Switching to Fedora Silverblue

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For the last 10 years or so, Arch Linux has been my Linux distribution of choice. The early years were a bit rough, and the process of moving to systemd wasn't without its challenges either, though the experience has improved dramatically since then. In spite of these improvements, certain issues persisted, such as having to manually perform update related steps every now and then, fixing broken packages after an update, updating packages in a particular order (e.g. archlinux-keyring requiring an update before you can update other packages), and more.

Arch being a rolling release distribution also means that you're not supposed to install a new package without first updating your existing packages (at least for libraries). That is, sudo pacman -S some-package may lead to problems, so it's recommended to use sudo pacman -Syu some-package instead (see this section for more details). It's not a deal breaker, but it's yet another thing to keep in mind.

Perhaps the most annoying part is that package updates aren't tested all that well, if at all; or at least it feels that way. Linux kernel updates in particular had a tendency to cause issues on my laptop. I remember one particular instance where a bug in the Intel drivers (or something in the kernel itself, I can't quite remember) resulted in weird screen flickering/artifacts, requiring a rollback to a previous kernel version. Pinning packages using IgnorePkg was the usual workaround, but it's not a suitable long-term solution as updated packages may not work with older versions of the packages you're ignoring/pinning.

Long story short, over the years I realised I care more for a reliable and easy (or easier) to use distribution, instead of a distribution that gives you maximum control.

This is where Fedora comes in, and specifically Fedora Silverblue. Fedora has been around for years, and I've been keeping my eyes on it for a while. A while back I built a tiny computer to run some home automation software, and I decided to use Fedora Server for it. This gave me the chance to try Fedora without it getting in the way.

I ended up enjoying this enough that I decided to move my Linux installations to Fedora. As I mainly work on my desktop (still running Arch Linux at the time of writing), I decided to migrate my laptop first. I decided to go with Silverblue as I like the idea of an immutable desktop and the ability to roll back updates without leaving behind a dirty state.

The first step was to do some research into potential issues I might encounter. Through this I found a few potential issues/challenges to deal with:

Having determined these issues had workarounds that I could live with, I proceeded with the installation process. The installation process itself was easy and ran without any issues, discussed below in no particular order.

After the installation finished I applied the necessary workarounds/fixes for the above issues, such as disabling systemd-oomd. Unfortunately, this is where I ran into some new and unexpected problems, though not all are exclusive to Silverblue.

Getting my keyboard layout to work

For my desktop I use a split keyboard that uses the Colemak Mod-DH ortholinear layout. On my laptop I use the same layout, through combination of a custom xkb keyboard layout and remapping the keycaps on my keyboard:

Laptop keyboard

While the xkb project includes support for the Colemak Mod-DH layout, it only supports the variant where the bottom-left keys are XCDVZ, whereas the ortholinear version uses ZXCDV. I don't quite remember why the ZXCDV version isn't included, but I recall the reason being along the lines of "the XCDVZ layout is better for staggered keyboards". I guess I'm the only person wanting to use the same layout everywhere? Either way, my solution was to create a custom layout and be done with it.

For the Arch installation I just created the necessary files (based on this article) in the right place. I then performed the necessary magical incantations (which I of course couldn't remember) to get this working everywhere.

For Silverblue I started off with the same setup, placing the files in ~/.config/xkb instead of placing them in /usr/share/X11/xkb. While GNOME picked up the files just fine, I couldn't get this to work for the LUKS unlock screen or when using a console/TTY started using Alt and a function key. I also wasn't able to get GDM to use the layout. Placing the files in /usr/share wasn't an option either, as it's read-only on Silverblue.

Getting this to work took an entire evening, and required a few distinct steps. First, I build an RPM package to move these files into the right place in /usr/share. I then used rpm-ostree to layer the package onto the base image.

To get the console working I set KEYMAP in /etc/vconsole.conf to colemak_dh_ortho. The default initramfs of Silverblue ignores changes to this file, so to get this working I had to run rpm-ostree initramfs --enable. This enables regenerating of the initramfs every time you create a new rpm-ostree deployment, ensuring the necessary files are part of the initramfs. The downside is that commands such as rpm-ostree install and rpm-ostree update take quite a bit longer to finish. I also added vconsole.keymap=colemak_dh_ortho to my kernel arguments for good measure, but I'm not sure this is necessary.

The final piece of the puzzle was to get GDM working, which for some reason just refused to use this layout. I'm still not sure what exactly solved it, but I think it was running gsettings set org.gnome.libgnomekbd.keyboard layouts '["colemak_dh_ortho","us"]' followed by another reboot.

And all that took was well over six hours.

Getting rid of GNOME Software

GNOME software is the primary way of installing software through a GUI on Fedora. I ran into two issues with it, though both are not that big of a deal.

First, it's quite clunky to use when it comes to uninstalling software: when you remove a program, the list of installed programs is refreshed a few seconds after the removal finishes, showing a spinner while doing so. This made removing multiple programs a pain, as the spinner would typically show up just as I was about to click on the "remove" button of the next program I wanted to remove.

The second problem is that GNOME Software leaks memory like a sieve, and after several hours of using my laptop (I wasn't even using GNOME Software during that time) I found it had eaten up close to 1 GiB of memory.

grug tired of software leak memory. grug want reach for club, but grug remember easier just remove GNOME software and use terminal, so grug run rpm-ostree remove gnome-software gnome-software-rpm-ostree. Memory leak not worth grug's time and energy.

rpm-ostree and dnf are slow

DNF being slow is well known in the Fedora community. While DNF5 is supposed to improve this, I'll believe it when I see it. For me the process of installing and removing packages is fast enough, but refreshing mirror/package metadata is frustratingly slow.

What I didn't expect is for rpm-ostree to also be as slow as a snail. While you can stage updates in the background and will do most of your package related work in a container, you still have to interact with rpm-ostree every now and then. Coming from Arch Linux where pacman is super fast, the experience leaves a lot to be desired. To illustrate, for this article I ran rpm-ostree update and it took just over two minutes to upgrade a mere two packages. Of course I'm aware rpm-ostree does more than just upgrading two packages, but I'm not convinced this can't be done any faster.

Building packages for Fedora is frustrating

A few packages I needed were missing: Lua language server, Stylua, the Source Code Pro fonts with support for Nerd Fonts, neovim-gtk, and an up-to-date ruby-install.

Wanting to do the right thing I decided to read up on creating RPM packages and setting up a copr repository; something I had to do for my keyboard layout anyway. The experience was deeply frustrating: documentation on RPM packages is scattered across different websites, some new and some ancient. These websites also manage to somehow present you a ton of text, but not actually explain anything useful at all.

The following is a brief rant on RPM packaging. If you're not interested in reading it, the summary is this:

The process of building an RPM is confusing and frustrating, especially compared to how easy it's to build a package for Arch Linux. This only affects those actually interested in building packages.

To illustrate how frustrating this process is: through reading some tutorials I came across the RPM %package macro, but finding out what it did was near impossible. If you search for "RPM package macro" on Google, the first result points to this page that doesn't mention the macro at all. The second result doesn't mention it either. In fact, none of the results seem to mention this macro, and searching for "RPM %package macro" doesn't work either as the % is ignored. At some point I found this page which briefly mentions what it does, but to do that I had to:

  1. Go to https://rpm.org/index.html
  2. Click on "Documentation" and end up at https://rpm.org/documentation.html
  3. Click on "RPM Reference Manual" and end up at https://rpm-software-management.github.io/rpm/manual/
  4. Click on "Spec Syntax" and end up at https://rpm-software-management.github.io/rpm/manual/spec.html
  5. Search for %package on the page

While this may seem like a weirdly specific issue to mention, I ran into issues like this constantly while trying to figure out what the idiomatic/modern way is of building an RPM.

Of course it gets worse. What would make sense is having just one tool to build a package, and maybe a separate tool to upload it to copr and start a build. Of course there isn't just one tool: this is Linux where people disagree on just about everything.

Building RPM packages involves two low-level programs: spectool and rpmbuild. spectool is used for just listing and downloading sources from an RPM .spec file, which describes how to build a package. Of course in typical Linux fashion it only downloads external sources, so if you list a local file as a source (e.g. an icon to install), you'll need to move them into the right place yourself. rpmbuild only concerns itself with building a package, and straight up ignores any sources listed in your spec file.

Of course people using these tools realised this isn't nice and decided to fix it by unifying the two into one program that everybody uses. Right? No, of course not, that would make too much sense.

First we have rpkg-util which builds upon the two mentioned tools and adds some templating capabilities. It's the default build strategy for copr when building from a VCS repository, so you'd think it's the way to build a package. But of course it's no longer maintained per their README, and looking at existing packages on copr it seems it's not used a lot. Oh and it also spits out the most useless error messages I've ever seen, such as this:

$ rpkg local --spec ~/path/to/spec/outside/of/the/current/dir
git_dir_version failed with value 1

Then there's tito, which tries to do a whole bunch of things related to packaging and releasing, but somehow doesn't actually make the process easier. It's default output is incredibly verbose and makes debugging build errors near impossible, it doesn't handle patch files, and its documentation is sorely lacking. Similar to rpkg-util I also wasn't able to find any big projects that use it, even though tito has been around for over a decade.

For the record, I understand how one ends up with a situation like this, and I have nothing against the people working on these tools, but having gone through this process I think I now understand why RPM packages are less commonly available compared to those for other distributions.

As for my own packages, I resorted to using spectool and rpmbuild directly through a Makefile. For example, for lua-language-server I use the following Makefile:

SPEC := lua-language-server.spec
TOP := ${PWD}/build

	rm -rf build
	spectool --define "_topdir ${TOP}" -gR ${SPEC}
	cp -p sources/* build/SOURCES/

srpm: prepare
	rpmbuild --define "_topdir ${TOP}" -bs ${SPEC}

rpm: prepare
	rpmbuild --define "_topdir ${TOP}" -bb ${SPEC}

	rm -rf build

.PHONY: srpm prepare rpm

The --define flags are there so the RPM files and directories end up in ./build instead of in your home directory. This way you can build multiple packages without their source files potentially conflicting.

To publish a new package I then update the .spec file by hand (e.g. adjusting the version), run make srpm, followed by copr build lua-language-server path/to/the/built/srpm. It's not too bad, but it's still worse than just running makepkg -s on Arch Linux. If you're looking into building a package for Fedora, I'd suggest doing something similar to the above and just avoid rpkg-util and tito entirely unless you are certain you need these tools.

SELinux can be frustrating

Before installing Silverblue I made a backup of my TLP configuration. While Fedora ships with power-profiles-daemon, I've read a little too much about it not doing much more than just throttling your CPU, so I decided to stick with TLP. After all, TLP works fine so why bother replacing it. I installed TLP, replaced the default /etc/tlp.conf configuration file with my own, and reset its ownership to root:root. When I tried to start TLP using sudo systemctl start tlp, it failed. Of course when I ran it manually it worked just fine.

After a while I found out this was a SELinux problem, probably due to certain SELinux settings/permissions getting lost when I replaced the default file. To fix this I ran sudo fixfiles restore /etc/tlp.conf, after which TLP started up without issue.

While SELinux does log when there are errors (assuming you even remember that it does and where they're stored), the logs themselves aren't helpful. For example:

type=AVC msg=audit(1677382357.686:651): avc:  denied  { read } for
pid=16822 comm="tlp-readconfs" name="tlp.conf" dev="dm-0" ino=533021
tcontext=system_u:object_r:dosfs_t:s0 tclass=file permissive=0

While this log line includes a ton of information, it does nothing to help me understand what I need to do to fix the actual problem.

Fonts issues with Firefox

While using the Firefox Flatpak, I noticed the text was a little fuzzy and hard to read. Upon closer inspection I noticed it was applying subpixel rendering, even though this is turned off system-wide (as it should be). I found out this is due to Flatpak not allowing access to $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/fontconfig, which seems to result in Firefox (incorrectly) guessing what to do.

The solution is to use Flatseal to give Firefox access to the xdg-config/fontconfig:ro filesystem subset, then restart Firefox.

Locale errors when using Distrobox

I'm using Distrobox instead of Toolbox, though this issue may also apply to Toolbox: when running certain commands in the container, I was getting a "Failed to set locale, defaulting to C.UTF-8" error. Per this issue the fix is to run sudo dnf install glibc-langpack-en in your container, changing the package name according to the language you are using.

What went well, and some tips

There may have been more issues I ran into, but these are the ones I can remember. Most of these are specific to my setup though. For example, if you use a QWERTY keyboard then getting started is easier. The cost of figuring out how to build an RPM package is a one-time cost, and wouldn't apply to most users of Silverblue. In fact, I suspect most users would only run into the Firefox font problem, the Distrobox locale errors (assuming they're using Distrobox in the first place), and the slowness of rpm-ostree and DNF.

Apart from these issues, I'm enjoying Silverblue so far. I also like how the immutable nature of Silverblue forces you to rethink certain workflows or decisions, such as building a proper (reusable) package instead of just dumping some files in /usr or /etc, or using containers more actively. Not having to worry about updates breaking your system (or at least not as easily as on Arch Linux) is of course also great.

As far as tips and tricks go, there are a few that I can recommend.

Put the container name in your prompt

Because you'll be using containers when using Silverblue (at least when using the terminal), I recommend putting the name of the current container in your shell prompt. I use Fish and have my prompt configured as follows:

function fish_prompt
    if [ $PWD = $HOME ]
        set directory '~'
        set directory (basename $PWD)

    if test -n "$CONTAINER_ID"
        echo -n "[$CONTAINER_ID] "

    set_color $fish_color_cwd
    echo -n $directory
    set_color normal
    echo -n " \$ "

Outside a container this results in a prompt like this:

Downloads $ input-here

And inside a container:

[fedora] Downloads $ input-here

Use GNOME terminal profiles for your containers

Distrobox can create .desktop files for your containers, making it easier to start/enter them. If you open a new tab in that terminal it will open the tab in the default shell, not in the container; at least when using GNOME terminal. To work around this I adjusted the generated .desktop file to instead start GNOME terminal with a dedicated profile like so:

[Desktop Entry]
GenericName=Terminal entering Fedora
Comment=Terminal entering Fedora
Exec=gnome-terminal --profile Fedora -- /usr/bin/distrobox enter --no-workdir fedora

Here --profile Fedora specifies the GNOME terminal profile to use. The --no-workdir option ensures the new terminal process always starts in the container's home directory.

The GNOME terminal profile in turn is configured as follows:

This way opening new tabs results in them entering the container, while preserving the working directory of the previous tab.

Give your containers a custom home directory

This isn't necessary if you only intend to use a single container, but if you use multiple containers it's a must: when creating a container using Distrobox, the --home flag is used to specify a custom home directory. This way the container won't pollute your actual home directory, and two different containers using the same files in your home directory won't conflict. For example:

mkdir $HOME/homes
distrobox create --name fedora --image fedora:latest --home $HOME/homes/fedora

This creates a new container called "fedora" with its home directory set to ~/homes/fedora.

Inside the container you still have access to the real home directory. As all my projects are in ~/Projects (in my real home directory), I created a symbolic link to this folder from the container's home directory (running this inside the container):

ln -s /var/home/yorickpeterse/Projects $HOME/Projects

This way inside the container's home directory I can just run cd Projects, instead of cd ../../Projects.

Automatically stage rpm-ostree updates

I'm not sure how well this works if you still have GNOME Software installed (or if it's even necessary), but I have rpm-ostree set up to automatically stage updates. This is done in two steps:

  1. Add AutomaticUpdatePolicy=stage to /etc/rpm-ostreed.conf under the [Daemon] section.
  2. Run sudo systemctl reload rpm-ostreed followed by sudo systemctl enable --now rpm-ostreed-automatic.timer.

You can then verify if it's enabled by running rpm-ostree status. If enabled you should see a message at the top along the lines of:

AutomaticUpdates: stage; rpm-ostreed-automatic.timer: last run 24h ago

Layer adw-gtk3

GTK3 applications look different from GTK4 applications, which is annoying. We can fix this by using the adw-gtk3 project as follows:

  1. Run sudo wget -P /etc/yum.repos.d/ https://copr.fedorainfracloud.org/coprs/nickavem/adw-gtk3/repo/fedora-37/nickavem-adw-gtk3-fedora-37.repo.
  2. Run rpm-ostree install gnome-tweaks adw-gtk3 --apply-live.
  3. Open Tweaks and go to "Appearance", then under "Legacy Applications" choose "Adw-gtk3". If the theme isn't listed there try rebooting first.


To conclude, I like Silverblue, in spite of the issues I ran into. In the coming weeks I'll also move my desktop over to Silverblue, and at some point in the future I'll also move my Windows gaming desktop to Silverblue. Most of my issues are specific to my setup and probably won't apply to most users, though I wouldn't recommend Silverblue to those not familiar with a terminal just yet; at least not until GNOME Software is less clunky and stops hogging memory.