Open Source

Debian: The OS for the rest of us

Jack Wallen takes a break from the user-friendliness of the usual Linux distributions and gives the Debian network installation a try. Read on to find out what his general impressions of this geekier Linux distribution are.

Lately, I have been poking at various Linux distributions to see what they have to offer. But most of the distributions I have looked at are geared toward new users, users with older (or strange) hardware, or corporate users. But what about those that do not fall into any of the above? What about those Linux users who want a challenge? Something that doesn't hand-hold you through the entire computing experience? Well, you're in luck. For those on the fringe of the fringe, there are a few distributions that hold, shall we say, Linux users to a somewhat higher "standard" than the average distribution.

Once such distribution is Debian. It's not Gentoo by any stretch of the imagination, but as soon as you begin installation, you will notice that it's not your average Linux installation.

Installation

If you take a look at the downloads section of the Debian site, you will notice you can go a few routes. One route requires that  you download a 4+ GB DVD iso. Another option is to download the multiple iso CDs (there are 21 of them). Yet another option is to download the smaller 180 MB CD iso that will do a network installation. This is the option I chose.

The network installation isn't really all that difficult - IF you have done a text-based installation before. If not - you might be in for a treat. But over all, it's fairly straight forward. You will have to select all of the package categories you want installed as well as the desktop and any servers you want. Once you have made your selections the installation will begin. You will have to answer some questions here and there and you should be prepared for this installation to take much longer than your average LiveCD-based installation. My installation clocked in at around two hours.

Post-install gotchas

One of the weaknesses of the text-based installation with Debian is there is no graphics test. You select the ranges you want to apply to your installation and off it goes. You hope you configured the proper ranges, otherwise X will be a no go. Such was my case. Fortunately, there is a little thing called the command line. I was able to log on a root and edit (using the nano editor) my xorg.conf file to make sure the Device section was configured properly. Once saved, I went back to the correct terminal and hit Ctrl-Alt-Backspace to reload X. Bingo! X was up and running and my Debian installation was complete.

Initial Usage

I was actually surprised at how utterly vanilla Debian is once it is installed. As far as I could tell it was not much different than using Ubuntu or any given distribution that uses apt-get and the GNOME desktop. The major difference is when you really start looking into the installed packages and realize that everything is geared more toward the power user. Even on a system that was mostly just a generic installation there are more programming, system, and administration tools than on most other, more popular, distributions.

But even with the pseudo-genericness of the installation, there is one thing about Debian that does make it stand out from other installations....It's about as solid a distribution as you can get. Once installed, Debian will withstand just about anything.

But who would be the best candidate for Debian? That's easy. Anyone who can stomach a bit of an installation hurdle who needs a server that is as rock-solid as a server can get. But I wouldn't limit Debian to server farms just yet. Like any distribution, you can install just about any desktop you want. And you can do so with via apt-get, Synaptic, or Aptitude. So package management is simple.

Final thoughts

I can't say that my kicking of the tires of Debian was as thorough as it deserves. But honestly, I don't think a thorough shakedown is that necessary. First and foremost, you only need to know that the installation can be a bit challenging (when doing so from the smaller install CD). Once up and running, it's all a matter of knowing the package management system.

I have started to believe that the separation between Linux distributions is getting harder and harder to find. You can turn toward package management and/or desktops to find some differences but with the Linux kernel and hardware recognition so solid now, one Linux is nearly the same as the next -- so long as you can get it installed.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

24 comments
r_irigoyen
r_irigoyen

I've been in the LinuX arena for a while....say 7 or 8 years, and I became a Debian adept only 2 years ago. The truth is that It's text-mode-non-friendly installation interface is a minus. In the last version, "Lenny", You can boot the DC/DVD with the parameter 'installgui' , but It only gives You a ... "washed out" interface.(As good as Anaconda or any of the others, I must say). It is straightforward...almost. The only item not so friendly is the dialog about partitioning the HDD. Specially if you have an existing OS and want to double boot your box. Be carefull there.It's easy to misunderstand what the Hell every item in this menu does. Apart from that, Lenny would be happily runnig in a couple hours.With all the bells and whistles. If You have an NVIDIA graphics card, please be sure of takin the time to do a little reading before the installation.It could be a little tricky. Take a look at www.howtoforge.com it will help. A LOT. Form down under (Argentina), I hail You, my penguin friends. Load LinuX, and prosper!

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I still find myself booting the Mandriva Free install disk just to use the partition tool before rebooting with the intended install disk. I think they base the tool off gparted; it's that Partition Magic graphic layout anyhow. My only complaint about Debian is the same; need a better partition tool in the installer. With Mandriva, I can clearly cut partitions with rational suggested sizes and recommended mount points; root, then /home, then /var, then /var/www and so on. It's clear what partitions your making, what size they are and where they will end up in the OS. My workstations and server installs are works of partitioning art. with Debian, It's not clear when creating partitions and mount points. Sizes are not so clear and adjusting the partitions or LVM groups is unpleasent if your the type to cut all the partitions then resize them accordingly after. Beyond that, which I'm going to be infront of a VM getting better at, it's a fantastic distro. Lenny is proving to be a welcome update now that Bastille issues can be fixed until the package is corrected and HP's packages software is available for the Proliants.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

wasn't 4 released only a year or 2 ago? Did the rapture happen and I missed it while playing WoW?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I spotted the pending release through distrowatch and was back to debian.org over the weekend of the 14th. For my own needs, the two points that caused grief where Bastille and HP's add-on software. HP has the Lenny i386 and amd64/em64t available for download now. They've packages it as an ISO so you either burn it and add a CDRom Repository (apt-cdrom add) or mount the .iso directly then add that as the repository. I opted for the second aproach; "mount -o loop hp.iso /media/hpiso && apt-cdrom -d=/media/hpiso add" So much more pleasent than the Etch method of indavidual packages by dpkg -i after manually resolving dependencies. Now, Bastille. While not the final step in hardening, it does provide a good base to build from. It turns out that the Bastille package in Lenny all the way back to Unstable (Sid) is broken but it installs from repositories just fine. Once installed, add "DB5.0" to the lines with "DB3.0 DB4.0" in the applicable /usr/lib/Bastille/?.pm files. I'd list the files but I did that yeasterday so anyone that needs to; "Grep db4.0 /usr/lib/Bastille/* Another nice change; liveCD are available. I'll stick with the custom install from netinst but the liveCD means being able to test the hardware for compatibility before starting my own install. (now, if wifi is well managed, I could see Lenny becoming my desktop host OS)

r_widell
r_widell

As miksuh@ pointed out in his two posts, you're complaints are largely invalid as everything you're looking for is already there (albeit probably not where you're looking). I have little doubt that "dpkg-reconfigure Xserver" would have gotten the configuration issue resolved nicely without the brute force approach you took. What surprises me is that someone who's "testing" numerous distros can't find the time to check out the installer options available by hitting the F1 key. You'd have discoverd the GUI installer, the ability to go into "expert mode" if you want the option of changing any of the default configuration options and other installer options. My two biggest (niggling) complaints about Debian are: 1. As already mentioned in another post, the package maintainers are overly zealous in declaring dependencies. Rather than declaring REAL dependencies, they throw in everything else they think might be useful to someone. (I've found this to be true in almost every othe distro I've tried). 2. The flat runlevel hierarchy. They default to runlevel 2 with everything turned on rather than distinguishing between runlevels 2 (multiuser with limited networking), 3 (runlevel 2 + filesharing) & 5 (runlevel 3 + XWindows). On the other hand, if you load KDE (or Gnome), you get the full thing. They don't, for example, replace the KDE Control Center with YAST or MCC, etc. (YAST is pretty good, MCC is good but incomplete, but one of the reasons I prefer KDE is due to the Control Center). They also have fantastic documentation. I've found very few issues that I couldn't resolve myself if I took the time to read the docs. ron

SysAdminII
SysAdminII

I have using Debian for a few years now and find it one of the easier distributions to work with. I know a lot of newbies like Ubuntu or Kubuntu and thats great, but guess what....they are all built off of the Debian base. the only complaint I really have with Debian is graphics. I have a laptop that I would love to put debian on but it has a ATI Mobility 7500 card and the max resolution that I can get is 1024x768. I might have to get an arch rpm package from Redhat or some other dist and convert it to a deb package.

phlsphr
phlsphr

You might be able to do that conversion using alien. Alien can be installed with synaptic. When you have it installed, use the command: alien -i whateverpkg-version.rpm and many times, it will be correctly converted and properly installed on your debian system. rpm has to be installed on your system too, but synaptic takes care of that for you. Alien is experimental, but works pretty good.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

If your using Debian a few years already you probably have and admittedly I don't use the distro. I've read a few times in passing that ATI's binary or nVidia's binary are available through non-free software containing repositories that are just not setup by default. If the Debian forums can't help then what do I know though.

lastchip
lastchip

My distro of choice. To be honest, I didn't find the net install particularly arduous. The installer sort of resembles an old DOS program, rather than text as such and shouldn't be confused with the command line (which it isn't). But the system is just so rock solid, it's difficult to believe. And of course, the likes of Ubuntu feed from it. Superb! Edited for typo.

linux for me
linux for me

Download the DVD which includes everything. Select whether you want a server, desktop, or laptop setup and go. Couldn't be easier. Both Gnome and KDE environments are available, though I prefer Gnome myself. I've tried sever other distros, but I keep coming back to Fedora.

j-mart
j-mart

It is never a finished product. When Debian release a stable version they realy mean it.

Jaqui
Jaqui

There are two that out geek every other distro. Linux From Scratch, step by step instructions to build from source code. [ sub projects: BLFS adding gui etc. CLF starting from a non linux os, and doing 64 bit builds HLFS Hardened LFS [ secure that puppy down as tight as you want ] A/J LFS scripted install / build system. ] and DIY Linux, the inspiration of the scripted lfs option. DIY bing a forking of LFS to focus on scripted builds.

miksuh
miksuh

"You will have to select all of the package categories you want installed as well as the desktop and any servers you want. " What you select is tasks. You can select eg. "desktop environment", "web server", "database", etc. "You will have to answer some questions here and there and you should be prepared for this installation to take much longer than your average" And those questions are like this: "select your country", "select your language" "select your keyboard layout, eg finnish" etc. Those really are not too difficult questions. Most difficult part of installation is partitioning, but even there you can go with defaults if you are unsure of what to do. It's not difficult. "you should be prepared for this installation to take much longer than your average LiveCD-based installation." Not really, If you install using netinst CD then you need to download just small cd-image. Installer will then download and install everything directly from the internet. You get full default desktop after the installation and you get latest packages which are available. If you install from installation CD then you first need to download full cd-image which will take longer than downloading netinst cd-image. Then After you have installed the system you still need to download extra packages and updates because installation cds rarely have the latest packages. Ofcourse you usually want to download extra packages after netinst installation too, but anyway I don't think there is any big difference between netinst installation and full cd/dvd installation. Downloading the cd/dvd image and updates will take some time too. "One of the weaknesses of the text-based installation with Debian is there is no graphics test. You select the ranges you want to apply to your installation and off it goes. You hope you configured the proper ranges, otherwise X will be a no go." If you are doing the normal installation you don't need to select any ranges, expert mode is another issue. "I was actually surprised at how utterly vanilla Debian is once it is installed. As far as I could tell it was not much different than using Ubuntu or any given distribution that uses apt-get and the GNOME desktop." I don't really think default Debian desktop is any more vanilla than in other distros like ubuntu. Actually it's wery similar. Eg. all of these are installed by default on Etch: network-manager, power-manager, update-manager and update-notifier etc. Debian Lenny also installs tools like gnome-app-install (Add/remove applications) by default. "First and foremost, you only need to know that the installation can be a bit challenging (when doing so from the smaller install CD" I don't know why, because netinst installation process is almost identical to installing from install cd. The only real difference is that netinst installs direct??ly from the internet.

miksuh
miksuh

Latest stable Debian (Debian 4.0 Etch) has alaso graphical installer. You can start it this way: 1) boot from netinst cd, or from any other installation media 2) When you see first install screen with b??ack background and Debian logo then write this to prompt on screen: installgui 3) press enter and now installer will start in the graphical mode which can be controlled using mouse. If you install current testing which will be next stable soon (Debian 5.0 Lenny) then it's even easier. When you boot from installation media you will see installer menu first which will allow you to eg. select grapgical installer.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I'd say Linux From Scratch beats out Slack and Gentoo for geekiest distribution.

stdo57
stdo57

its not any worse than any other major distribution but is very complete in what you can use. The download of dvd allows almost any kind of system you want. I like several distros but the easiest to install so far has been mandiva and ubantu. and u just works, right on boot on every system I have try'd so far. And it scales to your system's hardware level.

brian.mills
brian.mills

Debian's gotten easier than it used to be. when I tried it (as my first Linux) the current stable version was Woody, and the install left me sitting at a command line. Thankfully I had some friends who knew more than I, and I was able to get most everything working. Folks these days have it so much easier than we did back when I got started.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Hehe.. For me, it was my first go at a Linux based OS using a Slackware install disk. I couldn't even figure out how to start the install and at that time. Red Hat lasted about a week before my removable drive for the family machine got winNT back (4 I think). Actually, Debian was a very recent first go. Same for me too though, made my way through the text based installer with the minimum to get a first boot then found myself sitting at a cli so no clue what the apt-get version of "urpmq package" was. I got it running with KDE soon after simply because this is not many years ago when I first started with OS outside the MS product catalog. If only I could get Mandriva with apt-get or Debian without dependencies like one KDE app requireing all KDE installed. Apt-get is fantastic on my .deb based Maemo system. True, so vary true, kids these days have it so easy with there iPods and there LiveCD installs. I love span of distros from ungodly intimidating through to PCLinuxOS easy.

Penguin_me
Penguin_me

Is it possible to edit the voting list to give an indication on which of the list are considered highest ? How do you know if Slackware is geekier than Gentoo in this list ? (Also, there should really be an option of "all of the above").

moyashi
moyashi

Well, this is all very subjective. If being patient and attentive are considered "hard" or "geeky" then I suppose installing linux is hard and geeky. I've never done it graphically, so I can't compare. The author seems overly dependent on a GUI, and thus (in my subjective book) is hardly a real linux user. If you want a solid GUI atop *n*x, why not use OSX? If on the other hand you actually want to "do GNU," the CLI is your best, first choice. I run Slackware and Ubuntu Server, professionally.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

And its the disto I lead people to, weaning them off *buntu. And Debian Stable, is just that, stable, no frills, no fancy candy, just solid performance.

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

It's no wonder the IT industry is struggling to attract sufficient new recruits, and especially female ones. Who would actually *want* to be a geek (who already isn't one)? I'm not a geek but I do work in IT and I do use Linux. The question should be 'what is the hardest version of Linux'. Being hard is more cool than being a geek!

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

When your talking Hard or Geeky OS based on the Linux kernel; they are kind of the same it seems. Running the hardest distribution is a status badge within some circles of geekdom. Geek simply means someone who gets enthusiastic about a topic and goes into the level of detail that most people have no interest in. I myself am happy to be called a Geek. I'm no sterio, car, sports or media geek but I'm definately somewhere in the computer geek category. At least "Nerd" and more so "Geek" have developed positive connotations. For me, it's the age old use of "Hacker" meaning purely the negative. I think those who only think of hackers as evil villians should be banned from using the term in any context. Geek is far from a negative term in any area of interest. I'd far rather have Geeks supporting my IT rather than mondanes who took IT in colledge only for the paycheque. I'd far rather have Hackers supporting my IT because they tend to make Geeks look like Montanes by contrast. We're all part of the IT world though. Anyone who bangs a keyboard is a potential friend.