The GoboLinux Way

Welcome to GoboLinux

The main task of a Linux distribution is to keep track of and organize the programs in your computer, so that they work properly. GoboLinux is no different from the others in this goal, but it adopts a fundamentally different approach in solving this problem. Instead of scattering the files of programs around, following the decades-old conventions of ancient UNIX systems, and then adding a layer of control (a “package manager”) to try to give order to chaos, in GoboLinux we organize the files that comprise the programs in an ordered way in the first place.

In GoboLinux, every program lives in its own subdirectory. Under the top level directory /Programs; e.g you’ll find Xorg 7.0 at /Programs/Xorg/7.0, and ping at /Programs/Netkit-Base/0.17/bin/ping. To see what programs are installed in the system, all you need to do is look in the /Programs directory:

ls /Programs

For each category of files, there is a directory under /System/Index grouping files from each application as symbolic links: bin, lib, libexec, include, share, and man. For compatibility, each “legacy” UNIX directory is a link to a corresponding category. Therefore, /bin, /sbin, /usr/bin, /usr/local/bin (and so on) are all symlinks to entries under /System/Index.

In short, what we have is a database-less package management system: the directory structure itself organizes the system. Wasn’t that its original purpose, after all? Each program directory (for example, /Programs/KDE) holds version directories (/Programs/KDE/3.4, /Programs/KDE/3.4.2), and a version-neutral directory for settings (/Programs/KDE/Settings), to keep files that would normally be in /etc. Keeping two or more versions of a library is trivial: upgrading LibPNG to 1.2.8 means adding /Programs/LibPNG/1.2.8, but does not automatically imply that LibPNG 1.2.7 is removed. This way, if a program depends on the previous version, it won’t break. As you can see, GoboLinux gives you a finer control of what is and isn’t in the system.

Historical tidbit: When most distributions switched to GCC 3 they released a new major version, mostly incompatible with previous ones. In contrast, when the 006 series of GoboLinux adopted GCC 3, compatibility was preserved by simply keeping old versions of libraries alongside the new ones, while they were gradually phased out. No “compat” packages were needed.

The “legacy” tree

Unfortunately, not all programs have the flexibility to be installed anywhere. Occasionally, hardcoded paths creep in even in programs that belong to userland, and should, at least theoretically, allow themselves to be installed inside, say, a user’s home directory.

As much as we’d like to see this done in the long term, patching all applications is not an option. For this reason, GoboLinux keeps, as stated earlier, a legacy tree where all usual Unix paths are mapped to GoboLinux equivalents. That way, if a Makefile looks for /usr/X11R6/include/X11/Xaw3d/XawInit.h, it will find it, although it is really at /Programs/Xaw3d/1.5/include/X11/Xaw3d/XawInit.h, where it belongs. When two applications have a directory entry with the same name, the GoboLinux scripts recursively expand them. Both Xorg and Xaw3d have X11 under include. A directory /System/Index/include/X11 is created automatically, holding links from both X11 directories.

Another interesting feature is that the GoboLinux scripts execute make install using a special user id that only has write permissions inside the program’s source directories and the program’s entry under /Programs. This way, files can’t “escape” from the GoboLinux hierarchy and slip a directory into the legacy tree.

A detail that might surprise you at first is that when you look at the root directory (with ls or graphical tools), you don’t see the legacy directories, even though you can cd into them. They are certainly there — they are just kept hidden using GoboHide, a kernel modification designed to conceal the legacy tree from the usual system view. (GoboHide is of course optional — GoboLinux works just as well using standard Linux kernels.)

Influences and roots

As you read this, you have probably found many familiar concepts (not to mention directory names). GoboLinux has clearly found inspiration in other operating systems, like NeXT, BeOS and AtheOS, but it was the notion that they build “something different” using an existing Unix base (be it using a BSD foundation as in macOS, or using GNU tools as in AtheOS) was the most important influence of all. There are several other projects, in various stages of development, that use the Linux kernel as a foundation and feature alternative directory trees. Interestingly, most of them are clones or heavily inspired by a specific proprietary operating system. (At different points in time, we’ve seen clones of RiscOS, NeXT, BeOS.)

GoboLinux, on the other hand, is not a clone of anything else. It uses standard Linux desktop software. We believe that the well-organized directory structure makes it a good testbed for new ideas — possibilities are wide open (see the forum and moreso the mailing list for discussions, and to a lesser extent the IRC channel #gobolinux on

Differences between GoboLinux and a traditional Linux system

What follows is not a thorough description of GoboLinux, but a quick cheat-sheet of facts that are good to know when you are getting acquainted to the system.

  • In the GoboLinux hierarchy, files are grouped by their functional category (executables, libraries, and so on). There are links at the classic directories you are used to (/bin, /usr/bin, and so on), but remember that they all point to the same place. This is a huge advantage, as it means, for example, that you’ll never have to search for a library throughout your filesystem again – it will always be in /lib (and in /usr/lib, because they point to the same place! – no worries about compatibility).

  • There are symbolic links relating most of the usual UNIX directories to the GoboLinux tree. Therefore, you will find directories such as /etc, /var/log and /usr/bin in the expected places. However, some directories, such as the users’ directories, didn’t need to be linked to their “legacy” locations. This way, for a given user called “joe”, you’ll have, instead of /home/joe, /Users/joe. Notice also that the superuser’s directory is no different than the ones from the other users, so, root’s directory is at /Users/root. Mount points are under /Mount, not /mnt.

  • Another major difference between GoboLinux and most Linux distributions is that it does not use a BSD nor a System V initialization procedure. Instead, it has its own. At /System/Settings/BootScripts you will find a few files that command the entire boot procedure: BootUp and Shutdown run at system boot and shutdown, respectively; you can define custom “runlevel” scripts to define different ways you want your system to be initialized (say, Single and Multi for single and multi-user, Graphical for boot into graphic mode, etc.) and control that from the boot loader menu. The /System/Settings/BootOptions file separate site-specific settings from the rest of the scripts. You can also find a library of application specific tasks at /System/Tasks that can be used during boot (those are installed by the apps).

For a better overview of how it looks and feels right, nothing beats giving the Live CD a spin. You’ll be running a full GoboLinux system without having to install anything. Just burn a CD-ROM and give it a go!