Introducing the Viewpoint Linux Distribution

Person observing what's going on a through a tiny window whilst huge, wild, painted horses
pass by

Viewpoint Linux is a distribution for providing a minimal environment for me to build on and play with. I hope that for others it can be a distro which provides a working environment to use alongside various texts I have in mind, allowing the reader to focus on study of the material at hand rather than trying to get their environment setup right.
The idea came about through having to side step from study to investigate broken stack traces and wondering about the level of pain when having to make build changes system-wide on a distribution which doesn’t provide infrastructure to rebuild at mass with ease. When I first started writing about my experiments with LFS it was suggested that I look at several different established distributions which were the answer to what I was looking for. I was aware of these distributions already and had even used some in the distant past, however I decided not to go down this path as there was either new tooling to learn which would drive system management or components were adapted (local changes and features). I was not interested in having to detour to learn another set of tools which are non-transferable between operating systems nor making use of derivatives before setting up the system how I needed it so that I could practice what I was studying, hence Viewpoint Linux strives to be innovationless in this regard.

Viewpoint currently lacks a framework to ease building the system hence everything has been built slowly by hand with a specific idea of how the system should be.

Some of those ideas are

  • It should work out of the box for texts in mind e.g full working stack traces for instrumenting with bpftrace and debugging using GDB
  • its concept of base system is a subset of the utilities installed by the LFS guide, containing general utilities for users and tools for administration. Components which are purely build dependencies are installed to a separate prefix (/osbt (os build tools)) so that they can be removed if desired. Everything else is satisfied from user installed packages which is currently provided by pkgsrc. Dependencies can grow out of hand, for example, dwarves has a cmake build dependency, dwarves provides the pahole utility which is used as a kernel build dependency to generate BTF but it’s also a useful utility for inspecting system data structures by itself. This was a grey area where I chose to include dwarves in base but to satisfy its build dependency (cmake) from external sources, in this case, the cmake project provides prebuilt binaries.
  • A repository (monorepo) of all components shipped. Not such a good idea because of fighting autotooled builds and timestamps, see Living with CVS in Autoconfiscated Projects. But it makes tracking changes in the distro easy which is more important for me.
  • It is safe to assume that I’ve run configure, make, make install a bunch of times with CFLAGS set to ‘-fno-omit-framepointer -g‘ or some variation of (such as you have to enable optimisation also for build glibc otherwise it fails).
  • Viewpoint is an inovationless distro, see previous point (there are no new methods or tooling on offering, just stock components from upstream built a certain way with differing flags)
  • Viewpoint uses systemd (I wondered what my own shit sandwich would taste like)
  • Mercurial for source repo (because one piece of Linusware at a time). There is a git mirror.
  • Primarily intended for use as a guest vm though it is possible to install on hardware, the distinction here is because nothing has been done to cater for differing hardware in the kernel config so manual intervention may be required to prep and get everything working e.g it booted fine on my ThinkPad x230 but I had no wifi. There is also no UEFI support currently, nor any additional firmware included.
  • Development of features to 3rd party components happen outside of the tree (because it’s inovationless)
  • Patches from LFS have not been applied, again because inovationless e.g their provided i18n patches to coreutils which are marked as rejected by upstream. The LFS guide states “In the past, many bugs were found in this patch. When reporting new bugs to Coreutils maintainers, please check first if they are reproducible without this patch.”
  • Versioning is going to be a sequencing number meaning nothing beyond an indication of a new release
  • Viewpoint doesn’t follow the FHS spec strictly & LSB at all. Perl & Python are not part of base (because I did not want to maintain them in base).
  • Currently intended to be used alongside Brendan Gregg‘s BPF Performance Tools book and Diomidis SpinellisEffective Debugging book for learning two different debugging workflows. Other texts are in mind for accomodation in the future. Would liked to have included DTrace but that currently requires running a fork of the kernel. While the fork is kept up to the date with upstream, as part of being inovationless, it is easier to swap components fresh from upstream and saves on having to eliminate another avenue where an issue could have been introduced when debugging problems.
Beware! Vendor Gratuitous Changes Ahead!

Source repository is currently 5.1GB (1.8GB .hg directory, 3.3GB of source), 1.8GB .hg/git conversion directory, so as you can tell, that’s a lot of value add 🙂 . On deciding whether to strip components down to the essential minimum I opted not to as running test suites is part of the LFS workflow when building things up and it would make CI integration easier. AMD Firmware included in Linux aside, the test suites from GCC and Binutils for example take up the most space in the repo.

Lots todo to smooth things over but some key features that I intend to work on to include in a future release

  • Build framework to automate the configure, make, make install routine and allow customisation with ease ala BSDs.
    There is a framework in LFS project called ALFS but I didn’t want to go down the literate programming route and maintain my own fork of the LFS guide (you feed it the XML source of the guide and it builds the distro from that).
  • Add ZFS support

Why the name?

  1. It is focused on observability
  2. It is opinionated
  3. I listened to a lot Alan Kay lectures (a nod to Viewpoints Research, ViewPoint OS from Xerox, though this distro is in no way a great feat in achievement)

Viewpoint is a variant of LFS distribution, registered on the Linux From Scratch Counter on 03/05/2021, ID: 28859, Name: Viewpoint Linux Distribution, First LFS Version: 10.0-systemd.

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The registered trademark Linux® is used pursuant to a sublicense from the Linux Foundation, the exclusive licensee of Linus Torvalds, owner of the mark on a world­wide basis.

One Reply to “Introducing the Viewpoint Linux Distribution”

  1. Why not just use Gentoo? A while there was an easy installer for Gentoo,
    Now it has morphed into its own commercial (gentoo) Linux.

    Do not use systemd.


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