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Debian Overview


When OS/2 Warp came out I really wanted to try it. I was in grade ten at the time, so I guess it should have been a premonition of things to come. Sadly (maybe) my father wouldn't let me try it, as we only had one computer at the time, and we all needed to get "real work" done. Well, looking back I guess it wasn't a bad thing, but ever since then I've wanted to try every OS I can get my hands on.

Now I'm in my fourth year of Computer Science at Carleton U, and as you can see I'm still searching for that perfect OS. Well, I believe I nay have found it..

A bit of a disclaimer first: I'm a staunch advocate of Free Software, Open Source, and Unix in general. As you'll see by my criteria grid later in this review, I've been using Linux for several years now, and my tastes have become decidedly biased in that regard. It should also be said that I am a great fan of the BSD OSs also. In fact, the server that you're reading this from is using FreeBSD 4.0.

Okay, enough of the introductions, on to why Debian GNU/Linux seems to be my OS of choice - at least for the time being.

So what makes Debian so wonderful? There are a plethora of reasons that I will outline in full. Briefly, it's very fast, can be very stable, very current, has a strong community backing, ...

First an overview of Debian. There are typically two versions being developed and supported at a given time: The stable and unstable branch. When a new stable version is being worked on a third testing branch emerges. It's a snapshot of the unstable branch that is then stabilized and released as the next stable release. The stable releases of Debian come out just under once a year. They are famously stable. When a version is releases as stable it is only further developed with respect to bug and security patches. Every once in a while a new stable revision number is released not unlike Service Packs in Windows land.

The unstable branch of Debian is a different beast completely. It is pretty much developed continuously with updates to a given package often occurring several times a day. Occasionally when large packages are given a significant update the distribution is actually unstable, but most of the time it's about as stable as other Linux distributions I've tried. This continual development style is absolutely fantastic for people (like me) who like to stay up to date with all of their favourite Linux applications.

I'd also like to note that Debian is available on more platforms than any other Linux distribution. There are versions for x86, Alpha, Sparc, Mac and more. Also, the Debian team is working closely with the FSF to release a Debian GNU/Hurd release if the Hurd kernel ever develops into a usable system. So, people familiar with Debian get a consistent distribution across all of the architectures they will be using with Linux.

APT - The name really says it all

Hands down, apt is the single biggest reason that Debian GNU/Linux stands out as such a dream to administer. What apt is is a package management tool that retrieves packages from given locations (either on CD, FTP, HTTP etc.) and installs them on to your machine. While this doesn't sound revolutionary trust me it is. If you want to upgrade from a stable version of Debian to the unstable version all you have to do is edit one file (/etc/apt/sources.list) and change all references of stable to unstable, then type the following:
apt-get update && apt-get dist upgrade

Then you can sit back as all of the newest versions of the installed applications are downloaded (with dependencies of course) and installed/configured on your machine.

Want to make sure that you have the newest version of a given package:

apt-get update && apt-get install 

and you're done. Want to install a cool program that you've read about:

apt-get update && apt-get install  

and you're done. With over 4300 packages available at the time of writing, the chances of a program you want being available is excellent.

Debian's Apt program and the 800+ developer base make it a dream to administer. More work is involved to initially set it up, which is why I wouldn't recommend it to a new user, but Debian GNU/Linux offers the closes thing to OS nirvana that I've found. Because it takes a less-is-more approach, the distribution is quite small by default. This is because it installs far fewer packages, leaving this task up to the administrator. This also means that you don't get many useless servers running all the time. This translates directly into a system that boots much faster than say Mandrake, Red Hat or SuSE, is less prone to security problems, and is also noticeably faster to use than any of the aforementioned distributions.

All major Linux distributions have their place. Mandrake offers the best assortment of new-user tools, great default setup options and is great for the end-user experience. Red Hat seems to be going after Corporate America, while SuSE caters to the European market. Debian caters to long-term Linux users who don't get fussed up about all of the latest bells and whistles.

The installation is trickier than most other distributions, they offer less hand-holding end-user applications, and Debian has a decidedly anti-business approach (as they only allow OSI-certified programs into their distribution.) Despite this, indeed perhaps because of this, it is an awesome system. I honestly believe that I'll be sticking with it for some time to come. I started out with Red Hat 4.2, then 5.0, then SuSE for a while. Eventually I tried Mandrake and stuck with it pretty much consistently from 5.3 to 7.1. Well, I've been running Debian GNU/Linux on my main workstation for a year now. That's the longest that I've run a single installation of Linux on my main machine in over three years. Why? I'm happy with it. I have a very fast system that is current all of the time.

Another interesting aspect of Debian is the community that supports it. Linux is renowned for its community, and large portions of this community are either Debian developers, advocates or have cut their teeth on Debian GNU/Linux. As it's the distribution sanctioned/supported by the FSF it has a strong following from this group. The flip side to the FSF backing is that absolutely no non-free packages (such as Netscape) are available to Debian by default. This is getting to be much less of an issue with excellent applications such as KDE, GNOME, OpenOffice and Mozilla providing most of what you need to run a system.

I've got 3D licked, good TrueType font support in X, KDE 2's current builds are updated once a week or so, as is Ximian's newest Gnome release. All of the applications that I care about are released for Debian practically on the same day that they become widely available. While I wouldn't recommend Debian to a new user (Mandrake is great for that) for anyone serious about Linux it's the only way to fly.

Quick Summary of good points:

  • Apt
  • Fast
  • A world-wide mirror setup, providing very high bandwidth
  • Only install what you want
  • Easily maintainable
  • Multiple architectures supported
  • Suitable for server and workstation
  • Usually feels and works like a coherent release
  • Great Community
  • Great Support
  • Speed of new packages (in the unstable branch)
  • Great stability and consistency (in the stable branch)
  • Quick to boot

Things that make it tricky for new users:

  • Bare-bones install
  • Stable branch is updated slowly, unstable branch can be a bit rough
  • Non-free applications are not available at initial install time, so no Netscape 4.x
  • If you ask a newbie question on a Debian developers list you'd better have thick skin
  • Though GUI tools exist, package management is fastest/best using a console
  • Some of the wording in the manuals and package maintenance could be confusing

Why Commercial Debian?

As I have mentioned in my Debian overview, I think that it is about the best OS/distribution out there for my tastes. One of the defining things about it is that Debian very strictly follows the philosophy of the Free Software Foundation. This is great, and is certainly needed. However, an interesting part of Debian being so community-driven and true to its heritage is that it opens the opportunity to commercial distributions based on Debian. I feel that this is far truer for Debian than other key distributions, such as Red Hat. Why should commercial distributions of Debian exist? Let me explain...

I have been a Linux user since 1997. In this time I've run the gamut, bouncing from distribution to distribution. For the last year and a half I've stuck with Debian. Why? It's stable, fast, light, well integrated and, if you use Testing, Sid or Ximian with Potato, very up to date. After getting used to Debian's quirks there's no going back for me. I played with RH7.2 lately, but I miss being able to decide that I need a new compiler and then being able to apt-get it.

Okay, so why a commercial Debian? For convenience. While the following is geared particularly at Libranet GNU/Linux it applies equally to just about any other commercial Debian variant. Libranet adds a really nice adminmenu that consolidates pretty much every aspect of system management, from kernel compilation to X setup, to adding new users, changing your clock or setting up a DSL connection. It's all there in one spot. In addition, the setup is a little simpler than Debian's. Personally, I don't have a huge problem With the Debian installer. What it lacks in looks and polish it more than makes up for in flexibility. It's a great base installer. What Libranet has done is slightly massage it, rather than completely replacing it. This makes the parts that normally trip up new users go away, but still retains much of the underlying flexibility.

Another reason for Libranet is the initial package selection. If you're new to Linux, Debian can be a little... stark. Libranet bundles packages into sections and asks you easy questions like: Do you need a web server? Or, Should I install Office Suites. It's a little thing, but it's nice.

Then there's their support. The small knowledge base succinctly answers 90% of all new questions. Things like "How do I set up ADSL?" or "How do I share my internet connection?" are there, with very simple step-by-step guides on how to accomplish each task. If you need to ask them a question they will get back to you pretty much within a day. It's a small operation (about 6 people, I think.) and they have a nice personal touch.

Finally, at least with 1.9.1, they have kept a solid base (Potato) and added to it. They added reiserfs support, Kernel 2.4, XFree86 4.x, KDE 2.1, and Ximian Gnome. All of this can be done with pure Debian Potato, but it means understanding apt, searching out unofficial apt lines, manually configuring or even compiling packages. Libranet took this all away.

In short, Libranet is important because it takes away the annoying details.

Pure Debian most definitely has it's place. I use it on a laptop with an old video card and no CD-ROM, and have used it for an Alpha and NetWinder that I own. However, for end users who either don't want to learn what each package does or who want to save a bunch of time by letting someone else make some pretty safe assumptions, a commercial Debian distro such as Libranet is the way to go.