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My workstation OS: Debian

By KIVILCIM Hindistan on November 26, 2004 (8:00:00 AM)

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What do you want from a desktop operating system? Of course programs for everyday use (a Web browser, office tools, games, etc.), but those programs are not the main criteria, especially with GNU/Linux, since you can use almost any Linux application easily on your distribution of choice. The real criteria are stability, package management, hardware compatibility, and the people behind the software, the community. For its superiority in those areas, I made Debian my workstation OS.

Debian GNU/Linux is a bit different from other Linuxes, in that it does not have point releases, such as Red Hat 7.0, 7.1, and 7.2. Instead, at any given time, Debian has three versions with different content: stable, testing, and unstable. (Debian versions are named after characters in the movie "Toy Story," and the three versions are called Woody, Sarge, and Sid, respectively. Woody is officially known as Debian 3.0.) Any program that will be published in the next version is compiled, documented, packaged, and put into the unstable distribution. As the name implies, the unstable branch includes the packages that are not tested much and may have problems. The testing distribution has tested programs that generally do not cause problems, but which still need time to mature. When the testing has gone on long enough the package becomes part of the stable distribution.

The Debian developers are rigid on this policy, which results in a stable, well-tested operating system. This is not talking about "total quality assurance," this is total quality in action.

Because the stable distribution has thoroughly tested software, it won't offer the latest versions of your favourite packages, but rather the most stable ones. Debian 3.0 was released in mid-2002, and 4.0 isn't expected until early next year. But if the latest version of that software has any vital functions, you'll probably find it in, which is a repository of new versions of packages compiled with the stable libraries, for dire needs. Alternatively, you can install the unstable version of the software into your stable distribution. Even you upgrade to the whole unstable version, you won't have problems compiling the latest version of your favourite software.

A volunteer organisation like Debian has neither deadlines to push, nor marketing budgets that enforce a new distro or version be released every year. If a package has problems, you wait (or even help) and it becomes better. I've been using Debian unstable for two and a half years, and I can assure you that you'll not have many problems, compared to other supposedly stable operating systems.

Packaging system and software archives

Installing new applications and configuring old ones in Debian GNU/Linux is a breeze. You do not have to worry about dependencies, library problems, or even former configuration files. Debian Package Management System handles all these for you. Most of the time all you need to do is run Debian's Advanced Package Tool (APT) with the command apt-get install packagename. APT searches Debian mirrors, which are HTTP and FTP servers around the world that hold package files for Debian distros. Debian will look at the mirrors, compare the version of the package it finds there with your current one, check for dependencies, add them to the list of files to be downloaded, if any are needed, download them all, and begin installing them.

You can even upgrade your whole operating system with apt-get upgrade. Going from from Debian Woody (stable) to Sid (unstable) is as easy as a regular apt-get install. This is exceptional functionality.

Maybe the most important feature of Debian Package Management System is that it does not look at file dependencies, but package dependencies, unlike most other systems. This works far better than keeping track of thousands of files.

If you are terrified of the command prompt and consider a good operating system one where you never need to type any system command, you can update your packages using the GUI front end Synaptic, which maintains information about thousands of packages, with detailed data about what that software does or what its capabilities are.

The merits of Debian Package Management System are longer that I can explain here, but let me note that, in the last few years, APT has been adopted by Fedora, SUSE, Slackware, and many other distributions (though not as their primary package management tool). This says a lot about the capability and quality of this system.

As for the range of software packages, the unstable distro includes almost 16,000 packages, ranging from science to network management, games to statistics software, all configured and packaged for Debian users, with dependencies and other prerequisites arranged. It is overwhelming to have so much software to chose from, especially when it is all only an apt-get command away.

Hardware compatibility

Debian has a large, volunteer developer base. While many other Linux distributions may run on i386, Macintosh, or Sun platforms, Debian can run on a wide range of CPUs, from DEC Alpha to IBM PowerPC to ARM to Amiga.

The kernel included in Debian versions is patched and maintained for maximum compatibility. If you have a problem with a given device, and if the hardware is not too exotic, you'll probably see by searching on the Internet that some Debian user already has a workaround for your problem.

One area where Debian lags behind other distributions is in the initial install. Debian Woody has a text-based installation that can easily scare off newcomers, and which may not autodetect new graphics cards. Both of these issues are attended to in the testing version, Debian 4.0 (Sarge). But after the system is set up and running, you most probably won't need any hands-on help.


As far as I know, Debian is one of only two distributions (even operating systems) with a social contract (Gentoo is the other). All Debian developers agree to this contract, which covers important concepts such as being %100 free, giving back to the free software community, promising not to hide problems, stating the first priorities as the users and free software, and more. It is more contract than money can buy.

The attitude behind the social contract shows how dedicated the people who work on Debian are. Apart from thousands working on the really boring jobs of maintaining packages, checking dependencies, compiling from source, cleaning the glitches, and doing this again and again, there are lots of IRC channels, mailing lists, and Web sites (among them Debian Planet, Debian Help, and Debian Blogs), all of them crawling with experienced Debian users. If you have a problem, someone will help you solve it.

Debian GNU/Linux is one of the most stable and easy-to-maintain operating systems available, free or non-free. If you have never looked under the hood of GNU/Linux before, you may need a few help calls or to do a bit reading to get started, but it's worth it. Expect a system with no forced reboots, no unpredicted system crashes, and no program installation conflicts when you're done installing it. After your first month with Debian, you'll wonder what kept you from apt-getting yourself to Debian all this time.

KIVILCIM Hindistan is a freelance writer in Istanbul, Turkey, who covers GNU/Linux, IT security, and the Internet.

What's your desktop OS of choice? Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us what you use and why. If we publish it, we'll pay you $200. So far, we've heard from fans of FreeBSD, Mepis Linux, and Debian. Coming up next week: Xandros.

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on My workstation OS: Debian

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I'm wondering

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 26, 2004 08:36 PM
Wether or not people that read newsforge are really interested in what distro [insert person here] uses.

I'm guessing that 99% of us are long past the time where we were in doubt which flavour of linux is best for what purpose, and why.

But thats just my opinion.





Re:I'm wondering

Posted by: Ronald Trip on November 26, 2004 09:15 PM
Seasoned GNU/Linux users know what is going around and are not afraid to find out themselves. But for people new to GNU/Linux these articles can be great for orientation purposes.

Besides, I have to agree with the author. APT totally RULES!!!<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;)


God's keyboard

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 26, 2004 10:02 PM
# touch universe # chmod +rwx universe #<nobr> <wbr></nobr>./universe

this is really beautiful. thanks!


the next keystrokes:

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 26, 2004 10:04 PM
chown -R Linux:GNU universe


view from the 1%

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 26, 2004 09:52 PM
I am a mid-level GNU/Linux user and I have installed and used about 10-12 different distros. Nonetheless, I am now mainly a Mandrake user and I do appreciate being exposed to the views of the aficionados of other distros. Its not a matter of *doubting* anything, or of fishing for another distro (although that's always an option for me), but of keeping current.

URPMI RULES! Vive la France!


I love articles like this

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 08:17 AM
Please keep them coming. They give me a flavor of other distros. And the comments are always fun and educational to read, too. Great article, just like the Mepis one was (two distros I'm thinking of trying).


Re:I'm wondering

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 28, 2004 11:05 PM
Since the distros are changig rapidly, I think my knowledge of distros I haven't tried in a few years are fairly out-dated. Thus I think articles like this are interesting since I made my opinion a couple of years ago and lots have changed since then.


testing packages and sarge

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 26, 2004 09:07 PM
First of all, packages in testing don't get sent to stable individually. It's when testing as a whole becomes relatively bug free then all of the packages become stable.

Second, woody is going to be Debian 3.1 not Debian 4.0.


Re:testing packages and sarge

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 03:12 AM

"Second, woody is going to be Debian 3.1 not Debian 4.0."

You have a typo there. Of course it is Sarge that is going to be Debian 3.1 (probably), not Woody (Debian 3.0)... Though, I remember some Debian people discuss the chance of the next version becoming 4.0 because of some many big changes (major upgrades of kernel, DEs etc.)


Re:testing packages and sarge

Posted by: theshaman on November 27, 2004 09:36 AM
Skipping a minor version number in favor of a major version number is often an arbitrary decision but no, no such reasons as afforded i.e. major releases of DEs or kernels were factors in such a decision process AFAIK. Of course one can always double check with the devels and maintainers and even Manoj (nick=Manoj) or Martin Michlmayr (nick=tbm) on #debian-devel on


Debian installer

Posted by: SarsSmarz on November 26, 2004 09:24 PM
The latest installer is really good, and has tipped my away from Xandros for my 'old' laptops. Its a great deal to pick up corporate-discarded laptops (can't run xp), and put debian on them. Great for university kids!


Re:Debian installer

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 29, 2004 12:19 AM
care to share with us how to do that [i.e. get your hands on company dropout laptops] ?


Of the next Stable and Unstable

Posted by: theshaman on November 26, 2004 09:27 PM
As someone else has already pointed out, the next Debian Stable release is not 4.0 but 3.1. Fwiw, one can already download and try it by using the Debian Installer (D-I) at RC2 of the D-I has just been released but days ago and is already very stable. In fact, RC1 was already useable for I'm typing this out from an Unstable/Experimental box that was installed via RC1 almost 3 months back now.

Also it is not true that new upstream releases or newly packaged apps gets to go first into Unstable but rather they are ship into Experimental and/or the devel's/maintainer's own private repo. There are in fact stations before Unstable e.g. Experimental. For I apt-getted my GNOME 2.8 in late September from Experimental.


Term "Unstable" is misleading

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 07:46 PM
Many people are scared by the term "Unstable" in connection with Debian. It does not mean "crash-prone" so much as "constantly changing". Most of the packages in Unstable are just the current versions from upstream that may be very mature and stable in the traditional sense. They are in Unstable simply because they are the most recent versions to have been added to Debian. Of course, because an Unstable system changes with every apt-get upgrade, there is more potential to break things. Unstable is a fine desktop, but be prepared to have to fix it occasionally after an upgrade. It is really a great way to learn more about gnu-linux.

I think there would be less confusion if Debian used the terms "Static" and "Dynamic" rather than "Stable" and "Unstable".


I currently agree....

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 26, 2004 10:05 PM
I went through stages when I first encountered linux.

First, I didn't know what a distro was, I just picked up some CD's at the computer store that looked interesting.

Second, I installed whatever was the newest distro I could get CD's of... This was back when dial up was 28.8 and 6 CD's of files saved a lot of time.

Third, at univirsity I discovered downloading, and used redhat and started to custom build from code when dependencies needed.

Fourth, I extended the compile theme to doing a full LFS install, right up to a desktop OS.

Fifth, Debian, basically, once you've learned to build the OS from source, I felt that I didn't need to do that anymore(at least not manually). So I use debian(testing), It's solid, stable and relativly up to date. Works on old and new hardware and generally makes my life simple.(My servers are kept up to date with one simple line.)

This was before Gentoo(I, like many, had that same idea, just not the time to implement it, oh well). I recently bought a new laptop (AMD64 based) and am itching to try Gentoo on it. But I suspect I will stick with Debian for my system.




Re:I currently agree....

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 26, 2004 11:19 PM
Free? Why is their stuff like mp3 et al?


Re:I currently agree....

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 12:51 AM
Having come from the likes of Mandrake, SUSE, Redhat, and Gentoo... I currently have two distros I use.

Live CD: Gnoppix
Installed: Slackware

*** Real Geeks use Slackware ***


Re:I currently agree....

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 01:19 AM
Real Geeks don't dictate rules for others.

Mandrake => Debian migrator here.


don't hold your breath

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 01:30 AM
Mandrake => Debian migrator here

[notice the empty space after this sign]


Re:don't hold your breath

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 03:43 AM


Re:don't hold your breath

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 04:39 AM
I agree... huh?


Re:I currently agree....

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 05:20 PM
Don't use gentoo on a laptop--you'll fry it just compiling everything all the time. Gentoo is really annoying that way. But Gentoo IS pure, which is why I love it.


My workstation OS: Gentoo

Posted by: ndowens on November 27, 2004 03:27 AM
I use Gentoo as my desktop, for one because since it is source based packages can be made quicker instead of binary, and plus that means more software availability, and portage is sweet!


Re:My workstation OS: Gentoo

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 05:53 AM
You describe features actually available in Debian.

apt-build instead of apt-get will build all from sources but after more than 6 years of daily usage I see no reason why to build from sources.

Does gentoo have more 20000 packages available today ?


Re:My workstation OS: Gentoo

Posted by: theshaman on November 27, 2004 09:48 AM
Yeah, but not everyone is so ungainfully employed as to waste days just to install a distro. Don't tell me a Stage 3 option exist for the impatient, by opting for it, it defeats the purpose of using Gentoo in the first place.

Even if one makes it past the initial install, the post-install installation of software or should I say compilation of software can be quite demanding on one's hardware. While many in the more developed countries are blessed with 3 Ghz cpus, 2 gig ram, tens even hundreds of gigs of HD capacity, many in the developing nations don't and thus have not what it takes to source compile major stuff like xorg.

Neither I must add is "building anything and everything from source" an exercise in optimum usage of TIME but rather an exhibition of how UNGAINFULLY employed a person is.

And of course those tweaking of the CFLAGs, hehe, can't wait to see more impressionable fashion pervies get their hands burned<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;-)

This coming from one who is an ex-Gentoo user but now vows NEVER ever to go back to it but it may just be a distro for those with the latest hardware to flaunt or time to waste.


Re:My workstation OS: Gentoo

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 28, 2004 03:50 AM
the post over mine is coming from someone who didn't understand at all what is gentoo.


Re:My workstation OS: Gentoo

Posted by: jmirles on November 28, 2004 11:53 PM
I don't know, he may know exactly what Gentoo is. I used it for a while, and really got tired of the all day compiles. To upgrade KDE or Gnome on a 2.8ghz cpu with 1gb of ram took over two hours! That is just plain stupid.

While it may be a nice distro to run if you are some kind of purist and want only source, I'll stick with Debian and dpkg.

Yeah I know about the Stage 3 packages, but then why run Gentoo at all?

I guess it amounts to different strokes for different folks. I just don't have the patience to have my PC compile packages all day. I want to use the damn thing.


nice article

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 09:12 AM
But I think you are preaching to the choir. Well written article.


same old blah blah blah

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 12:44 PM
Same old stuff 'bout being "rock stable" (not true), etc.
What you need to understand is that you can easily run two versions of Debian.
Here's what I do: I run a chrooted sid on top of stable. Pronto! Cutting edge stuff is readily available *and* I get the stable stability.
And this is *very* easy to do in Debian (I not a sysadmin, so I should know).


Re:same old blah blah blah

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 10:04 PM
If it's so "*very* easy" to do, why not sum it up in a couple of lines for us so we can all do it?

or are you just *full* *of* *shit*?


Re:same old blah blah blah

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 27, 2004 11:52 PM
Why do you have to be an asshole? Is it the ability to be anonymous? Is it that you have no friends and therefor wish to see everyone as miserable as you? Do you have severe psychological problems that cause you to hate everyone?

Seriously, you need to calm down.


Re:same old blah blah blah

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 28, 2004 03:57 AM
man debootstrap is your medical threatment.


Re: mixing stable and testing/unstable

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 29, 2004 11:56 PM
I don't know what the original 'blah blah blah' poster is talking about with his 'chrooted sid on top of stable' crap, that's completely unnecessary. It is fairly easy to have a mix of packages from stable and testing (i wouldn't recommend unstable). See these short instructions:

APT HOWTO section 3.8 How to keep a mixed system
<A HREF="" title=""><nobr>t<wbr></nobr> -get.en.html#s-default-version</a>

'Sarge' has Firefox 1.0, KDE 3.2, GIMP 2.0, etc.


Re:nice article

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 29, 2004 09:57 PM
All of this is true. I like the latest Debian netinstall. It gives a 2.6 kernel install with KDE desktop and gdm for base-config desktop.
But the real issue, that there are a large debian-based distros is the simple fact that Debian does not deliver a multimedia desktop on its install.
I have scsi hard disk and dual Athlon cpus. I found that there was not much decent info on a post-install directions for a multimedia setup. I faced rebuilding my kernel to get it all together.
This is the obvious missing road-map.
I run knoppix and mepis on my box.


Corrections and comments

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 29, 2004 12:58 PM
Good job, Kivilcim. Some corrections:

- Although I don't remember where, I've read that Sarge is going to be Debian 3.1, not Debian 4.0.
- Programs that are published in the next version are in testing, not unstable.

You touched on this a little, but I'd like to clarify a little. Debian has different values than most distributions. It values stability, hardware compatibility, maintainability, usability, giving control to the user, community, and pure free software. It doesn't value (to the same extent) eye candy, being newbie-friendly, bleeding edge software, and fancy graphical installations. The Debian project is trying to address these, so they will come with time, but not at the expense of the aforementioned values.

So many distributions are like toys. People install them, play with them, and geek out. They look fancy when they're installing, and work pretty well if you don't mess with them or try to install anything more than the defaults, but beyond this, the user gets the distinct feeling that they are put together with bubble gum and string.

I've used many of these distributions, but have settled on Debian because my values have changed. Linux is becoming more mature. People are starting to use it for real work and as their primary desktop OS, instead of just a geek hobby. I think Debian meets these needs much better than most distributions. Other distributions are improving on these values, but Debian is way ahead of them because it focused on them from the beginning at the expense of being fancy.

Here's one thing that wasn't mentioned in this article, but I think is very important. Debian has real staying power. It's been around for a long time, has always stuck to its values and social contract, so it has proven that it is going to be here for a long time. I got really tired of watching Red Hat turn into Fedora, SuSE turn into Novell, and Caldera turn into SCO. Then there's Mandrake which was close to bankruptcy, and Linspire which isn't profitable. Sun is Solaris one day, Linux the next day, and then Solaris again the next day.

This is all dramatic and fun to watch, but I don't want my operating system and software to be at the whim of corporate scandals and the vagaries of the marketplace. I had enough of that with Windows. Debian is a non-profit organization. Its only job in life is to make a rock-solid Linux distribution. That's it. It's done it unwaveringly for ages now, and will continue to.

One of the major criticisms that Debian takes is how out-dated its software is. First of all, this is only for the stable branch. You're welcome to use testing or unstable instead (even these tend to be less buggy than other distributions). Second of all, Ubuntu addresses all of these concerns, and Debian will in the future, according to the leader of Debian.


Re:Corrections and comments

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 29, 2004 07:04 PM
Well I am a die hard red hat now fedora user. But last few lines about different distributions have concluded that why debian is better than any other.


Debian rocks on the C/H/S platter

Posted by: Sean Champ on November 30, 2004 03:50 AM
Ok, just my 2¢ about the <A HREF="" title="">Deb</a>:

Debian truly rules the IT world in regards to:

  • packaging

  • package maintainer support

  • user support -- anchored in bug-tracking, about packages and installation issues, etc
  • standardization -- Debian policy tends to be the basis of this

  • customizability -- at the level of (1) the user/admin's software configuration, and at the level of (2) the user/admin's view of the Debian packaging system, which supports such ease in the cutomization of pacakges

and I do honestly doubt that I'll see any distro, of any operating system, beating 'em, at the afore -- though I am afraid that any clamor - raised upon the impatient myopia of marketroids - may follow, after this.

But, heck -- the list, above, does serve to summarize: Why Debian rules, in the roots of the IT suchforth -- for those particular points of ruling, marked afore


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