The Dangers of Boutique Linux Distros

These small, more adventurous Linux distros have some clear advantages -- but be aware of the downsides.
Posted February 16, 2015

Matt Hartley

Every time a new boutique Linux distro rolls out into the limelight it seems the same two thoughts cross my mind. First, the distro’s developer must be excited to present their vision to potential uses and work hard to provide the best distro possible. Second, this also means that if something happens to the developer the project can instantly end in its tracks.

In this article, we’ll examine the risks of relying on a boutique Linux distro and what to do when you're forced to switch due to a distro ending its development.

Linux distros do differ

Perhaps one of the most annoying stereotypes I hear about is how all Linux distros are basically the same. This is inaccurate on a number of levels. The biggest thing that separates one distro from another is its community and the developers who interact with them.

I think this is what draws users to the boutique distributions; A tight knit group all sharing a common desktop Linux experience. Perhaps one of my favorite perks is how easy it can be to get the attention of a developer for a feature or a bug. Because let's face it, filing bug reports is rather impersonal. Being able to message or email a developer directly can instill a real sense of community.

I've also found that sometimes these smaller distros will incorporate special ideas not found with the larger ones. One of my favorite examples are the distributions based on Arch. Here we have the mighty Arch distro – it's bleeding edge, fast, and generally awesome. But for newbies it's a bit much to get used to. I've used Arch in the past and will agree that once it's setup it's really appealing.

Where some users have a problem with it, is that they may wish to divert from the traditional "Arch Way." The idea of taking the time and setting up each individual aspect of the install isn't something these users want to undertake. Their reasons may vary but the desire for a plug and play alternative remains among this small user base. This is where small boutique distros based on Arch come into play. Antergos and Manjaro are two of the most commonly used Arch based distributions used by those wanting a distro that is ready immediately after being installed.

Clearly, if a developer stops contributing to Arch proper it is in a better position to absorb any sudden impact than distros like Antergos or Manjaro. However, when a smaller distro loses a developer, it can mean big problems. Sometimes the distro survives with the support of the community picking up the slack. In an instance where the distribution is a one-person project, this translates into the distro shutting down completely.

The CrunchBang project

CrunchBang was designed to be a simple to use, highly configurable desktop distribution. Sadly, its main developer decided to stop developing it. This left the CrunchBang community with a tough choice. They could either look into taking on development themselves or find another distro. I've heard from a few individuals who have decided to move onto other Debian-based distributions.

Then today, I learned that there is a "new" project starting up that is called CrunchBang++. It's the same basic project vision as CrunchBang, but it's using a newer package base. The immediate downside is that, once again, it’s a one man show with a single developer at the helm. And the second bit to consider is that it's still a beta product and isn't ready for prime time, like we found with CrunchBang.

From my perspective, I found the following takeaways with the closing down of the CrunchBang project:

-If a distro has a passionate enough community, sometimes someone will be willing to pickup the pieces.

-Cool, yet smaller projects like CrunchBang can disappear in the blink of an eye.

So realizing the fact that boutique distros come and go all the time, one must ask themselves – is this worth it?

Are boutique distros worth it?

When considering the value of using a smaller, boutique distro you need to consider what I mentioned previously. What attracts users to these distros is a shared vision, close community, and having the ability to easily reach out to its developers. Despite its positives, however, you'll need to consider whether or not going with one of these smaller distros makes sense?

Here are my general guidelines to know if a boutique Linux distro is right for you:

- It all falls apart, yet you're content with moving onto another Linux distro.

- You prefer that your distros support comes from a community, not a corporation.

- Sometimes smaller distros use their own software repositories, in conjunction with those on which their distro is based. For example, Antergos might use Arch proper repos while also relying on one of their own. The performance of each repository, can vary.

If you can happily agree with all the points above, then clearly a boutique distro is a good fit for you. If not, then you might want to consider one of the larger projects available out there. Ubuntu/Debian, Fedora, OpenSuSE, Arch are just a few great places to start. Each has huge communities, ample available resources and a desire to provide an outstanding Linux distribution.

More harm than good

An accusation I've heard in the past is that the Linux community has too much choice, is too diverse and offers far too many distributions to choose from. If this mindset is to be considered, then I guess it could be argued that adding boutique Linux distros into the mix adds to this problem.

I happen to see things a bit differently. I believe having choice has grown the Linux community by leaps and bounds. Think about how boring it would be if there were only two distributions to choose from. If each came with only one desktop environment and you didn't like it, then you'd be out of luck. To me, that sounds far more frightening and it's something our friends that use proprietary operating systems appear to be accepting of.

I use Linux on my desktop because I can choose anything I wish. One day I might want a minimalist desktop experience with everything needing to be customized by my own hands. A day later, I could choose to go with a distribution that holds my hand and does everything for me out of the box. Neither desire is right or wrong, they're simply a choice I get to make.

So the idea that a smaller distro is somehow taking away resources, users or developers from other larger distributions is absurd. First, the resources are the Linux kernel and the desktop environments. Both of these are freely available to anyone and are not in finite supply. Second, users will choose to use whatever happens to suit their needs at the time. Why not have more choices tomorrow than we did yesterday? It harms no one. Lastly, the idea that boutique distributions prevent additional developers from joining the larger projects is a non-issue.

From CrunchBang to Simply Mepis, these distro projects were created out of personal need. The idea that the Linux community got to come along is merely a side benefit of this. Do smaller distros harm the larger, more established Linux distributions?

Not at all. In fact, I've seen first hand where the smaller distributions were the first taste of Linux for many newcomers. And some of these newcomers have been known to check out the larger distros too.

In closing, I'm a fan of the smaller boutique Linux distributions available today. I love the idea of trying something new or simply attempting to look at a new way of installing my favorite Linux software. It's exciting and it keeps me interested in a platform that has seen a tremendous amount of maturity in recent years. I, for one, welcome all the Linux distributions available and also those yet to be developed.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Tags: Linux, Linux Distro

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