Fancy climbing the peaks of Alpine Linux? 3.20 is out

Alpine Linux 3.20.0 is out, with initial support for a whole new CPU architecture: RISC-V.

It also includes KDE Plasma 6 and GNOME 46, and due to Redis changing its license, Alpine has the new Valkey key-value database in its place.

The Register has looked at several releases of Alpine in recent years: in 2021, when it dropped MIPS64 support; then, more recently, we reviewed version 3.16 in 2022, and version 3.18 last year. That release resolved a longstanding issue by adding support for DNS over TCP.

With the latest release, the distro supports eight different architectures: IBM Z mainframes and POWER servers (the latter in 64-bit little-endian form), 64-bit bit RISC-V, both 32-bit and 64-bit x86, and three forms of Arm hardware: Armhf, ARMv7, and Aarch64 (which between cover every Raspberry Pi from the Pi Zero and 1 up to the Pi 5, along with multiple other Arm single board computers.)

Alpine is a lightweight, minimalist distro, but an unusually flexible one. It supports three different installation types. In Diskless Mode, it loads into and runs entirely from RAM. If you want to add additional software or have changes persist across reboots, you must back them up to the boot media with the Alpine local backup command, lbu. In Data Disk Mode, it still runs from RAM, but it mounts a swap partition and the /var directory tree from partitions on a fixed disk. That makes it easier to have system state persist across reboots, and use configurations that don't fit entirely into memory. Finally, System Disk Mode is a traditional installation to disk: by default, it expects to take over the entire drive, but with a few extra steps you can do custom partitions or dual boot Alpine with other OSes.

There are quite a few minimalist distros out there, such as Tiny Core Linux which we looked at a few months ago. Alpine is rather more flexible: it can happily run on a router or some other embedded device, across multiple platforms, booting off a memory stick or card. Indeed, it has a meta-distro of its own in the form of postmarketOS for end-of-life smartphones, which recently adopted systemd to make it easier to support modern fondleslab GUIs.

To keep Alpine's size and resource usage down, it replaces a bunch of conventional tools from more mainstream heavyweight distros. It uses the OpenRC init system, the Musl C library instead of GNU libc, the SYSLINUX bootloader more commonly seen on live media, and BusyBox replaces the shell and multiple standard core tools and utilities.

Even so, Alpine is perfectly capable of working as a full desktop distro, and recent releases include some useful scripts to simplify installing a desktop: setup-desktop will install a complete desktop from you, from a short list: gnome, plasma, xfce, mate or sway. Other environments are available, and if you plan to install your own, setup-xorg-base configures the basics of a GUI.

Because so many typical default components have been replaced, in some ways Alpine doesn't feel entirely like a Linux distro any more. The Reg FOSS desk finds he has to look stuff up so often that it's more like using a new and unfamiliar BSD. This is no bad thing: in our book, challenging assumptions is a desirable attribute. A bug in Alpine 3.18's kernel 6.1 that prevented it from using all the RAM in our geriatric Vaio P is now resolved in the newer LTS kernel. In the interim, we've tried antiX Linux and Q4OS with Trinity on this sub-netbook, but both felt bloated and sluggish by comparison.

It's been a pleasure to return to the lean, mean Alpine Linux. In terms of how many manual steps you must take to get a full desktop up and running, it's akin to Arch Linux, and that's good: it's every bit as educational. However, the result is much slimmer and lighter: for example, there's no systemd. Also unlike Arch, there's an official, fully supported x86-32 edition, where its lightness really counts. Once fully installed, it has as few background processes running as OpenBSD - but with many more device drivers available, and more flexibility in general. It's worth a look. ®

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