February 20, 2019

In Defense and Praise of Debian - page 2

What's the Fuss About?

  • February 11, 2008
  • By Bruce Byfield

Part of my allegiance to Debian is pure habit. I discovered free software when I worked for Stormix and Progeny, two deceased Debian-derivatives. Yet, as a free software journalist, I have reviewed dozens of distributions, and, despite being frequently impressed along the way, I stubbornly keep my main system running Debian.

Even when I decided I should broaden my horizons by installing a distribution that uses RPM packages on my laptop, the fact that I chose Fedora is no accident--as former Debian Project Leader Martin Michlmayr remarked to me, Fedora is probably the distro community that most closely resembles Debian.

So why do I keep returning to Debian? One reason that is not a factor is its geek cred. Even before its new installer, Debian was never that hard to install. And while it is true that Ubuntu is responsible for major improvements in usability, these improvements filter quickly into other distributions, and none more quickly than Debian; it's the nature of free software to share, and the fact that many Ubuntu developers are also Debian maintainers means that, if anything, Debian gets Ubuntu's improvements quicker than other distributions.

In fact, one reason that I appreciate Debian is that it is designed for all levels of users. Where Linux from Scratch or old-style Gentoo are for hardcore geeks, and Ubuntu is aimed at new users, Debian manages to accommodate all users.

One longstanding piece of code that, last time I checked, was still in the installer and dpkg-reconfigure, makes this goal explicit. The code gives users three ways to configure their monitor. These range from the simple one of selecting the monitor size from a drop-down list; through the medium one of selecting the desired resolution; to the expert one in which users enter the exact Horizontal Sync Range and Vertical Refresh Rate. Users can choose the method they are most comfortable with, though results may vary.

In much the same way, Debian benefits from the steady improvements in the KDE and GNOME desktops. However, unlike many modern distributions, it doesn't neglect command line tools, and it comes with the most heavily commented configuration files I've ever encountered. While beginners using many distros are hard-pressed to expand their knowledge beyond the desktop, Debian users who want a more hands-on experience are given the tools they need to learn.

Moreover, just as users can choose their level of expertise, Debian offers choices in other aspects of computing. For instance, its package repositories are divided into three sections: main, which contains only free software; contrib, which contains software that is free but dependent on non-free software; and non-free, which contains such non-free items as Adobe Acrobat.

The project strongly encourages you to use only the main section--Debian installs without contrib and non-free enabled, and a vocal minority in the project would like to do away with them altogether--but the point is that users can choose their level of software freedom. Even though I tend to stick with main, I appreciate that the choice is mine, not some anonymous developer acting unasked on my behalf.

The same is true of Debian's larger repository system, which allows you to choose your level of risk when you install software. Those determined to have the bleeding edge versions can install software from Experimental, whose packages have been slapped together because of high demand but are completely untested, or from Unstable, whose packages have passed minimal requirements and correspond roughly to the new software introduced into most other distributions.

The more cautious can use Testing, which is often a reasonable compromise between dependability and cutting edge versions. And for those for whom dependability is the main issue--for instance, those building a server--Stable is available, supported as needed by security updates.

While this system is organized largely for building the distribution, it also allows users to balance their desire for dependability against their desire for the latest software. By looking up the packages on the Debian web site and seeing all the dependencies for a given package, users can determine how dangerous an upgrade may be to their computers.

(The system also explains why official releases tend not to matter--new packages are constantly passing through the system, regardless of whether the project is gearing for another official release or not.)

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