- What is Debian
- A Long Introduction
- Why I like Debian so much?
- Nothing's Perfect
- Is Debian Good For You?
- Corrected broken links.
- A couple of small fixes.
- Filtered through a spell checker. Grammar bugs left alone.
- Created this page. Too tired to even do a simple spell check. Mail me if you find bugs in the text.
Debian GNU/Linux is my favorite operating system. In this page I'll try to explain why.
I started from MS-DOS. Later came Windows 95. At about that time two books on the Unix operating system fell into my hands. I was fascinated reading them. Fascinated by the power, elegance, simplicity. In other words, fascinated by the Unix philosophy. I understood then that everything I liked in MS-DOS was just a shadow cast by Unix. A bit later I came upon The Jargon File, which I "swallowed" with great pleasure. I learned what hackers were (do not confuse them with H4x0rS, which also like to call themselves "hackers") and wanted to become one. While reading How To Become A Hacker I found there an advice to try Linux or some other free Unix clone.
In late 1997 I finally made up my mind. I downloaded Slackware 3.4 (or 3.2?) boot and root disks and played with them all night wandering in the shell and admiring the colours of ls output (I didn't have the actual floppies with all the packages -- dialup... my father downloaded them at work later). Next morning I left for Cape Town (for the students' International Olympiad in Informatics), but after coming back immediately continued the installation etc. Initially I lived with Slackware in 340 Mb hard drive in my 66 MHz 486 with 16 MB RAM. Later I purchased a 7 Linux CD set from Cheap*Bytes which contained Slackware 3.4, Red Hat 5.0, Debian 1.3 2 CD (binary & source), and three CDs full or Linux software from various FTP sites. When I got a new bigger hard drive I decided to try out Red Hat. I liked it more than Slackware. For a long time I used Red Hat, and then tried Mandrake 6.0 or maybe 6.1 and later made the jump to Mandrake. I had been happily using Mandrake 7.1 for a long time on my desktop and my small notebook (Pentium 75, 40 MB RAM, 1.2 GB hdd).
By then I was no longer a neophyte in Linux. I got the impression that most Linux users migrate to Debian, and later to FreeBSD. I wasn't sure about BSD (and I'm still not sure it's better), but I decided then that there must be a good reason for that and that earlier or later I would switch to Debian.
I tried it once. After dealing with Debian 2.1 install process I was strongly disappointed and returned back to Mandrake. By the way I was still a poor dial-up user at that time and installed Debian from CDs.
2001, spring. I was back from a semester's studies in Denmark. I decided to put my old 486 as a router for my 24-hour Internet connection (which I managed to get a short time before leaving for Denmark). I decided to give Debian another chance. I downloaded and burned all three Debian 2.2 CDs, installed the system (the process failed to impress me again, but it was much better this time) and started looking around. I liked it. In a month I couldn't do anything but switch my desktop to Debian (from the same 2.2 CDs, but I upgraded it to unstable (by mistake) on the same day). Today I've been using Debian for more than a year -- both at home and at work, where I share half of sysadmin duties for 10 workstations and 3 servers, and I also oversee a couple of Linux servers for friends and acquaintances.
I'll try to list the reasons I like Debian.
- Package installation. Say, you want some program foo -- you type apt-get install foo and in several seconds Poof! you have it on your machine. No wandering through CDs/the web/FTP sites. There are more than 10,000 packages made for Debian. Of course, a good Internet connection helps here a lot.
- Upgrades. I remember putting off the upgrade of Mandrake 7.1 -> 7.2, because that required a reboot, repeating at least a third of the installation process etc. And reading lots of terrible warning notes saying "BACK UP YOUR DATA BEFORE CONTINUING". I've done a couple of Red Hat/Mandrake upgrades before, and the process itself is not very difficult, but for some reason I do not want to repeat it too often. With Debian I did apt-get update; apt-get dist-upgrade and after a download of 300 Mb my computer was running Debian unstable instead of Debian Potato.
- Order/cleanliness. In Slackware the sysadmin is responsible for creating and maintaining order -- if he does not create and maintain the order, (s)he'll get a mess. Red Hat is a bit better, but all the script magic is deep and cryptic there. Debian glitters. When I use Debian I feel that this is not some random Linux with lots of packages thrown in without much thought. Every package here follows the same rules which are detailed in Debian Policy manual. All the files are placed according to the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard. Script magic is shallow, transparent, and encompassing everything that needs it. The alternatives system -- for example the admin may choose which of several packages should provide /bin/vi symlink. (BTW RedHat recently decided to copy Debian's alternative system.) Or dpkg diversions -- packages or the sysadmin may rename files that belong in other packages, and as a result frequent X upgrades do not overwrite my hacked /usr/X11R6/lib/X11/locale/iso8859-13/Compose file. Or dpkg package database -- everything is stored in two plain text files. Speed suffers, but you can use all the standard Unix tools to manipulate them (and I appreciate that a lot). RPM is faster, but when you mount your partition from another OS, you can pry nothing from that opaque binary database.
- Consistency. Debian is not just a collection of software. It's a uniform system. It is the first Linux distribution where I see such consistency. One policy document, one easily accessible bug database for all packages (by the way if a bug tracking system requires a web browser to submit a bug, it is not easily accessible -- for me), standard README.Debian.gz files in /usr/share/doc/package-name/ subdirs. 11 supported architectures1
- Convenience. From this uniformity convenience arises. I do not need to remember what signal to send or what command with what arguments to execute after editing a config file for some random daemon. I can just do /etc/init.d/daemon reload. I do not need to find out how to compile NVidia drivers and what OpenGL libraries I need to remove and somehow prevent from reappearing on the next upgrade -- there's a Debian package that does all that. There's a package for building and installing the kernel. There's a package for downloading and installing Real Player. There's a package for Audiogalaxy Satellite. There's a package for Quake ][ shareware game data download and installation. Still, most of the convenience comes from apt-get. When I get tired of battling with exim config, I can replace it with postfix by using a single apt-get install command.
- Ideology. Debian is the most free Linux distribution. The Open Source Definition is based on Debian Free Software Guidelines. Debian project has its constitution. There are democratic elections of Debian Project Leader. Debian is not governed by marketing solutions, but by its developers -- people who want to make life easier for themselves and for other Linux users. Seeing Debian today I hope it will continue to go in the same direction.
Debian is not flawless. For example its old package selection interface (dselect) gives me the creeps. Hardware setup is not automated enough (actually, all automatization is hidden in packages that are not widely known). There is no single place (setup/control panel) to access all configuration mechanisms so you have to find the commands and files all by yourself. Sometimes it is difficult to choose one package from several alternatives (e.g. of a POP3 server). Stable release occur too infrequently, and not everyone wants to run unstable betas.
The answer is -- I don't know. But if you want some sort of Unix instead of a replacement for Windows, if you are an advanced user/programmer/sysadmin, if you are not afraid of the initial step of installation/configuration, if you have unlimited access to the Internet, then give Debian a try.