Nine Myths about Debian Linux

Tuesday Apr 2nd 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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Debian's reputation is out of keeping with what it actually offers.

These days, Debian seems to be enjoying a modest comeback among experienced users. Hardly a week goes by when I don't hear on social networking sites of two or three people giving Debian another look.

This renewed interest may reflect a growing disillusionment with Ubuntu, the Debian derivative that has partly replaced Debian in popularity among Linux users. Almost certainly, it reflects a growing willingness to experiment with distros after the last two years of user revolts against GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity. As one of the oldest distributions—and one specifically focused on user choice—Debian looks reliable in the middle of such uncertainty.

Still, many users hesitate to switch to Debian. The distribution is surrounded by myths, many of them adding to an impression that it is an expert's choice and almost as difficult to use as Gentoo or Linux from Scratch.

However, most of these myths are either out-dated or half-truths that need to be heavily qualified. As in any distribution, the user experience in Debian comes as much from the applications as the distribution. If you are comfortable with KDE or LXDE in Fedora or Mageia, you should be just as comfortable with them in Debian. To the extent that any of the myths are true, none of the more common ones are any reason for not at least giving Debian a try.

9. Debian Is Hard To Install

True, Debian was one of the last distributions to have a user-friendly install, let alone a graphic one. However, a revised text-based installer came into use in 2005 and a graphical version in 2007, both of which are serviceable—although far from slick.

What may be intimidating is that both versions of the installer require significant input from the user. If you want, you can fine-tune them endlessly. However, even if you have no idea what Linux is, you can still install Debian successfully by sticking to the basic level of detail, accepting the installer's suggestions and reading the help.

Have you ever resorted to Ubuntu's expert installer? If so, you've already used a version of the Debian installer, and can judge it from firsthand experience.

8. Users Must Stay With Their Chosen Repository

Many people are aware that Debian has three main repositories: Unstable, Testing and Stable. Most are also aware that a package enters Unstable after meeting basic standards, then passes to Testing and finally to Stable when a general release is made. However, potential users worry of committing themselves to a repository unsuited to their preferences.

By contrast, experienced Debian users know better. Users who are setting up a server or require maximum reliability for some other reason generally stay with the stable repository. However, other users, especially on stand-alone workstations, mix and match the repositories to produce hybrid systems.

These hybrid systems do require caution. Generally, you want to avoid mixing and matching packages for the core system. The exception is kernels, since the bootloader usually stores multiple kernels, so that if a new one doesn't work, you can still reboot your system. In the same way, if you have multiple desktops, problems with one will still leave you with options for a graphical interface.

By contrast, desktop apps are usually safe to update from unstable, because, even if problems occur, your basic system should still boot.

In other words, so long as you take some precautions, you are not confined to using a single repository unless you choose to be.

7. Unstable is Unstable

Yes, the Unstable repository is unstable—by Debian standards. But that means that, by the standards of most other distributions, unstable packages are generally usable. In fact, Debian-derivatives sometimes borrow directly from unstable in order to give users the latest package versions.

However, the Unstable repository does go through periods when you are better off leaving it alone. Since the packages meet only minimal standards, some in Unstable may have dependency problems that break the package management system, leaving you unable to install any other packages until the problem is solved.

However, such problems are usually righted when packages are debugged. You can also have a number of options for fixing your own system.

Similarly, you should avoid updates from Unstable when Debian is in the middle of a transition from one technology to another. For instance, some years ago, Debian switched from XFree86 to X.Org for graphical display, and it took a while to make the transition seamless for users.

If you use Unstable as your chief repository or occasionally borrow from it for a hybrid system, you need to get into the habit of watching what the project is doing.

For instance, when a release freeze has just occurred is generally a poor time to update or install unstable packages because some might have been made in a hurry in order to make the freeze deadline.

Under these circumstances, for a week or two you might want to use the -s option for apt-get to simulate an update before actual making it, just to avoid trouble.

6. Debian Packages Aren't Current

The truth of this assertion depends on the repository and the circumstances.

Generally, the Stable repository is much more likely to be out of date than Testing, which is more likely to be more out of date than Unstable. Historically, two or three years have sometimes passed between official Debian releases, and just before a new release, Stable can be very obsolete, although micro-releases, backports and security patches continue to make it usable.

Similarly, when a freeze is on, leading up to a new release, the contents of Testing and Unstable become increasingly identical because no new packages are entering the system.

Conversely, in the first six months after a release, Stable can be as current as the repository of any distro.

What is true is that the availability of packages depends on the enthusiasm of the maintainer teams. Popular applications like Amarok can be in Unstable days after the upstream project announces a release.

Other packages may take longer to appear. Debian's emphasis is the stability, not the currency of its packages. If you really want the latest software, you can enable the Experimental repository, but not every package that goes into Unstable goes into Experimental first, and the repository can cause serious problems.

In general, though, the currency of Debian's packages is a minor concern at best. While everyone likes the idea of having the latest version of everything, most apps on the free desktop are advanced enough that the differences between one release and the next are minimal most of the time.

5. Debian Isn't a Free Distribution

You won't find Debian in the Free Software Foundation's list of free-licensed distributions for two reasons: first, because each Debian repository contains a non-free section, as well a contrib section consisting of software that is free in itself, but depends upon non-free software, and, second, because it includes the option to install proprietary firmware in its kernels.

However, the Debian installer encourages users to install a free system. Those who want to use the non-free and contrib sections have to add them to the list of repository sources themselves. Similarly, users can choose not to use proprietary firmware when they install. With these options, you can easily install a free Debian system if you choose.

4. Install Images Are Too Large to Download

A complete version of Debian fills fifty-one CDs and is likely to take twenty-four hours or more to download.

However, most users download a live CD, a network install image of 180 megabytes, or a business card install of 40 megabytes. It takes longer to complete an install with these solutions because they have to download from the Internet what they do not have. But with them, you can be ready to install in five minutes or less.

3. Debian Maintainers Are Hostile To Others

A decade ago, Debian maintainers had the reputation of being aloof and surly, looking down on outsiders and dismissing them with sarcasm. Today, discussions on the project mailing lists can get intense, but in many ways Debian is cleaning up its act.

One reason for the change may be that lone maintainers are increasingly giving way to teams, giving project members more practice in getting along with people.

In recent years, the project has also instituted a code of conduct for its mailing lists, a diversity statement, an anti-harassment team and standards of respect for events.

Whether these efforts encourage a friendlier atmosphere or merely reflect a determination among Debian leaders to create one is an open question. But it is true that the Debian project seems a more welcoming place today than it was five years ago.

2. Debian Isn't Compatible with Ubuntu

This claim matters because Ubuntu contains documentation and proprietary applications in its repositories that some users may want to install. In addition, when a project in progress bothers to release any packages, these days, it tends to do so for Ubuntu.

The fact is that, because Ubuntu borrows many of its packages from the Debian Testing or Unstable repositories, the two distributions will always have a large degree of compatibility. At the same time, Ubuntu is continuing to differentiate itself from Debian and other distributions, so the amount of compatibility is probably dropping.

So far as I know, no one tracks the amount of compatibility. But, according to a presentation given by Debian Project Leader Stefano Zacchiroli in 2011, 74 percent of Ubuntu's packages are taken directly from Debian's repositories and 18 percent are patched. (The remaining 7 percent are taken from upstream.) These figures suggest that you have approximately two chances in three that any given package is compatible. Probably, the odds are even better if a package is not part of the core system.

1. Debian Is Irrelevant Today

To a large extent, Ubuntu now enjoys the popularity that Debian had a decade ago. Innovative where Debian is concerned with stability, user-friendly where Debian has a reputation of being for experts, Ubuntu might be said to have made Debian irrelevant.

A closer look, though, shows that if Debian itself is less important than it once was, its influence is greater than ever. Besides Ubuntu itself, 147 of the 321 distributions listed on Distrowatch are based upon Debian. Add the distributions built upon Ubuntu, and 234 of today's distros — 73 percent — are derived directly or indirectly from Debian. This is an increase of 10 percent over two years ago, and it includes three of the distributions with the top five page views — Linux Mint, Ubuntu, and Debian.

Instead of becoming inconsequential, today Debian is more influential than ever before. You could say that it has become the major upstream project for the Linux desktop.

Living Down the Rumors

Technically and socially, Debian has many points in its favor. Its maintainer system ensures that knowledgeable people in touch with upstream projects oversee its packages, and its package testing includes rigorous standards.

Just as importantly, it is among the strongest proofs that a community-based distribution can be as successful as a commercial one. Some users might also like the fact that it offers a position on free software that is independent from the Free Software Foundation.

Yet when people are deciding whether to use Debian, all too often what influences their decisions most are the myths — the rumors that were never true or have long ceased to be true.

When you look behind the myths, today you have no reason not to consider Debian along with other distros that have a better reputation for user-friendliness. Aside from a few qualifications that I mentioned, the modern Debian deserves to be a serious contender when you go shopping for another distro.

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