Debian 6.0: Stability and Power to the People

Monday Jan 31st 2011 by Bruce Byfield

The Debian 6.0 relase puts to rest one longstanding myth while perpetuating another.

Debian official releases are more rare than releases of other distributions, but tend to matter less to users. Judging by the second release candidate, Debian 6.0 will be no exception. In other words, the new release should deliver the usual ultra-reliability, and serve as a solid basis not only for Debian itself, but also the countless other distros that will depend upon it, including Ubuntu and Linux Mint.

Debian releases tend to matter less to users because, with the exception of system administrators or the security-conscious, few users stay with the Stable release. Most tend to pick and choose new features from the Testing or the Unstable repositories, which, despite their names, are generally stable enough for most purposes. For such users, stable releases are just another upgrade, interesting chiefly as a snapshot of Debian policy and development over the last few years -- and that is as true of Debian 6.0 as its predecessors.

The Outcome of Policy Debates

For anyone who follows the Debian mailing lists even desultorily, Debian 6.0 can be seen as the outcome of two longstanding debates.

Debian has always supported more computer architectures than most distributions. Debian 6.0, for instance, officially supports eight, including 32- and 64-bit versions, SPARC, and PowerPC. With this kind of extensive coverage, it seems a sign of the times that Debian no longer officially supports the HP PA-RISC architecture, and has replaced the ARM architecture with the ARM EABI.

The dropped architectures may continue to be developed, but their change of status indicates that the Debian project as a whole no longer includes them in the list of what must be ready before an official release -- in other words, that they are no longer important to users.

Unofficially, Debian 6.0 is also including a GNU/kFreeBSD port, marking the first time that a GNU/Linux distribution has supported a non-Linux kernel.

Even more importantly, Debian 6 defaults to a free kernel. That means that the standard proprietary firmware drivers are not included in the standard kernel, and have been moved to the non-free section of repositories -- a typical Debian solution that lets it join the ranks of free distributions, while letting users make up their minds on the degree of freedom they want in their installations. Those who want or need the proprietary firmware can either opt to install it during installation, or else watch for builds that include them.

Debian 6

Debian 6

Advanced Choices for Everyone

On the technical side, Debian 6.0 puts to rest one longstanding myth while perpetuating another.

The myth that is put to rest is that Debian is hard to install. While true a decade ago, that myth has been coming less and less true with the last few releases, but, in Debian 6.0, the distribution now has a polished installer that gives users the opportunity for fine-tuned control while remaining simple enough that even new users should have no trouble understanding what they are doing.

Like earlier versions, this installer clearly lays out its stages, and allows users to retrace their steps as necessary -- or even open a terminal if problems cannot be solved any other way. However, the latest version of the installer has improved explanations of steps and online help, as well as defaults that should work for most users. Moreover, it is backed by the most comprehensive release notes that I have ever seen.

With this support, the installer can offer an impressive set of choices for those who want them. Packages can be selected according to the intended function of the installation -- for instance, desktop environment, or file server or laptop. While dropping ReiserFS, partitioning includes both a choice of ext2, ext3, ext4, btrfs, JFS and XFS filesystems (sensibly defaulting to ext 3 as the best combination of mature features and stability), and multiple partitions (either placing /home on a separate partition, or sub-dividing a drive into root, /home /usr, /var, and /temp partitions.

True, going through all the partitions can be time-consuming, especially for newcomers -- but at least it is comprehensible. Many users may consider the amount of time going through the installer can take a reasonable trade off for the control the effort will give them.

To their credit, Debian developers have taken the opposite approach from many distributions. Instead of assuming that a simple installation means a dumbed-down one that limits choices, the Debian team has decided that choice and ease-of-use are not mutually exclusive.

And guess what? Except for a rough patch here and there, the design philosophy works.

The Desktop Experience

However, if the new release challenges the myth that Debian is hard to install, it reinforces the belief that stable Debian releases are far from cutting edge.

To an extent, Debian's stable releases should be expected to be a version or so behind. The goal of the stable releases is reliability, which requires time both to test and for users to discover the shortcomings.

However, by coincidence, Debian's next release is out of sync with many major applications. It is shipping KDE 4.4 when 4.6 is due in a matter of days, and Xfce 4.6 when 4.8 is just released. Its GNOME version is 2.30 when GNOME 3.0 is due in a couple of months. The kernel is 2.6.32. On the desktop, it is using the Go-OO version of 3.2, when the 3.3 versions of both OpenOffice and LibreOffice were out last week.

True, the new release has finally retired the KDE 3 series, providing a package called kaboom to help you migrate your settings to the KDE 4 series. Yet that transition was carried out by most other major distributions well over a year ago. Although many of these version differences are not earth-shattering unless you are specifically looking for a new feature, you might be tempted to condemn Debian 6.0 as obsolete before it is released.

Fortunately, now that the release is over, it is probably only a matter of weeks before more recent packages start pouring into the Stable and Experimental repositories again.

Meanwhile, Debian's implementation of GNOME, its default desktop, is perfectly adequate, and even manages some welcome improvements.

For one thing, Debian 6 introduces the more customizable GRUB 2 or GRUB-PC. This change requires relearning how to support multiple operating systems or kernels on the same machine, but in the long run should provide a more flexible and modern set of options.

Even more importantly, the time to reach the desktop is reduced to under twenty seconds, thanks to the introduction of dependency-based boot sequencing (basically, a major overhaul of how the system boots that takes advantage of recent changes in the Linux kernel). Dependency-based boot sequencing also has the advantage of being able to run startup scripts in parallel, rather than sequentially.

On my test machine, the improvement tops even Ubuntu's efforts to accelerate the boot process -- despite the fact that Debian does not default to Ubuntu's upstart but continues to to use the venerable init daemon. By my approximate count, the new Debian boots in eighteen seconds -- almost three times faster than the old release -- while, unlike Ubuntu, continuing to show detailed system messages. Shutdowns are even quicker, taking about eight seconds.

On the desktop itself, Debian even manages to show some interest in usability. In particular, Debian 6 borrows from Ubuntu, even though its version of GNOME is closer to what the GNOME project ships than Ubuntu's modified version of GNOME. The new Debian release features the Ubuntu Software Center, renaming it simply "Software Center" for desktop package management -- although, true to form, the release notes continue to recommend the test-based aptitude or the command line tool apt-get as the best choice.

Even though the software versions are far from the latest, Debian 6 does deliver an innovative, fast-booting system, with some effort to think about usability. If the desktop experience is not as innovative as Ubuntu's, it still shows some significant improvements over the previous release -- although the less said about the cartoon-like sci-fi branding of the default wallpaper, the better.

The Value of Debian

If what you want in a distribution is the packaging of the newest software on the same day that it is announced, then Debian 6.0 will not be for you. Some packages are available that quickly -- notably Amarok's -- but, mostly, Debian has never tried to be bleeding edge, and Debian 6.0 is no departure from this tradition.

Instead, Debian 6.0 emphasizes the values that the project has always held: stability based on thorough testing, and an unobtrusive -- and non-obnoxious -- preference for software freedom and user control. Innovations such as the faster boot-time do occur (and are welcome), but they are secondary to the project's core values.

Considering how many distributions and users depend on Debian these days, these priorities are reassuring. But there is equal reassurance in the fact that, as free software becomes increasingly commercialized, there is still at least one major distribution that goes its own way, and emphasizes quality and software freedom over the expediency of the market place and the release schedule.

Debian 6.0 does show signs of change. In particular, it seems designed to bring those values to less technical users than previous Debian releases. In general, though, it shows every sign of perpetuating Debian's core values -- and those of us who appreciate those values wouldn't want it any other way.

ALSO SEE: 50 Open Source Applications for Sci-Tech Education

AND: Ubuntu's Unity Desktop: Tragically Ironic Product Name

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