Debian GNU/Linux 5.0: Flexible and (Almost) Free

Thursday Feb 19th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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Just as Debian supports both free and non-free installations, so it supports beginners and experts, and both those aware and ignorant of security options.

You can count on two things for every Debian release: It will be later than expected, and it will be suitable for every possible level of expertise. Debian 5.0 is no exception.

Arriving almost five months later than originally scheduled, Debian 5.0 is not the most cutting-edge GNU/Linux distribution, but, like earlier releases, it is unparalleled for flexibility.

This flexibility, of course, is why Debian is the ancestor of distributions ranging from Ubuntu and Mepis to Knoppix and Linux Mint. By contrast, the release schedule matters less for many users, because they constantly upgrade their systems anyway. A new Debian release is simply a new version of the Debian stable repository, and of interest mainly to those running servers and other installations in which robustness is the main consideration. For such users, dependability is more important than the latest software packages.

Like other Debian releases, version 5.0 is available in a variety of formats. The default GNOME installation is available as a set of 31 CDs or 5 DVDs; you can also substitute the first CD for an installation based on KDE or Xfce.

A much quicker option -- and the one I used -- is to download a netinstall or a business card image, which includes only a base system and requires an internet connection for a full installation.

Installation

Among those who have never tried Debian, the distribution has a reputation as being hard to install. The truth is, Debian has had user-friendly installers for a couple of releases now. While the default is the text-installer, installing Debian from a graphical interface is only slightly harder than installing Fedora or Ubuntu -- and then only because you have options such as choosing GNOME, KDE, LXDE, or Xfce for your desktop or choosing an advanced partitioning scheme.

Moreover, for those who wish to choose at every point, the Debian installer's Expert mode offers more control than any other installer I’ve used. It starts with some two dozen installation options, ranging from a selection of the mirror used for the net-based portion of the install, support for infrared devices and NTFS support. It continues every step along the way with more choices, such as whether to install all hardware drivers or only those needed for the system, and whether to participate in the Debian Popularity Contest that tracks the most used programs for the purposes of future development. Should you get lost in the selection, you can always return to the main menu to see exactly what progress you have made in the install process.

To beginners, such choice may seem anal-retentive. However, for those with more experience, Expert mode is an obvious benefit. It is the obvious choice for the security conscious -- one of the first rules of security being that you need to know what is on the system. It is also ideal for those who dislike waste or are installing on limited hard drive space, who dislike installing packages for which they have no use, or who are simply curious about the latest developments, such as GRUB2, which is available as an experimental boot manager. If you fall into any of these categories, the extra time to work hands-on will probably make time seem well-spent.

Desktop and software selection

Debian's default is a GNOME desktop with light blue wallpaper lightly patterned with spiral watermarks and a red Debian logo. If you chose the Desktop Environment installation profile, you will find that the installed programs are minimal: a mere 797 packages occupying 3.2 gigabytes of hard drive. If you are an experienced user, one of your first steps after installation will probably be to add many of your favorite programs, such as Bluefish or XChat.

Probably, too, you will want to do some updates. What you have installed is Debian Stable, and the stable repository is much more concerned with reliability than the latest releases. However, the five-month delay in Debian 5.0's release means that many of the packages were built in late September 2008, and are now a release or two behind being current.

For example, the release uses a 2.6.26 kernel, OpenOffice.org 2.4, and GNOME 2.22. Newer versions of packages should start flooding into the stable repository now that submissions are no longer frozen, but if you are unable to wait, you might want to add the testing or unstable repositories to the /etc/apt/sources.list file so you can selectively update.

One update you will not find is a version of KDE 4. If you are a developer, you can install KDE 4 libraries so that you can write for the latest version of KDE, but, for desktop users, Debian continues to offer KDE 3.5.9. However, if you are one of those who dislike KDE 4, this decision may seem more of a gift than a restriction.

Next Page: Debian's take on Free Software

Software installation and security

Debian uses the same Add/Remove Applications module as Ubuntu. This application closely resembles PackageKit and similar graphical tools in other distributions. Its left pane shows categories of applications, while the right pane lists individual programs at the top of the window and a description of the currently selected program below. The application also indicates the popularity of programs, based on Popularity Contest results.

One feature that is missing from Debian 5.0 is the update applet that appeared in the previous release. If this change is not simply an omission, perhaps it is an assumption that Debian users do not need a reminder to update their systems. Many, in fact, update daily. Moreover, given that almost all Debian users enable and disable testing and unstable repositories as they need, an update applet could be more harm than good, luring users into installing more of less reliable repositories than they intend.

Besides giving users tight control of what they install, Debian also includes a number of other options for added security. Like many distributions, it includes an option to password-protect the boot manager so that only authorized users can start the computer. Its default of barring a graphical login for the root user is also reasonably commonplace.

In addition, though, Debian 5.0 also includes the option of whether to enable sudo the way that Ubuntu does, so that root privileges are enabled for a minimal time. It also gives you the option of enabling both the Security repository and the new Volatile repository, which includes packages such as anti-virus signatures that benefit from constant updates. The Security and Volatile repositories overlap to an extent, but, between the two of them, you should be able to guarantee what security updates can provide.

Unofficial Freedom of Choice

One other aspect of Debian is worth emphasizing. During the preparation for release, Debian developers voted against removing proprietary firmware for drivers from the free sections of its repositories. The decision was probably practical, since dealing with this issue in the middle of the release preparation would have been inefficient and caused greater delays. But for those of us who valued Debian for its support of software freedom, it was disappointing.

However, official and unofficial policy appear to be two different things in Debian. While officially, Debian turned a blind eye to proprietary blobs, unofficially it still seems to be encouraging software freedom. If you use Expert mode to install only the drivers necessary for your system, you have a strong chance not to install any proprietary firmware. You also have to choose to enable the non-free and contrib sections of the repository, so other proprietary packages are not added to your system, either.

Similarly, while officially Debian does not install Mono support in order to save space on installation disks, in practice this decision means that another source of controversy for those who support software freedom has been removed.

The result of these practices is that, while Debian is not about to appear on the Free Software Foundation's list of completely free distributions, it does make running a free distribution easier than most major distributions. Although some hardware might be supported without proprietary packages, for the most part, you have to make an effort to install anything non-free in Debian.

That solution is not completely satisfactory -- not to me, at least -- but it seems typical of Debian's approach to assembling a distribution. The Debian way seems not so much to stake out a position as to offer a variety of choices for every taste. Just as Debian supports both free and non-free installations, so it supports beginners and experts, and both those aware and ignorant of security options. The result is a release that is flexible enough to satisfy all sorts of users -- a niche that seems both unique and much-needed among modern distributions.

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