March 24, 2019

Debian: A Brief Retrospective

Debian a Decade Ago

  • August 15, 2003
  • By Ian Murdock

Ten years ago, I posted a message announcing a new Linux project:

From: Ian A Murdock (imurdock@shell.portal.com) 
Date: August 16, 1993 6:09:59 PST 
Newsgroups: comp.os.linux.development 
Subject: New release under development; suggestions requested 

Fellow Linuxers, 

This is just to announce the imminent completion of a brand-new Linux release,
which I'm calling the Debian Linux Release.  This is a release that I have put
together basically from scratch; in other words, I didn't simply make some
changes to SLS and call it a new release.  I was inspired to put together this
release after running SLS and generally being dissatisfied with much of it,
and after much altering of SLS I decided that it would be easier to start
from scratch.  The base system is now virtually complete (though I'm still
looking around to make sure that I grabbed the most recent sources for
everything), and I'd like to get some feedback before I add the "fancy" stuff.


(Full post available here.)

When I posted this message a decade ago, Linux was in use by maybe a few tens of thousands of people around the world, and most of those people were either running their own homebrew Linux system or Peter MacDonald's SLS, the Softlanding Linux System. Red Hat Software was but a twinkle in Marc Ewing's eye.

I had been using Linux for several months, since January of 1993. Not long after, I was hooked. Like most other early Linux enthusiasts, what hooked me was not Linux itself, but rather the community that had formed around it.

It's difficult to remember, because open source and open development projects are commonplace now, but in 1993, what I saw happening seemed completely illogical. How could people without any master plan, from different parts of the world, speaking different languages and not getting paid, come together to build something as complex as an operating system? The fascinating thing was that it worked.

The software coming from the GNU project was well-known and similar in many ways. It was also free and it lived on the Internet. But GNU software was developed the old fashioned way, with small, closely-knit teams behind closed doors (as Eric Raymond famously noted years later in his essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar"). Linux was developed in a strikingly different and seemingly haphazard manner.

After a few weeks of dipping the proverbial toe in the water, I was swept away by all that was happening, and the power of what I had stumbled across quickly became clear. Invariably, a college kid such as myself would run across Linux (often in search of a way to run UNIX at home to save winter treks to the computer lab), take a look, register astonishment at what was happening, and then give it a try. Often, that was all it took.

The instinct to give back, to contribute to the community that didn't know you but that had already given you so much, was palpable. In mid-1993, I found my niche: I saw a need for a nicely packaged Linux "distribution," although from my initial post on August 16, 1993, it appears that this term wasn't in widespread use yet.

As briefly mentioned earlier, in those days people generally bootstrapped their own Linux systems from the ground up or used the SLS distribution. A few other distributions were available, notably MCC Interim from the Manchester Computing Centre and TAMU from Texas A&M University, but these efforts were mostly dormant by the time I found Linux. In early 1993, SLS was king.

I had harsh words for it at the time, but I cannot emphasize this enough: SLS was a breakthrough achievement, because it represented the first time Linux had been packaged for an audience broader than its own developers. Previous distributions tended to stop at the kernel, the basic utilities, and the development toolchain. SLS included a window system, document formatting tools, games, and other tools that a broader user community could appreciate.

Breakthrough though it was, SLS had many shortcomings, and to my mind these problems got in the way of making Linux suitable for the broader audience that SLS was attempting to reach. So I set out to fix these problems, first as a series of patches to SLS, then from the ground up, which became Debian. This was around the time I posted my initial message on August 16. Slackware had similar beginnings at around the same time.

Being the 20-year-old that I was, I figured that building a better distribution would be no challenge for my superior intellect and skill. This is apparent from some of my early blusters, like "imminent completion" (which, as far as I know, is still true 10 years later). Several "almost done" posts later, I came to the humbling realization that I couldn't possibly do it all myself. At the same time, I began to appreciate that Peter MacDonald was having the same problem. Recalling my initial impressions of the power of open, distributed development, I decided to adopt the open development idea for my distribution project. Why not?

On August 27, I posted another message:

From: Ian A Murdock (imurdock@shell.portal.com)
Date: August 27, 1993 8:22:14 PST
Newsgroups: comp.os.linux.development
Subject: Debian: a brief status report


I would like to point out here that I would like this distribution to develop
in the same way as much of the rest of Linux has developed.  In other words,
I want everyone to *contribute* to this effort and not simply use something
that one man or team has put together.  This distribution will be improved
by the Linux community as a whole, and I will simply serve as the
coordinator of the effort.


(Full post available here.)

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