7 Reasons Why Debian is the Dominant Linux Distro

Wednesday Jan 6th 2016 by Bruce Byfield

Debian remains the premier Linux distribution for a variety of compelling reasons.

I first installed Debian sixteen years ago. Since then, I have tried countless other Linux distributions, and even used one or two regularly for several months, but my main distribution has always been Debian, or at least one of its many derivatives.

Familiarity probably explains some of my preference. However, most of my preference comes from comparing other distributions unfavorably with Debian.

I can think of at least seven reasons why Debian remains at the heart of my Linux computing:

7. Package Management

Packages in Debian are managed by dpkg and apt-get. Today, they are no longer unique in their ability to manage dependencies, and a few equivalents, such as dnf and urpmi have an option or two that dpkg and apt-get lack. However, they remain a nucleus of a large series of utilities for viewing and manipulating packages, and no equivalent offers so many options for resolving installation conflicts. After all these years, dpkg and apt-get remain in a class of their own.

6. Choice of Risk

Debian's three main repositories are Stable, Testing, and Unstable. These names reflect how far along the packages in each repository packages have come in the testing process, allowing users to choose their own balance between the latest packages and the degree of stability.

If stability is your main concern, you can stick with Stable. By contrast, if you want the most current software, you can use Unstable, and risk more bugs and incompatibilities. Testing is usually somewhere between these two extremes.

Of course, the degree of risk is relative. Many distributions based on Debian, including Ubuntu, use the packages in Testing or Unstable, although they do their own testing before a release. Except when a radical shift in technology is being prepared, such as last release's switch to systemd, Unstable is usually safe enough, especially if you restrict your borrowings to non-core elements such as a desktop environment.

5. Choice of Degree of Freedom

Debian repositories are divided into three sections: Main, Contrib, and Non- Free. Main consists entirely of free-licensed software, Contrib of software that is free-licensed itself but dependent on other non-free software, and non-free of software released under a proprietary license.

Debian installs with only Main enabled, so the project's preference is obvious. However, adding the other two sections takes all of five minutes' worth of editing of /etc/apt/sources.list. I am content to stick with the default, but I appreciate the fact that Debian offers a choice, then trusts users to make the correct choice.

4. Diverse Documentation

Debian documentation is scattered over innumerable web sites, and is not often discussed. However, over the years, I have found that if I add "Debian" to my web searches, and choose results by recent years, I can almost always find a page with step-by-step instructions for the exact problem I am trying to solve.

3. Quick Bugfixes

I know of no other distribution that responds to security or technical problems as quickly as Debian does. Whether Debian maintainers are working by themselves or in a group, their response time shows a conscientiousness that users can rely upon. If Debian some times seems to have more updates than other distribution, the reason is not that it has more errors, but because fewer slip by its developers.

2. Control of Installation

Debian long ago outgrew the myth that it is hard to install. Its current installer is one of the most flexible available. If you accept the defaults and install its suggested groups of packages, it allows an installation that takes about the same time as Fedora's Anaconda. However, if you choose, you can take much longer to install, and select package by package. That's why Ubuntu, which pioneered the quick installer, suggests its version of the Debian installer for problem-shooting.

1. The Debian Community

Besides its technical aspect, Debian has one of the largest and most innovative communities in free software. Discussion of policy and technical choices are actively debated on the project's mailing lists, and major issues are put to a vote among Debian maintainers, including who the next project leader will be. All votes are determined by the Condorcet method, which is among the fairest means of voting. In the past, the community has often been unwelcoming to women, but it is improving, and in general Debian is almost as well known for its efforts to be inclusive as for its technical quality.

The Dominant Distro

Some might argue against Debian because its releases are often slow, and even its latest packages are often less than cutting edge. However, this slowness can become a virtue if you are setting up a server and your main concern is stability. Moreover, unless you insist on always having the latest releases, most major pieces of free software are mature enough that must-have new features are becoming rare. Often, you can wait a few months, especially if you satisfy your curiosity by running other distributions in virtual machines.

Otherwise, the numbers speak for themselves. Today, two-thirds of active Linux distributions are based on Debian, and for several years, three of the top four distributions for page views on Distrowatch have been Debian and its most popular derivatives, Linux Mint and Ubuntu. In many ways, Debian has become the upstream source for other upstream sources.

Debian may be one of the oldest surviving distributions, but clearly it can still teach other distributions a few things. Without Debian, Linux would be a much different and poorer place.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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