The Debian 2.0 Distribution

I've been a long time devotee of Red Hat Linux, but the Debian distribution may have won me over. I recently ordered and installed the ``Hamm'' release of Debian (pronounced like ``Deb'' from Debby and ``Ian'' from the boy's name) on a number of my machines, including this laptop I'm running. This distribution is named after Debbie and Ian Murdoch, the founders of the project. I'll share some of my findings about this unusually solid Linux distribution.

Misconceptions

I've noticed several errors other journalists have made in referring to Debian when comparing it to other distributions. One article I read, for example, said there was no packaging system comparable to RPM, Red Hat's package management system. Well, Debian has an extremely solid package management system called ``dpkg.'' It tracks dependencies, builds and installs sources and binary packages from sources just as easily as RPM, if not easier in some respects.

Further, I've read other articles that give the impression Debian is a ``hacker's distribution'' and is less polished than either Red Hat or Caldera. Well, I'm not sure what they mean, because I think Debian excels in both technical robustness as well as aestheticly pleasing desktops and interfaces.

One thing I've noticed about Red Hat, for example, was that many of their packages leave it up to the user to configure and tweak the package to their taste. However, many new users don't know how to connect to the Internet let alone configure Sendmail as a mail gateway. The RH installations of the FVWM window manager installations left a lot to be desired, I felt, while Debian's refined configuration of the desktop interface surprised me. Though it didn't look as polished as Caldera's default ``Looking Glass'' desktop, it was more functional and ready to use in my view.

Debian takes the approach of using setup scripts that ask you questions during the install process of each package. If the installation detects a previous configuration file, it asks you if you want to keep the old one, wait to decide, or use the developers configuration files. RHL just copies the original to a filename.orig backup and overwrites you existing configuration by default. Additionally, Debian doesn't install as many packages by default as RHL does. So, you don't have as many security holes that stem from turning off services that you don't use with a Red Hat system. The Debian installation checks that the major services are installed and configured, but extra services, like NIS, INND, SMB, NFS, and so forth, are not installed unless you explicitly request for them to be. Consequently, you don't have to go back and figure out now to close up the holes they would leave.

Dselect and Deity

Well, I guess it's a bone to pick. Debian uses a program called ``dselect'' as a front end, or a user-interface, to dpkg, their package management system. This is perhaps the most difficult part about using Debian. I think it's the single biggest drawback for new users choosing Red Hat over Debian.

Dselect is a text oriented interface. In the beginning when there were relatively few Debian packages (with the *.deb suffix, like RPMs which have the *.rpm suffix), it made sense to use the particular line oriented interface that dselect uses. But now, with so many many *.deb packages that go into a single installation, dselect is a pain in the buttox to use. Once you get used to it, it's tolerable. Barely. But for a newbie trying to select packages through such a cumbersome tool is very trying. I haven't tried apt yet, which is another package management interface to dpkg with a more automated approach. It's the current version of what will become Deity. It looks very promising.

Deity is truly phenominal looking. I think this product will blow away competing package management front ends. It looks awesome. I saw some screenshots somewhere, but I just spent 30 minutes looking, and I couldn't find them again. Trust me; it's great!

Bo, Hamm, Slink?

What about those crazy distribution names, huh? Bruce Perens, who was until recently the leader of SPI (Software in the Public Interest), the non-profit corporation that handles all of Debian's assets, works at Pixar, the graphics company who did the animation for ``Toy Story.'' This Disney blockbuster, was very popular, and Bruce and the rest of Pixar were understandably proud. You'll notice that all the distribution release code names are from characters in that movie.

Debian's Mission.

Basically, Debian is the non-commercial Linux distribution. It's free software for the purist, I guess you could say. The standard distribution doesn't include any software that isn't ``free'' in the sense of being open source and copylefted. You won't find normal ``freeware'' licensed software like XV or Pine. Those are available for download in *.deb's though, but you'll find them in the ``non-free'' directory of the ftp site. They'll work just fine along side totally free software, but the Debian philosophy tends to follow Richard Stallman's personal philosophy how software should be all free and open. It's ``environmentally correct'' software.

Debian software is also ``free'' in the purest sense of the word: see www.debian.org/intro/free. You can normally acquire a Debian Linux distribution for around $5 per CD-ROM. You get as much or more on it as you would from any commercial Linux CD. Debian is a non-profit organization. You should check out the Debian Social Contract at www.debian.org/social_contract.

The Debian distribution is probably the closest Linux distribution to the GNU organization and the Free Software Foundation. In fact, the official distribution name is ``Debian GNU Linux.'' Richard Stallman maintains that all Linux is GNU Linux because Linux is just the kernel, while GNU software comprises most of the rest of any Linux distribution. He's got a point.

What Floored Me.

Normally when you upgrade your Linux distribution you can expect a few bumps and jiggles along the way, to say the least. Especially when you severely customize your computer and environment. Much of that customization and personal preference can get mangled during an upgrade process. I had a very pleasant experience with Debian.

Debian and Red Hat are the only two distributions that offer GNU C libraries standard in their distributions. Glibc is a rewrite of the standard C libraries called ``libc5,'' while the new libraries are sometimes called ``libc6.'' This upgrade constituted a major upgrade for people who made it. Red Hat released RHL 5.0 just a little too early, it turned out, and the upgrade process from RHL 4.2 to 5.0 was rather painful for many people who made the jump in the beginning. Several system components were found to be incompatible at large, and RHL took a black eye for this.

Debian waited a little longer, learning from RH's ``mistakes,'' and tested and retested a few months longer than Red Hat did before they released a glibc upgrade for their distribution. As a consequence, the upgrade script that I ran on my Bo (libc5-based) system was almost entirely painless in upgrading my system to the new libraries.

There was a definite sequence in which packages had to be removed and upgraded so as to allow a normal distribution upgrade to take place. Once deviation to this system, and you could wind up with a completely unusable computer that you would be faced with reinstalling from scratch. But one of the three methods I chose worked great. There were actually three methods I could have chosen to upgrade, and I chose one called a ``autoup.sh'' script. Worked mostly like a champ.

There was one package status file in /var/lib/dpkg/methods/ftp/debian somewhere that got munged, and I had to take a leap of faith and delete it and rename another file to the deleted files old name. Miraculously, this worked like a champ. Also, I had a misconfigured package on my system that stopped the upgrade script. Once I figured out what the problem was, I removed the package by hand (dpkg -r packagename), and tried again. I got all the way to the munged file error above, and then after fixing that, I rebooted and easily proceeded to a normal installation. It was less painful than Red Hat upgrades I've done.

Conclusion

You can probably tell I'm pretty excited about finding Debian GNU/Linux. I'll still use Red Hat on at least one of my boxes I think, because I'm still a long-time fan of theirs. But I'm really enamored of Debian. Please check them out at www.debian.org.



David S. Jackson
Sat Nov 28 16:52:12 EST 1998