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Why Debian is the Leader of the Linux Pack - page 2

Always Late, Always Great

  • February 23, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

Debian uses the same Add/Remove Applications module as Ubuntu. This application closely resembles PackageKit and similar graphical tools in other distributions. Its left pane shows categories of applications, while the right pane lists individual programs at the top of the window and a description of the currently selected program below. The application also indicates the popularity of programs, based on Popularity Contest results.

One feature that is missing from Debian 5.0 is the update applet that appeared in the previous release. If this change is not simply an omission, perhaps it is an assumption that Debian users do not need a reminder to update their systems. Many, in fact, update daily. Moreover, given that almost all Debian users enable and disable testing and unstable repositories as they need, an update applet could be more harm than good, luring users into installing more of less reliable repositories than they intend.

Besides giving users tight control of what they install, Debian also includes a number of other options for added security. Like many distributions, it includes an option to password-protect the boot manager so that only authorized users can start the computer. Its default of barring a graphical login for the root user is also reasonably commonplace.

In addition, though, Debian 5.0 also includes the option of whether to enable sudo the way that Ubuntu does, so that root privileges are enabled for a minimal time. It also gives you the option of enabling both the Security repository and the new Volatile repository, which includes packages such as anti-virus signatures that benefit from constant updates. The Security and Volatile repositories overlap to an extent, but, between the two of them, you should be able to guarantee what security updates can provide.

Unofficial Freedom of Choice

One other aspect of Debian is worth emphasizing. During the preparation for release, Debian developers voted against removing proprietary firmware for drivers from the free sections of its repositories. The decision was probably practical, since dealing with this issue in the middle of the release preparation would have been inefficient and caused greater delays. But for those of us who valued Debian for its support of software freedom, it was disappointing.

However, official and unofficial policy appear to be two different things in Debian. While officially, Debian turned a blind eye to proprietary blobs, unofficially it still seems to be encouraging software freedom. If you use Expert mode to install only the drivers necessary for your system, you have a strong chance not to install any proprietary firmware. You also have to choose to enable the non-free and contrib sections of the repository, so other proprietary packages are not added to your system, either.

Similarly, while officially Debian does not install Mono support in order to save space on installation disks, in practice this decision means that another source of controversy for those who support software freedom has been removed.

The result of these practices is that, while Debian is not about to appear on the Free Software Foundation's list of completely free distributions, it does make running a free distribution easier than most major distributions. Although some hardware might be supported without proprietary packages, for the most part, you have to make an effort to install anything non-free in Debian.

That solution is not completely satisfactory -- not to me, at least -- but it seems typical of Debian's approach to assembling a distribution. The Debian way seems not so much to stake out a position as to offer a variety of choices for every taste. Just as Debian supports both free and non-free installations, so it supports beginners and experts, and both those aware and ignorant of security options. The result is a release that is flexible enough to satisfy all sorts of users -- a niche that seems both unique and much-needed among modern distributions.

Article courtesy of Datamation

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