Monday, 16 April 2012

Chakra GNU/Linux - Interview with the Development Team

Every once in a while you come across a distribution that makes you re-evaluate your preferences and challenges your perception of what the underlying base or a desktop environment is like because of the presentation and the overall package. Chakra GNU/Linux is such a distribution. It focuses on KDE only and, as it grew out of the KDEmod project for ArchLinux in KDE 3 days, still provides optimized packages, and this, in my opinion, shows.

The last time I checked out Chakra was with their 0.3 release in October 2010, and that is a long time in this fast moving world. I contacted Anke 'abveritas' for an email interview to see where this intriguing distribution is going, and how far they are down the road of splitting from their Arch base. The response was collated and reviewed by the team.

Q.) Anke, you have taken over as project lead from Phil. When and how did this come about? Do you elect a new lead for a fixed term similar to Debian and Fedora, or how does it work, and does this have any consequences for the direction the distribution is going?
Chakra no longer uses a team-leader, so neither I, or anyone else on the team has such a title. We feel there is no need for such a role, we are all over the world, contributing in times that work best for each of us, working on sections of Chakra, that fit any of our strengths the best. Naturally, there are those who are in charge of certain sections of Chakra, so it has grown to the current situation that there are about 5-6 teams (examples arts, akabei, KDE, ISO releases), each of us contact the main person(s) of any such team for changes to that part of the project.

Q.) It’s been well over a year and a half since I first looked at Chakra 0.3 ‘Ashoc’. It worked well for me, but your distribution has come a long way since. Can you tell us more about your goals for the upcoming release and in the more medium and long-term? How many releases are you planing per year?
Chakra rolls fairly fast, and for new users, the first update after a fresh install is the most challenging. Therefor it was decided upon to have a new ISO out closely following the KDE releases, since an ISO older then about 6-8 weeks usually has that many updates that the first pacman -Syu is not easy enough anymore. So usually, there are not major plans for any upcoming release, an ISO just follows the ongoing development.
Short term goals are akabei first. It is nearing an alpha release. Buildsystem is already adjusted for it, and 4-5 devs are working mainly on akabei alone to get the new package manager ready to replace pacman. This will need a lot of testing, and will only become available for all users, once we are sure, it is the better package manager then pacman, that we anticipate.
Once akabei has replaced pacman, then other parts of Chakra will evolve a lot too. A true GUI frontend for all package-management will only be possible when pacman is no longer in use. Pacman was never designed for a GUI, and all GUI pacman apps Chakra has tried over the years, were never a true answer for a reliable GUI. The planned GUI frontend, shaman, will integrate package and bundle management.
Tribe (the installer) still is not at all were we want it to be. To get the partitioning working simple and smoothly, both for a beginner and advanced option, a switch to udisks for partitioning is worked on. Plus it is being rewritten to use qml. Since Tribe is functional, akabei has a clear priority for Chakra, but will be the next in line, once akabei is finished. Other parts that need improvements in tribe are locale/language settings, boot loader options, and more disk options like RAID and LVM.

Q.) After trying out ‘Archimedes’ I have to say I really enjoyed it and its implementation of KDE 4. It was as fast as Xfce on my machine and everything worked right from the start, incl. wifi, webcam and multimedia keys. The upgrades from 4.8 to 4.8.1 and then 4.8.2. went well too and the system remains stable, by that I mean no unexpected crashes. What is your secret?
Speed comes from a few things. Chakra still uses the KDEmod settings, to optimize KDE, of course those are still worked on daily, improvements are always possible. The Arch background for a clean, simple and transparent system have never been abandoned. All packages are constantly reviewed and corrected for the best possible KDE support. One such thing that is showing a difference now, is stripping all packages from any gtk extra library, which are not needed for KDE at all. Cleaning out one package from such lib, you won't notice much, but multiply by many, many packages that were adjusted for this over the last 2 years, and it is starting to show a difference. The focus on one DE only, makes it possible that all resources are used to make Chakra's KDE the best it can possibly be, not trying to do too much, and ending up not getting any DE the full attention it deserves.
Stability is one of the reasons for the split from Arch. The testing cycle for core packages is taken very seriously. Any upstream updates to core/base packages are followed for at least a few weeks, when no regressions reported upstream, and bringing nice improvements, only then will such an update make it to the Chakra repo's. It will enter the testing repo's, and depending on the "vital" status of such package will undergo testing for 1 week to 1 month, including testing on internal ISO's. Toolchain, kernels, pacman, packages of that kind are considered vital.

Q.) When trying to install xscreensaver , I was notified it would pull in libglade and gtk 2.24 and a few other gtk dependencies. How does this tally with your ‘pure QT only’ policy?
Chakra offers the user an option for a complete gtk free system, but understands that it is up to the user to decide. gtk2 is available in the repo's, as are some that depend on it, since there is no real replacement yet for apps like flash, nvidia-settings. But more and more of the long time Chakra users are reporting, they have no need at all anymore to have any gtk app installed.

Q.) While using Pacman and the CCR it appeared to me to still be very much Arch Linux under the hood.
Is it possible to use Chakra as an install image that would give users all the necessary drivers for an easy setup, and then remove the more specific stuff like Cinstall, change repositories and turn it into an Arch install?
No. Hopefully the above written sections already show Chakra is not compatible with Arch, and only a very advanced user will be able to correct all issues that would come up trying to do so. In fact, that user would be much faster just installing Arch, then trying to convert. Versions are very different, toolchain different, but naming is different too. Chakra has renamed all KDE apps, according to the new KDE naming scheme, Arch has not. Arch uses python3 as default python, Chakra is with python2, since only 2 apps have switched to python3. Just to give a few examples. Once akabei is in place, then ofc this is a complete mute point.

Q.) The Bundle philosophy seems very much inspired by PBI’s in PC-BSD and the Linux distributions that are using modules, sort of a half-way house. It’s very clean and tidy and easy to remove again. Are bundles a core philosophy or could that change?
Bundles are core. They are working very well as is already, and will only improve, once more coders have time for it, after akabei/tribe are ready. Since you use Chakra last, the bundle system has improved quite a bit, so certain plugins, and addons, that used to require a separate package to be installed, can be bundled in, thus giving the user a true , fully functional bundled application. Example the chrome/chromium browsers. All bundled browsers already include the flashplugin, but these 2 also include the google-talkplugin, and the chromium bundle also has the pdf plugin.

Q.) Have you seen an influx from any particular corner? Do you know what other distributions your user base are or have been using before?
Seems a lot of Kubuntu users are looking at Chakra, since the announcement kubuntu would not receive financial support from canonical. Many more Arch users lately too, and of course always a lot of Windows user.

Q.) How does Chakra fund itself? I suppose you all have day jobs. Do you have any financial contributors?
All along, one goal has been, use opensource, free options for whatever possible. Source-forge had given Chakra many options to keep the servers going, while new ISO's gathered the interests of literally tens of thousands of users in single day. For packaging and repo's, we used the server of a friend of the late Chakra founder Jan Mette, but Chakra's traffic was getting too much, so 2 months ago, we switched to a commercial hosted server. This one is funded by paypal and flattr donations, though the cash reserve at this time will only cover this for about 18 months.
Therefor, when Duck Duck Go came with an offer for a contract to be the default search provider (DDG has been default in Chakra for some time, not bc of money, but bc of the idea behind DDG), Chakra did sign, so hopefully, this will bring in enough to keep the server costs covered.
All used software for forum, bug tracking, news post, etc, is open-source. Plus we have the use of a donated build server in Sweden, with really great upload/download speeds for packaging.

Q.) Is there anything else you would like to add?
At this stage, Chakra is still not intended, and might never be intended for the user who just wants all setup, no choices to make, nothing to learn/read. That part again is following the Arch roots. Any user who wants to learn just a little about their system, wants to do some basic wiki reading, will find however Chakra is very user/beginner friendly.


Thank you very much for the interview. Good luck with your future endeavours!

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To date I've been using the latest Chakra 'Archimedes' release for a bit more than three weeks, and I have to say I'm impressed. I'm not known as a KDE 4 user, but that was the same with the 3.x series until I discovered VectorLinux 5 and later PCLinuxOS 2007 which I used for two years solid. I'm sort of ambivalent about KDE, to me it is the implementation that does it. With the 4.x series speed and memory use have also become more important an issue. Distributions like SalixOS have managed to make KDE run with only 256 MB Ram, and KDE itself is also slowly getting better at this. It seems currently a combination of distribution like Chakra and 4.8.x hits the sweet spot. Adding the Lancelot menu widget from the repository or using the traditional Classic menu style is pretty much mandatory though.

Chakra desktop with active bundles top left
With Chakra GNU/Linux you get the goodness of Arch package management with Pacman, and as you read above a modified and optimized KDE. Packages are typically available two days after an update was pushed out by upstream. The upgrade from KDE 4.8.0 to 4.8.1 and then 4.8.2 went seamless, and to date I have not experienced any crashes or other problems or unpredictability. Going by previous experience with various distributions this is at least noteworthy. Rekonq is the default browser and is amazingly stable, unless you're trying to upload pictures that is.

Mind you, I'm staying clear of Kontact, the KDE PIM suite, which has frequent crashes and corruption of mail boxes reported between upgrades, and the Akonadi storage service. File indexing is running with Nepomuk and at this stage does not seem to slow down the system as significantly as in the beginning, or actually I could not find any performance impairment. Only SimplyMEPIS performed faster, and that seems to have to do with the scheduler optimization used in Debian kernels for desktop responsiveness.

Chakra is distributed as a CD size and a DVD image, with the latter bringing more applications. I installed from the CD and found all my hardware detected and supported. My Broadcom 43225 chip worked straight away even in a live session, the integrated Suyin Corp. webcam was supported in Skype (provided as a bundle) and Kopete. The Acer wmi interface responsible for error messages during boot sequence in Debian derivatives due to missing firmware was also supported. Chakra is obviously not a distribution adhering to the free software guidelines but is using a practical approach, supporting as many devices by including drivers and firmware as possible. Codecs and Flash are also included.

Links to documentation, forums and home page easily accessible
KDE responded to keyboard shortcuts for dimming and brightening the display and I was able to regulate the volume as well per key combo. Sleep and hibernate worked as well and coming back was smooth, immediately reconnecting my wireless. The connection btw stayed stable and constantly achieved a good throughput of up to 800KB/s.
Chakra comes with a good selection of software, but no office suite on the CD. You get the handy Yakuake drop down terminal from the start, a backup solution and the SUSE Studio Imagewriter for setting up USB keys. An interesting mixture for sure. Everything else is just a sudo pacman -S away, and installing the ATI/AMD Fglrx driver was a cinch.

The repositories are large enough for probably most every day users, I found for example VirtualBox there, but a little command line is still required to add your user to the vbox group and set up usb access. It's a bit of a curious mix of incredibly new user friendly, but with some command line still required on occasion, although admittedly very rare. If you're so inclined you can install the build tools and ccr to gain access to a community repository similar to the AUR (Arch User Repository) where one can find many more non-QT applications and also icon themes. The MaK-LionTaste set in the above shot is from there.

Surfing live from a virgin Chakra 'Archimedes'
The graphical Cinstall tool keeps track of activated bundles and notifies you if an update is available, which you can update inside the client. A general update-notifier in the system tray is not available in Chakra though, so it makes sense to run update from Pacman every few days.
If you install bundles, static packages with all dependencies squashed into a file system that are loaded 'on the fly', you'll also want to install gtk-looks to give a somewhat uniform desktop, where  applications written with this toolkit do not stand out like a sore thumb.
There's quite a few popular ones available and more gtk+ stuff can be added from ccr, but if that is your focus then you're better off with another distribution. However, for people who love a good and more or less (that depends on the choices you make after install) pure KDE experience Chakra is a good choice and makes for an easy start.

It is well suited to people who have dipped their toes in with Kubuntu or Linux Mint KDE but want to progress, newbies who are not afraid to learn and at least a little inclined to use the terminal, more advanced users who just want an easy all-inclusive set up will have a ball with this. A very polished, speedy and powerful desktop.

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