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.
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.
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.
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.
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.