Obarun 2021.07.26Obarun is a derivative of Arch Linux with systemd replaced by the s6 init software. The project's website describes the distribution's design and focus quite clearly as follows:
The goal of Obarun is to provide an alternative for people looking for more simplicity and transparency in maintaining their systems. Obarun is not designed with beginners to Linux in mind, but Obarun's community is dedicated in helping anyone with the will to try it.
Obarun is based on Arch Linux, but incorporates several changes, modifications, additions, in its effort to run reliably, without systemd and its intrusive by-products. Obarun separates the init and service management from the rest of the system that should be chosen freely by the user/sysadmin.
At the moment Obarun is only available for x86-64 architectures, as is Arch, but its own software has no such limitations on architecture.
The distribution is available in two flavours, Minimal and with JWM as the default window manager. The Minimal edition is an 837MB download while the JWM edition is 1.3GB in size. I chose to download the JWM edition for x86_64 computers.
Booting from the provided ISO brings up a menu offering to start the distribution in Live, Persistent, or Run From RAM modes. This gives us some flexibility in how we wish to use the live media. I chose to take the default, plain live mode. The live session boots to a text console where we are shown login credentials for both the root user and a regular user account. Signing in as the regular user, oblive, automatically launches a graphical environment.
The JWM-powered desktop places a panel along the bottom of the screen. The panel holds an application menu, task switcher, and system tray. On the desktop we find icons for opening a README file and for launching the system installer. The README file is a short text file with login credentials, links to on-line resources, and tips for launching programs from within JWM.
Shortly after signing into the live desktop a network management window opens. This provides us with a utility for getting us on-line with minimal effort. The network manager window makes it straight forward to connect to wired and wireless networks.
While it is possible to navigate Obarun's system installer by following its menus, the installer does some things differently from other Linux installers and I recommend reading the provided guide before proceeding. Launching the system installer opens a console window and then kicks off a long series of text-based menu screens. I don't want to go into a lot of detail here as the installer has over a dozen screens, even without going into the advanced options and customizations.
In general the installer works well enough. We are generally shown yes/no prompts or asked to pick options from lists - some lists contain keyboard layouts in two-character country codes, some lists offer time zones, others filesystems we can use. The installer worked fairly well for me, though I found the screens with yes/no options had very faint contrast in the selected text so it sometimes took me a while to discern which response was highlighted.
The installer typically shows us a list of hub modules we can access and then walks us through making selections in each one. Some choices we are asked to make include whether to update the installer, whether the system will be run in UEFI or Legacy BIOS mode, our time zone, keyboard layout, and which desktop to install. Desktop options include KDE Plasma, Xfce, JWM, Openbox, and something simply called Minimal. We are asked whether we prefer syslinux or GRUB for our boot loader, whether to check for local fast mirrors, which console partition manager to launch to divide up the disk, and which filesystem to use (Btrfs, ext2/3/4, and XFS are supported).
Once the installer collects all its information it downloads packages over the network. These packages started to install smoothly while showing some basic progress information. However, towards the end, the install started printing errors. Thousands of GPG errors were shown, telling me "no user ID for key". However, the installer completed this step and then asked me to make up a root password, create a new user account, and (when I ran the distribution in VirtualBox) the installer offered to install VirtualBox guest add-ons.
When all of these steps were completed I could return to the live JWM environment and reboot when it was convenient. Launching my new copy of Obarun presented me with a graphical login screen.
At this point I'd like to acknowledge two years ago I tried out Obarun using the same hardware I was using this week. At the time the experience got off to a poor start and I never successfully got Obarun to install and boot properly. In contrast, getting Obarun installed and running this time was a smooth experience and the distribution played well with both my test environments.
When I first signed into my account the Xfce desktop loaded. Immediately a pop-up appeared and asked if I wanted to save my clipboard history. I was warned that saving clipboard history would keep a copy of any passwords or other sensitive information I copied to the clipboard. Once I had selected not to save my history, the Xfce desktop finished loading. A thin panel is placed at the top of the screen and a dock for launching commonly used programs is placed along the bottom. Icons are displayed on the desktop for launching the Thunar file manager.
The desktop mostly uses a dark theme for menus and panels while application windows use a bright theme for their menus, borders, and backgrounds.
Early on I noticed there is no volume control icon in the system tray. There are audio mixers installed, including one that is run in the system tray, but none of them are enabled by default. We can launch one from the application menu.
I began my trial with Obarun running in a VirtualBox virtual machine. The distribution performed well in VirtualBox. The system was stable and the Xfce desktop was responsive. The desktop did not dynamically resize to match the size of the VirtualBox window, but I could adjust the desktop's dimensions through the Xfce settings panel.
When I switched over to running Obarun on my physical workstation the distribution ran well. The distribution can boot in both UEFI and Legacy BIOS modes. The desktop performance was above average and all my hardware was properly detected.
The amount of memory the distribution requires will depend on which desktop we install. I found Obarun's services and implementation of Xfce consumed a relatively small amount of memory, just 275MB. A fresh install of the distribution took up about 4.3GB of disk space, plus a swap partition.
Obarun does not ship with a lot of desktop software by default. Along with the Xfce 4.16 desktop I found a small collection of applications in the distribution's tree-style menu. The Midori web browser is included, though it had some issues. Midori was unusually slow when running on Obarun and trying to type the "/" character in the address bar always opened a search box and stole focus from the address bar. This meant it was impossible to type any URLs which included a "/" character, which is most of them. Since Midori was effectively slow and crippled I ended up installing an alternative browser.
Obarun 2021.07.26 -- Exploring the application menu (full image size: 158kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Also in the menu we find the Pidgin messaging software, the Geany text editor, the Parole media player with several audio mixers. The distribution does include media codecs, and I could play audio files. Parole was unable to play any video files and attempting to play one would cause the player's interface to lock up and necessitate terminating the Parole process. I installed the VLC player and it was able to handle both video and audio files.
The ePDF viewer is installed along with the Thunar file manager, a bulk file renaming tool, and the Xfce settings panel. The distribution includes the GNU Compiler Collection and manual pages. The default command line shell is zsh which, personally, I've never warmed to using, but it's functional and alternatives are available.
There is a shortcut for an e-mail client, but none is installed. I also noticed pressing the Print Screen button brings up an error reporting the screenshot utility isn't available. We can install the Xfce screenshot utility from the project's repositories.
Obarun uses the s6 init software, which I will talk about later, and the current kernel is Linux, version 5.13. Since Obarun is a rolling release distribution new versions of packages will become available over time.
Once, when signing into Xfce, the session crashed with an error saying it could not contact the settings server. I was returned to the login screen. After that I was able to immediately sign in again without an error and the issue never occurred again.
I don't have much to say about Obarun's package management. The distribution does not provide any graphical front-end for software management. We can install, remove, and upgrade software using the pacman command line utility. The pacman tool is fast and efficient. I encountered no problems while using it.
Obarun 2021.07.26 -- Installing a screenshot utility with pacman (full image size: 190kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Since Obarun performs a network install, all software is up to date on the first day we are running the distribution. Over time new versions of packages will become available as the distribution provides a rolling release approach.
s6 and 66
The main selling points of Obarun are the init software and service manager, named s6 and 66, respectively. From a practical point of view the init software seems to work just fine. The system started and shutdown without any problems and in about the average amount of time.
Obarun 2021.07.26 -- Reading about 66 in the Midori browser (full image size: 201kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
At first, when I started reading about the 66 service manager the software seemed complicated. The documentation is more geared toward explaining the design of s6 and 66 rather than how the user is expected to interface with it. The developers appear to be aware of this perception as one page of the wiki has the following to say about Obarun's service manager:
As both s6 and 66 documentation may be overwhelming at first and users may think they should consume the entirety of the documentation before they begin using the software, or the system incorporating it and in this case Obarun, this guide is an introduction to how simple and easy it is to use these tools right away. When comparing s6/66 to runit for example, an exercise in minimalism and simplicity, the abilities of s6 and 66 appear enormous, but not everyone and right away needs all those abilities. It is like obtaining a complete set of professional aircraft mechanic's tools, but for your use of servicing a washing machine only a few basic tools would suffice.
The wiki goes on to provide some examples. Some of these are still a bit more complex than most people will need, but we can pick through and find the key elements. One thing I soon found is that 66 commands need to be run as the root user, otherwise they either do not work or show incomplete information. This means checking the status of services might fail as a regular user and work as the root user, which is in contrast to how most other service managers work.
Once I learned this key point, I found there are really just a few 66 commands we need to know to interact with the service manager. The command 66-intree shows which services are available. The 66-inservice command shows the status and details of one specified service. We can see which services are installed by exploring the /usr/lib/66/ directory. Services are declared using simple text files which appear to have a similar layout as systemd unit files.
The commands 66-enable, 66-disable, 66-start, and 66-stop commands manage a specified service. For instance, "66-enable cupsd" enables the CUPS printing service. Running "66-start cupsd" and "66-stop cupsd" start and stop the service.
In short, while 66 can be fairly complicated and it can take a while to adjust to some aspects of how services are organized and declared, the day-to-day tools for handling background services are much the same as with systemd or SysV init. The big difference, from the end user's perspective, is that 66 offers a different command for each task (such as enabling or disabling a service) while other service managers usually provide one command which accepts "enable" or "disable" as a parameter. For example, on Obarun I would use "66-start ntpd" while with systemd I'd run "systemctl start ntpd" and with most SysV init implementations I'd run "service ntpd start".
One nice aspect of Obarun's init software is it is quite small. The PID 1 process is just a hair smaller than SysV init's PID 1 process in memory and less than a tenth of the size of systemd's init. This usually isn't an important metric, but in situations where memory is quite limited, every little bit helps.
When I first tried Obarun, a few years ago, the process got off to a rocky start. I suspect, at the time, the project was still relatively young and there were rough edges to sort out. The documentation wasn't as fleshed out yet and it led to a poor experience.
These days Obarun seems quite capable. While the distribution is aimed at more experienced users, those who are comfortable working with Arch Linux and who are interested in working with alternative init software, once the distribution is up and running it performed quite smoothly.
The install process is long and geared to more technically experienced users, the distribution (once installed) still needs a little setting up and customization to really work like a proper workstation. Once the initial set up is completed though, Obarun performs well. It is quick to boot, runs smoothly, worked with my hardware, and desktop performance was great. There were a few minor rough edges - stray error messages, a missing audio control - but for the most part Obarun does a good job and shows off its custom service manager nicely.
I will admit I'd like to see the project adopt another system installer, such as Calamares, for desktop installations. It would certainly speed up and simplify the initial process. Otherwise Obarun is pretty solid. I'd only recommend it to more advanced users, specifically those who are looking for an alternative to mainstream init software like systemd. For people who do fit that description, Obarun (and s6) are certainly interesting and worth a look.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: