DistributionWatch Review: Debian GNU/Linux 2.2 - page 3
Slow Development, Instant Upgrade
Potato represents Debian's entry into the 2.2 series of kernels. When Slink was released, the 2.2 kernel was just entering release itself. The Debian team chose to stick with the 2.0 series rather than switch to the relatively untried kernel.
Several other packages have also been significantly upgraded. GNOME has jumped to 1.0.56, and Perl is at version 5.005.03. Some of the packages new to this release include the postfix mail transport agent, openssh, xmms, and zope.
The distribution has also increased its use of Pluggable Authentication Modules (PAM), and moved more toward the Linux Filesystem Hierarchy Standard. The release announcement also mentions improved international support, including core support for the Japanese Language.
For this review, we installed Debian on a Duron 650 with 160MB of RAM and a 10GB hard drive using a botoable CD, and we also performed a network installation with a laptop running a Pentium 150 with 32 MB of RAM and a 1.2 GB hard drive.
We also installed a complete version of Slink and tested the upgrade against it. Since the installation hadn't been in place and under real-world use, it's not appropriate to make any claims about how well the automated update from 2.1 to 2.2 will proceed for the average user. It went smoothly for us. We had problems with a few packages that didn't manage to shut down the services they provided during the upgrade, which caused several packages to remain unconfigured, but the verbose output from the update procedure allowed those problems to be resolved in a few minutes. In fact, we believe that people who don't want to wait for a CD of the release and who happen to have a Slink disc set on hand will have no trouble installing a very basic Slink setup and simply using the apt-get distribution upgrade mechanism to have a working Potato in short order.
The Debian installer stands out from other current distributions because it remains text-based. There's no option for an X-based installation. This doesn't mean the installer is particularly difficult to work with, though: when users are presented with a choice, there's usually an accompanying paragraph or two of text explaining the options available.
Debian also doesn't have a specialized tool for disk partitioning, which is the second step in the installation process after selecting a keyboard type. If users need to repartition their drives, the installer invokes cfdisk--fdisk's friendlier variant. The installer does, however, provide some information about choices the user may wish to make in partitioning the drive and labelling the mount points of each of the partitions. Provided the user has read the installation manual, or is already even passingly familiar with the issues surrounding installing an operating system, this part of the installation is simple enough.
Once the drive is partitioned, swap space initialized, and the root partition mounted, the installer prompts for the source of the base system archives to be used to move the rest of the installation along. With a CD-based install, the defaults work.
The next phase involves making sure the machine can proceed with the installation. Kernel modules have to be selected, especially if a functioning network or PCMCIA card is required. The installation manual provided explains the necessity, though. During our installation on the laptop, the installer detected and installed our PCMCIA network card without a hitch.
Once the kernel modules are properly installed, the user has to set some network configuration options, including naming the machine, and providing information about their PPP or ethernet connection. The installation manual lapses briefly at this point, but if the user gathered the appropriate information from the system administrator (or knows it off the top of his/her head), it's simple enough to configure things properly. This step can also be skipped if a working connection to the network isn't required to complete installation.
Once the network is configured, the user selects the time zone, and the final of the preliminary installation is reached by allowing LILO to install the master boot record. The installer once again explains what's going on, and what the ramifications are of each of the choices. Once LILO has written the MBR, the user is prompted to take their boot floppy or CD from the machine, and the system is rebooted.
Some readers may be wondering about that, but we think it makes very good sense. There are several reasons LILO may fail to install the MBR correctly, and we liked the fact that if something went wrong we weren't faced with having sat through an entire download or installation before realizing the problem, which might require yet another installation.
We should also point at that the installer, though it proceeds in a linear fashion, allows users to select steps to complete from a menu at any point in the process. There's no suddenly and mysteriously non-functional 'back' button, and no back-tracking over four or five steps. If you messed something up and it's just now occurring to you, select the step from the menu and make the correction.
After the sytem restarts, the installation program reasserts itself and prompts the user for a root password and the creation of a non-privileged user account. Once again, the program included helpful text.
Selecting packages for the system is fairly streamlined. If they choose the 'easy' method, users can select pre-defined 'tasks,' that include specific lanuage support, commonly grouped packages (such as the GNOME desktop), and development options. If they prefer the hard route, the notorious dselect is waiting.
We didn't notice a middle ground between the two. The list of tasks is specific enough that users don't face downloading or installing too many unwanted pieces of software, but the only way to specify individual packages is via dselect.
dselect is probably most users' least favorite part of Debian, though we find ourselves using it often enough for tasks like cleaning out unused packages from a centralized interface. The program itself isn't particularly troubling, but it requires the investment of a few minutes' time to learn the navigational keystrokes required. It simply isn't as friendly as some of the selection tools other distributions bring to the table, which generally allow mouse navigation.
We went ahead with the 'easy' installation option, however, mainly to make sure it was just that, and it was: even though the dpkg program is working in the background, users are spared the sight of status messages.
Another key area in which Debian's installation differs from many others comes during the unpacking and configuration of the packages. The more common approach tends to be unpacking the archives and trusting the user to modify any configuration files they might need to change once the system is up and running. Debian, on the other hand, allows some basic options to be configured during installation.
This difference is a sore point with some, especially those already aware of the sorts of changes they're going to need to make to default configurations for a given package, and those at the other end of the spectrum who simply don't care to be bothered with configuring things they won't use.
We think Debian's approach is useful, though. The default choices are sane and secure if the user chooses them, and there's something to be said for the additional depth of understanding being made aware of these choices can impart. If nothing else, this method allows the user to jot down areas of potential concern for later on, since most of the time configuration choices are only offered when they'll affect the immediate usability of the package in question.
The big improvement this time around is in X configuration. Where Slink compelled users to use XF86Setup (which is simple enough) or xf86config (which puts people off despite its relatively clear instructions), Potato now has the anXious configuration tool, which asks most of the same questions as xf86config, but in a slightly less stark manner. It autodetects the machine's video card and allows users to pick the default window manager, which xterm-like programs they'd like installed, and whether they prefer to start with the xdm login at boot. It also handles monitor configuration. We found it to be about as usable as Red Hat's Xconfigurator, and with a few extra options that made it more useful as a general tool for control of the X environment.