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DistributionWatch Review: Debian GNU/Linux 2.2 - page 4

Slow Development, Instant Upgrade

  • August 17, 2000
  • By Michael Hall

There are a few key elements to using Debian that differ from other distributions. Most noticeable is the packaging system, which relies on several programs to oversee the process of adding and removing binary archives.

The most basic command is dpkg, which allows for installation and removal of individual packages much the same as RPM. We don't find ourselves using dpkg much, since we tend to maintain our system using apt-get, which is one of the programs we consider to be an outstanding feature of Debian.

Through apt-get, users can identify the locations of package archives on CD, the Internet, or network shares. When a package is installed via apt-get, if it has any dependencies, these are downloaded and installed alongside the desired package with minimal interaction from the user. In cases of complex environments, like GNOME or X11, this means there's very little hunting around to meet dependencies. Requesting the GNOME games package, for instance, will also cause the related GNOME libraries and other essential elements of the environment to be downloaded and installed transparently.

In addition to easing installation, apt-get provides a very simple means to updating the distribution as security and bug fixes are released. The single command line

apt-get update && apt-get upgrade

will cause apt-get to refresh its list of available packages from the providing archive and download and install any changes. Being command-line-based, system updates are easily scripted and scheduled.

By pointing apt-get at the archives of a different development branch of the Debian distribution, it's possible to upgrade the entire distribution with a pair of commands. Slink users who resisted upgrading to Potato will have an easy time making the switch, and Potato users who are ready to resume life on the cutting edge can simply direct apt-get to use the unstable (Woody) branch for downloads from now on. Two commands will obtain every package that's been upgraded to a new version since Potato was frozen.

Finally, the packaging system continues to provide the dselect program, which we mentioned earlier. Though dselect has a sometimes-puzzling interface, it does provide a good way to navigate the known Debian package structure. If a user selects a package for installation that has multiple dependencies, dselect provides a menu of packages that are not only required for successful installation and use, but a set of suggested packages that will enhance the installation. For instance, while downloading some pre-packaged themes for a window manager isn't mandatory, dselect at least reminds the user they're available and provides a quick opportunity to select them for download as well. This provides a more thorough tool than apt-get, which limits itself to including strict dependencies. dselect takes a little learning, but it often proves worth it, especially when you're after a listing of everything installed on the system.

Another area in which Debian differs from other distributions is in the day-to-day maintenance of system configuration. Debian users are likely going to need to be a little better with a text editor than their counterparts using other distributions, though linuxconf and some other tools are available. Debian hasn't placed an emphasis on point-n-click administration. There's no graphical network configuration tool, and some setup programs are a little obscure, though they often take the hassle out of relatively complex tasks.

eximconfig, for instance is the program used to configure the distribution's MTA, exim. Exim comes off as much less complex than sendmail, and eximconf makes it especially easy for dialup users to set up a working SMTP connection to their ISPs if they prefer to have a mail queue running on their machines. Combined with fetchmail's graphical tool and the simple ppp configuration program (or the even easier Wvdial), the most common hangups for new users struggling to get their Linux machine into a usable state are handled.

We should note that none of these tools originated with Debian: they've just taken the time to include them. While they may not be graphically splashy or particularly hand-holding, they don't require extreme motivation to work with, either.

It pays to take advantage of the configuration options occasionally offered during the installation of a new package, since they provide excellent roadmaps for potential pitfalls, and provide gentle reminders of security and functionality issues.

Reflective of Debian's overall tight integration of many disparate elements, the distribution has some excellent mechanisms for maintaining a usable menu structure under X. Part of the package structure includes entries for user menus. As a result, when X-related packages are installed on the system, entries in a centralized menu structure are added. Provided the user sticks with a Debian-configured window manager package, or at least preserves its system-wide configuration files when upgrading to an unpackaged version, the menus are maintained in synch with the packaging system. This is a nice usability touch, and it allows plenty of flexibility for users on the system, since the menu structure spans the disparate window managers. While the desktop environments GNOME and KDE handle much of this on their own, this feature allows a little fuller enjoyment of standalone window managers that aren't wrapped in a broader environment.

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