don't take the easy way out

I remember when I first started using Linux back in the day - "back in the day" referring to about the year 2000 - it was a total pain to work with. From not-so-great hardware detection, to installation and partitioning pains, to the ever-lasting fight against making a Winmodem work, it surely wasn't for the weak-minded. However, something I sort of enjoyed during that period was downloading and compiling the programs myself. Well, I didn't enjoy it much when dependency problems arose. But just the fact that I was taking this free and accessible source code, compiling it myself, then having fully functional software made me have a sense of accomplishment.

Nowadays most people have it easy. With friendly and easy-to-use Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu and OpenSUSE, all you need is to just click on a checkmark in a GUI interface and your programs, along with all dependencies, are immediately installed. Nowadays no one even has to use the command-line at all if they wish to do so. So as Linux gets easier to use, less and less people learn how to really use the operating system to its fullest.

Unfortunately, I too have fallen into that trap as well. I remember I used to compile the kernel every single time a new one was announced. Now, I barely do it. If the operating system I'm using at the time doesn't have a current update, I don't install it. Every time I see a new program I was to try out, I check first if there are already pre-compiled binaries for my distribution, and only compile the source code if all else fails. It's kinda sad how much I've lost during these past few years.

That will probably change from now on. Last night, I took a spare computer in my apartment (1.0 GHz Athlon with 768 MB of RAM and a 20 GB hard drive) and decided to put it to good use. Seeing that I'm trying to learn Ruby and Rails, I wanted to install an easy-to-use distribution to save me some time with installation and configuration duties. So I chose Ubuntu, and it all installed just fine, until it came time to install Ruby and Rails afterwards. With Ubuntu, installing Ruby is just as easy as doing this:

sudo apt-get install ruby

Ubuntu did its magic, even though I didn't have a good feeling when I saw it was installing version 1.8.4 (Ruby is now at 1.8.5). Oh well, I thought. It was just a minor revision, no big deal. I then went on to install RubyGems, and it installed okay, until I started getting some warnings. Since it finished the installation, I just kept on going. When it came time to install Rails, This time one of the gems didn't install (I believe is was Action Web Service). I had installed Rails in other distributions without warnings, even on Windows. Since I had a couple of spare minutes at night, I decided to go the long route, and install everything from scratch, and make sure it's up-to-date.

I'll skip the entire process, as I'll probably cover it in another, more formal, post. But I grabbed the source code of Ruby and after uninstalling all the mess the Ubuntu binaries caused, I compiled everything and I had absolutely no errors at all! I was even able to install the Mongrel gem without any problems.

So, that taught me a lesson as far as relying on pre-compiled binaries goes. Besides the obvious reasons why you should try to compile your own software (if the code is available), such as optimizing the compiled binary for your system and making sure you have the latest versions, you can avoid problems from the beginning, even if package managers such as Ubuntu's apt are supposed to help you there. Also, it brought back that sense of accomplishment I used to previously have. So from now on, as long as time and skill allows me, I'll be compiling my own code.

Time to pay a visit to the Linux Kernel Archives. Long time I haven't been there.

Written by

Dennis Martinez

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