A eulogy to CrunchBang, the Linux distro that time passed by

linux penguin skeleton
Credit: Michael via Flickr/Creative Commons

The world of Linux distributions is far wider than you realize.

DistroWatch.com is currently tracking 287 active Linux distributions. That’s a lot, but not every Linux distribution is a massive project. For every Ubuntu or Fedora, there are many more hobbyist distributions created and run by one or two people. Sometimes they grow into their own large projects, like Linux Mint did. And sometimes a developer decides to pull the plug, as CrunchBang’s developer recently did.

Hobbyist Linux distribution developers face some of the same challenges hobbyist operating system developers face. But it’s easier to limp along when you have all that existing software to work with rather than having to write a complete operating system from scratch.

You—yes, you—can make your own Linux distro

Linux distributions are largely open-source, which is a boon to hobbyists. It's (comparatively) simple to get your own Linux variant up and running if you know what you're doing.

Unlike with Windows, you can take your favorite Linux distribution, make some changes, and release that as your own Linux distribution. Maybe you like Ubuntu, but you wish it had a different desktop environment by default, came with different software, and had a different theme. Make those changes, slap on a new name, and BAM! You now have your own Linux distribution.

You may even want to run your own package repositories, which you can. Heck, Ubuntu gets lots of its packages by importing them straight from Debian. You could do the same. Linux Mint uses Ubuntu’s package repositories too, but it adds some of its own software and sets up the system to update in a different way.

Throw together a website—or just put up a BitTorrent file with your Linux distribution’s ISO image—and you’re in business.

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Now, I don’t mean to say this is completely easy, as it’s certainly a lot of work. But it’s possible and is within reach for a hobbyist to take all that existing stuff and make their own Linux distribution. That’s just not possible with Windows.

But with so many offshoot distributions out there, many maintained by small hobbyist teams and devoted to very specialized use cases, some are destined to die. Even beloved small distros can become less needed as years pass. Recent events drove that home.

The CrunchBang story

CrunchBang’s developer recently called it quits.

CrunchBang was a long-lived Debian-based Linux distribution—originally based on Ubuntu—designed to provide a lightweight desktop operating system with the OpenBox desktop environment installed and configured by default.

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CrunchBang Linux.

Essentially, CrunchBang is a special installer disc that primarily uses Debian’s packages. CrunchBang also offers its own software repository, which includes customized versions of certain packages that are “pinned” so new versions from Debian can’t overwrite them. As a derivative of Debian, CrunchBang made more sense when it was harder to install lightweight desktop environments like LXDE on Debian, and when distros like the official Lubuntu derivative of Ubuntu—which also uses the lightweight LXDE desktop—weren’t available.

In a post titled “The end.” on the project’s forums, CrunchBang developer Philip Newborough acknowledged how different the Linux landscape had become in the last ten years and how there were so many other lightweight Linux distributions to choose from. As he wrote:

“I’m leaving it behind because I honestly believe that it no longer holds any value, and whilst I could hold on to it for sentimental reasons, I don’t believe that would be in the best interest of its users, who would benefit from using vanilla Debian.”

In the end, hobbyist Linux distributions are created to scratch an itch. Developers may eventually find that itch has been solved elsewhere, or may not want to put the long hours into scratching it anymore. CrunchBang no doubt has users who use and love it, even today—but the end of CrunchBang doesn’t have to be sad. CrunchBang’s developer now believes the larger Linux ecosystem has improved so much that CrunchBang is no longer necessary.

That’s good news for everyone, including Newborough, who now gets to spend his valuable time on something else. Thanks for a killer run, Philip.

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