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6.2 - Distro Day (Measuring the benefits of the Gentoo approach)

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Contributed by Indranath Neogy

A gallery of photos from the day can be found .. here
First of all, a big thankyou to Evolution Xtreme for the loan of the hardware and to Scott Middleton of Linux IT for all his help arranging the test.
Related stories:
  • Gentoo - Emerges
  • Distro Day II - Revisited

  • Scott gets the credit for thinking of this test. He said "We're constantly hearing how the source based nature of the Gentoo distro makes better use of your hardware, but no-one seems to have really tested it. What kind of gains are involved over distros which use binary packaging?" He arranged with Evolution Xtreme for the loan of 3 identical machines to test with.

    Creating the Test

    Obviously, the most direct way to test the compile time optimisations of Gentoo is to compile 3 Gentoo systems with different settings and then compare them. However, this really misses some of the story. Each distro has it's own attitude to the kernel and whilst it may be i386 or i586 compiled, it will have had some adjustments made to it. In reality, few people will be choosing to install Gentoo with less than recommended optimisations for their system. They are interested in a tradeoff between optimization and convenience. Thus, we aimed to compare Gentoo with an i386 based distro and an i586 based distro. With the assistance of some PLUG members we decided on Debian as the i386 candidate and Mandrake as the i586, in part as those were the options where people were available to do the install.

    The following tests were outlined:
  • Time to open a large sheet in Gnumeric.
  • Time to perform a kernel compile.
  • Time to perform "Duplicate Image" in Gimp.
  • Time to perform a heavy "Unsharp Mask" in Gimp.
  • Time to start OpenOffice "from scratch".
  • Time to reload OpenOffice.
  • User experience to be assessed by all present on the day, using Galeon, Evolution, OpenOffice.

    To make it easier to standardize for these tests we picked Gnome 2 as the Desktop Environment. This necessitated the use of the "Testing" flavour of Debian.


    The boxes from Evolution Xtreme had the following configuration:
    Celeron 2 GHz Processor
    256 MB DDR RAM
    SAMSUNG - SP4002H 40G HD
    MSI 6533E main board
    All SIS chipset
    lspci output:
    00:00.0 Host bridge: Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] SiS651 Host (rev02)
    00:01.0 PCI bridge: Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] SiS 530 Virtual PCI-to-PCI bridge (AGP)
    00:02.0 ISA bridge: Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] 85C503/5513 (rev25)
    00:02.5 IDE interface: Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] 5513 [IDE]
    00:02.7 Multimedia audio controller: Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS]
    SiS7012 PCI Audio Accelerator (rev a0)
    00:03.0 USB Controller: Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] SiS7001 USB Controller (rev 0f)
    00:03.1 USB Controller: Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] SiS7001 USB Controller (rev 0f)
    00:03.3 USB Controller: Silicon Integrated Systems [SiS] SiS7002 USB 2.0
    00:0f.0 Ethernet controller: Realtek Semiconductor Co., Ltd.
    RTL-8139/8139C/8139C+ (rev 10)


    The 8139 NIC used the 8139too driver in all installations.

    The Debian box was installed by Garry Buckle with aid from Matt Kemner. A standard Debian Testing setup was installed, but X was not persuaded to start with the stock SIS driver. As the stock kernel did not contain framebuffer support a new one (v2.4.21) was compiled to get video working. Upon testing with hdparm, it was apparent that this machine was having troubles setting above udma2. Eventually this problem was traced to the HD cable, a salutary lesson in the variability of identical hardware setups.

    The Gentoo setup by Bill Kenworthy was compiled using the "stock" kernel source and the "-march=pentium3 -pipe -O3" compile flags. hdparm was needed to get dma on the ide running, despite it being in the kernel, but "xfree --configure" worked for Bill using the stock SIS driver. (Apparently the first time the command has worked for him!) The Gentoo install suffered a couple of false starts due to a typo using grub and OpenOffice was still being compiled the night before the test. 11 hours later the OpenOffice compile was still going and we thus had to regretfully abandon that portion of the test.

    Garry's friend Joris (visiting from Belgium) put in the hard work on the Mandrake install, clicking "Yes" and "Next" like a pro to complete an impressively easy install. It defaulted to vesa framebuffer display, similar to the Debian install.

    The Tests

    Test 1 : Opening a 32,000 line sheet in Gnumeric.

    We began this test with the mindset of testing the default installs provided by each distribution.

    Round 1 Results :
    Debian Mandrake Gentoo
    32m 50s 8m 45s 39m 08s

    This was clearly bizarre. Debian and Gentoo both installed version 1.0.13 of Gnumeric, vs. Mandrake's choice of 1.0.12. We redid the test for Debian and Gentoo using Gnumeric 1.0.12.

    Round 2 Results :
    Debian Mandrake Gentoo
    7m 15s 8m 45s 11m 21s

    The first lesson of this test is that minor version numbers can apparently make a large difference. If you're using Gnumeric 1.0.13 with large sheets and waiting a while for them to open, it's probably worth investigating version 1.0.12.

    Test 2 : The Gimp

    Each installation had the same version of the Gimp, 1.2.3. The tile cache size was set to 96Mb on each machine.
    Rounds 1 and 2 involved a non-standard filter replicator-gimp12.scm, doing a 2x2 replication in the first round and a 4x4 in the second.
    Round 3 was an Unsharp Mask with settings of Radius 25, Amount 5 and Threshold 255.

    Debian Mandrake Gentoo
    Round 1 3.8s 3.8s 4.1s
    Round 2 1m 15s 1m 14s 1m 37s
    Round 3 1m 05s 52s 54s

    Test 3 : Kernel Compile

    The same 2.4.21 source was copied to all machines and compiled using the same options. However, it should be noted that the Debian system used gcc 3.3.1 whilst the Mandrake and Gentoo installations used gcc 3.3.2 .

    Debian Mandrake Gentoo
    7m 28s 7m 49s 9m 40s

    Test 4 : User Impressions

    Due to the pressures of time, the user impression portion of the test was not fully explored. The consensus of interaction with Gnome Terminal, Gnumeric and the Gimp suggested that there was little difference between the machines. The Gentoo machine seemed to draw a little slower than the others which perhaps indicates that the vesa framebuffer is a better choice than the SIS driver.


    A quite unexpected set of results. We fully expected much more significant variance between these Linux distros. We certainly expected Gentoo to lead the tests, which has not been the case.

    Suggestions for the disparity between the expected and actual results have included different Gentoo compile options, in particular -O2 rather than -O3 flags, however many people recommend -O3 for this kind of Celeron, so further experimentation may be in order. Likewise, the stock gentoo-sources kernel includes optimisations for interactive desktop usage but in our (limited) user impressions this benefit did not show through. A further test is proposed for future months involving P4 hardware and more time to compile and test which should provide further information.

    However, so far none of the distros appears to have a comprehensive performance advantage, in the end it seems Linux is Linux and you should pick the flavour that provides the most convenience for you.

    Thanks again to Scott, Matt, Bill, Garry, Joris and Evolution Xtreme.

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