Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A response to DistroWatch "Introducing Debian GNU/Linux 6.0"

The 8th DistroWatch Weekly of 2011 feature article, "Introducing Debian GNU/Linux 6.0", comes in as a qualified success for Debian.

The author,  Jesse Smith, seems to have had trouble with Debian in the past, even while the various tributary distributions like Ubuntu and KNOPPIX would run on his hardware just fine. Hardware wouldn't be recognized, the installer would crash, and so on. But in the words of Michael Palin, "This one stayed up!"

All well and good, let's explore some of Mr. Smith's comments in light of my own rather long history of using Debian.

A note on installation disks. Debian provides 4 different install disk styles in addition to the Debian Live image. These ISO images are Bootable Business Card (under 46MB), Net Install (189MB), CD#1 (642MB) and DVD#1 (4.4GB). Every image except the Bootable Business Card will install a base Debian system without a network link.

Right away, Mr. Smith calls the Debian DVD#1 "heavy" for being a completely full DVD. This is not an error on Debian's part, but a direct result of the very real functionality that defines Debian. The Popularity Contest package that Mr. Smith later tells the installer to "not install" sends statistics back to the Debian project as to what packages people install, and even more importantly what packages people actually use. These statistics are utilized to decide in what order packages will be included on the distribution's disks.

So on DVD#1 is not only the basic install with the default GNOME desktop, it includes the KDE, Xfce, LXDE, WindowMaker and other "desktops", it also includes many if not most of each of those desktop environment's branded applications and games, in addition to the desktop agnostic packages like OpenOffice, IceWeasel(FireFox), and a slew of others. I called this Desktop Linux's Killer Feature!

And keep in mind it also includes all those package groups that Mr. Smith mentions, "most of which are for servers."

Why? Because Popularity Contest has reported to Debian that that's what people use most.

CD#1 is a slightly different story. Due to the limited space, there are three different images, one each for GNOME, KDE, and a combo image for Xfce and LXDE reflecting their relative frugality. There just isn't enough space on CD#1 to fit them all, as there is on DVD#1.

And don't forget, that's Squeeze CD#1 of 52, or DVD#1 of  8! The vast majority of people have no need of any CD or DVD past #1, since that's what the software repositories are for. When I started using Debian, it came on 16 1.4MB floppies.

Had Mr. Smith investigated the "Advanced Install" features, he would have found "Alternate Desktop Environment", which might well have been what it took to understand just why DVD#1 is a full disk.

The reason that Mr. Smith notes "GNOME (version 2.30) was the only desktop environment installed" is because he chose the default. That is hardly a fault of Debian, since many other desktop environments are just a package manger away on DVD#1 and many more on the Debian repository mirrors.

And the reason that APT didn't work to a network mirror right away is because, as Mr. Smith notes in his install, he told it not to access any network mirror. This may seem a minor touch, but it does go directly to Mr. Smith's inexperience due to not having been able to do a "generic" Debian install previously.

Under "Hardware", Mr. Smith notes that the installed generic Debian takes up about 3GB of disk space. He seems surprised that the install would be smaller than the DVD#1 image, but this again is due to his not understanding just how much of the software on DVD#1 he chose not to install.


Yes, the installer isn't flashy. How can it be, and support as many different hardware platforms as Debian does? Keep in mind that the install scripts are fundamentally the same for every hardware platform, from serial console SPARC to IBM 360 and everything in between. Mr. Smith missed just how much work had to go into translating that install into a "graphical" mode to make some people happy, when anyone who looks at the "graphical" and text installers side by side will notice that they do exactly the same job in exactly the same way. This is important so as not to have to maintain 12 (or whatever it is this release) different installers.

I'm quite pleased that Mr. Smith took the time to give Debian 6.0 a real workout before writing his review. And I even understand his reservations about "by being so general, so universal, I felt Squeeze didn't excel at anything."

Maybe, Squeeze excels at being general and universal?

That is, after all, Debian's motto: The Universal Operating System.


  1. Anonymous23/2/11 19:27

    Oh, snap.

    Nice work, well laid out, and... correct.

  2. Thank you, oh mighty Gzeus. :^) You are too kind.

  3. Debian should offer all the available DEs right up front, instead of hiding them in the Advanced category. Other than that, it's fine.

  4. Debianero23/2/11 21:15

    This is the best (and official) page to download Debian 6.0 (Squeeze):

    Yep a huge offer because Debian is the greatest :)

  5. Anonymous23/2/11 22:46

    Debian is for those who really care what gets installed into their systems. With a high degree of control. For all others there's Ubuntu, Mint, etc.

    Debian allows one to get as close to the operating system as can be. Of course it comes at a price: one must be willing to learn the old way, i.e., by studying hard, and not by pointing and clicking at whatever comes on their screen. For them there's also Windows.

    Definitely, Debian is not for every one, at least not for the standard distro reviewer/basher.


  6. Really good product defends itself by its quality. Poor product always needs some advocates/PR to give excuses why the quality is low, and the shortcomings are really feature (here we can see, the trend progresses -- they are now "killer features").

    And a word about installer -- it is not flashy, it is not even designed properly. GRUB settings section after package installation section...? Please, have mercy! And I am not even touching usability issues.

  7. Anonymous24/2/11 04:19

    There's hundreds distributions that can be used by every one but Debian isn't one of them. That's what Mr. Smith said, is what says the Anonymous above, is about the same that is in the article and is the way Debian want it to be.

  8. Anonymous24/2/11 04:56

    WE use debian a lot, it is our default linux distro. We took delivery of our VMWare NFS store, an IBM x3650 M3 with LSI megaraid and lots of 15K drives. We had a deadline to meet and debian 5 did not see the hardware raid. Luckily i had an Ubuntu-server maverick alpha ( just released ) which detected and used the raid. The server has never been down yet. Love Debian, but need firmware for quick peaceful install's on enterprise equipment. Maybe i'll install deb 6 and build the initrd with the firmware..if ive got a heap of time and Ubuntu ever fails.

  9. >Every image except the Bootable Business Card will install a base Debian system without a network link.

    Are you sure that NetInstall will install Debian without Internet link? Probably very-very-very barebones.

    I tried to install Debian from CD1 of their set without Internet connection. Results were pity.
    Read my experience here:

  10. @macias: feel free to contribute.

  11. For Anonymous above with the IBM 3550M3 - Debian 6.0 should see it all - but maybe not the network card if it is a Broadcom. Get the one linux-firmware-nonfree .deb, put it on a USB stick and install it when prompted.

    That and DVD #1 dd'ed to an 8GB USB stick and you'll be away.

  12. Macias, Grub is asked about last, because it is installed last. This is not an excuse, it's an explanation.

    The "killer feature", if you examined the article I wrote on that subject, had nothing to do with the installer. It is based upon the variety of look-and-feel options easily available, while the competition (Win, Mac, etc) focus on trying to please everyone with a single interface design.

    As Jubal implies, Debian is 100% community driven. If you think it can be done better in some way, you are more than welcome to join the Debian installer development team.

    Anon, Taking the firmware out of the kernel does have its drawbacks, the Debian Free Software Guidelines are, like all principles, inconvenient at times to follow. But again, like firm principles, following them is in some ways its own reward.

    Have you considered contacting IBM or LSI to tell them that they ought to fully open their drivers to avoid such problems? Just a thought.

    DarkDuck, yes, it's starkly minimal, but for someone who just wants to get a bare system up and working, the NetInstall disk will do it.

    Even the Bootable Business Card images, up to Woody, would install a base system without a network connection as well. Now THAT was a minimal install! That has been taken away, the BBC installer now refuses to continue without a network connection of some sort.

    I rather enjoy starting out with a minimal system, adding dselect and then going through and building it up with only the packages I want. But there is wonderful convenience just dropping in a "pre-packaged" CD or DVD and getting a complete system. I keep several, like Knoppix, PCLinuxOS, around for just such uses.

    My unsuccessful "review" of Ubuntu 11.04 was the first time I'd used Ubuntu at all, and I would recommend it to first time users. After all, it's the applications that really matter, and the applications work the same way regardless of installer or look-and-feel.

  13. I have switch to Debian Squeeze (amd64) on my laptop from the big "U". More stable and fewer problems. Yes, the install may require a few tweaks. Overall, I am very happy with Debian. Generally more predictable including the docs.

  14. There's a very old (as if anything to do with Linux is, in fact, very old at all) saying in Debian:

    The installer is ugly, but you only use it once.

  15. As I barely pointed out above (as Anonymous, Sorry) Debian's way is intended for those that want to really grasp what's going on in every step of the instalation. It's about studying, learning and knowing what are the options and the consecuences of choices we take. Such a requirement is essential when you are setting up a server (the main specialty of Debian for many years) which will attend from say, some users in an office, to hundreds or thousands in an online web server. Here you're not supposed to install whatever is available. Instead, you install only those packages required to fulfill a need, be it a database, MS-Windows share, printer and file server, Web server, etc. Then you'll have to deal with users and permissions -it may only be yourself the only user, but you seldom need to work as the superuser-, grant access levels, etc., all in order to guarantee the famous stability and security Linux is known for.

    Of course it takes time, but once you know what you're doing, you may even try Debian's Expert mode installation which asks you lots of questions before starting to put things together. It is not for those in a hurry.

    In real life, be it for a corporation, a friend, or your own boxes, you never ever set up a server or a desktop in a hurry, no. You plan, accomplish and tweak your installations until you get what you planned for. It's only then that you give the box to final users, put a server online, or replace another box. No improvisation here.

    That's the debian way. It's ready when it's ready.


  16. My university runs a large number of infrastructure-critical servers on Debian. Some are physical (such as the master radius server), others are running in virtual machines. We use Debian exclusively all of our non-Microsoft servers, because of Debian Stable's high quality assurance and guarantee that a package's behavior will not change during the lifetime of that release. (Bleeding edge software stops looking good after the third 3 am support call, or the second time a software upgrade breaks a critical service)

    Additionally, Debian results in a remarkably low-resource-usage server, if installed correctly. Start by deselecting ALL of the tasks during the initial install, then use Aptitude to only install packages that are absolutely needed, (and tell it NOT to install recommended packages automatically). The result is a server with a minimal attack surface, reduced chance of software-induced security risks or bug behaviors, and MUCH lower resource consumption. The last point REALLY matters in a virtual server environment.

    Our Debian boxes (and the services they host) are never down except for kernel-update-induced reboots... we have had two limited and rapidly-resolved outages in the past 5 years, and both were due to operator error. This makes for happy customers, and really reduces the antacid consumption by our data center staff.

    My only complaint with Squeeze is that I am starting to see significant "desktop feature" dependency creep even in stripped-down servers. The apt tools now apparently depend on the Xapian search infrastructure, for example.

    Additionally, I am uncomfortable with a QA process that managed to release with an aptitude that can be interactively crashed just by typing slash tilde to start an advanced search (also apparently xapian-related). Makes me wonder what other bugs are waiting for me to go to sleep so that they can crash my servers and nuke my phone with system failure alerts.

    I've always joked that Debian was the closest I had seen to a "life-support grade" Linux. This is still true, but I am suddenly happy that I don't have a pacemaker Powered by Debian.

  17. Anonymous26/2/11 13:04

    Wait a minute, a rebranded version of Firefox, already out of date, that through the life of the release _will_ have all sorts of unpatched security holes is a killer feature?

    I'm all for free software, but that is insane.

  18. Anon, that "re-branded" FireFox, IceWeasel, is re-branded BECAUSE Debian applies security fixes that are not yet included in the mainline FireFox release, and the FireFox license does not allow such patching AND still using the FireFox name.

    So the "rebranding" is in response to your first objection.

    Debian has "" where major upgrades and updates to time critical packages, like browsers and even kernels, are tested and made available in such a way as to not disrupt the "stable" nature of Debian Stable: Package continuity and no surprises.

    So your second objection is already answered.

    Security updates are continually applied to the packages in Debian Stable through the lifetime of that release. Mr. Smith mentions in his review that (and volatile)were already being checked by his base install even though he hadn't told it to do so.

    So has long been an answer to your third objection.

    So that's three objections, answered. Do you have anything else?

  19. Anonymous26/2/11 19:00

    I have installed Debian Squeeze 6 with a virtualbox on my Ubuntu desktop and I have to admit that I am quite pleased. I had heard that Debian was difficult to install and even tried Linux Mint Debian before undertaking the task. To my surprise, I really like Debian and can see making it my future main distro. I am not a geek but I figured out things in a relatively short period of time and I think it was worth it. While I could do without epiphany or ice weasel as my main browser, that is an easy fix. I really like Aptitude and all of the options and programs made available. One opinion from a Ubuntu user that disagrees with the poor review given by distro watch.

  20. Anonymous28/2/11 07:09

    Great response! If only you detailed it more! Even only its users like you, Debian will remain as my hope in the computer/OS world! I know, you are all there - thank you!

  21. Anonymous28/2/11 11:30

    Mr Smith here, author of the review in question. Curt, I think you generally misunderstood some of the statements I made in my article on Debian, at least that's the impression I get reading your points here.

    For example, you contest my calling the Debian DVD 1 heavy. That was not a complaint on my part, but an observation. The DVD Debian provides is large. I don't see this as a good nor bad thing, it just is. There are plenty of ways to install Debian and I _intentionally_ took the "heavy" one to avoid missing anything.

    Nor was my observation that Debian installs (by default) one desktop environment, a complaint. For that matter I wasn't complaining when I pointed out the default install places less data on the hard disk than the DVD holds. These were all written as neutral observations of what a person gets by taking the _defaults_ provided. They weren't meant as negative points.

    Also, as I've explained a few times already in the DWW comments section, telling the installer not to access mirrors A) does not prevent it from trying to access mirrors and B) does not prevent the installer from setting up APT repositories. Post-install, regardless of which installer option is used, both network and DVD sources are included in APT's source list. My issue wasn't adding network sources, but being forced to remove the DVD from my source list in order to install software over the network.

    A few Debian fans were quite upset by the review and see it as an attack. It was not meant as such but was, instead, just a series of observations of what one gets when installing Debian as one would any other big-name Linux distro. I think Debian has an important role in the Linux ecosystem (as I written on various occasions). And, once it's up and running, it makes a pretty good system. There were just some bugs and bumps to get there.

    Curt, thanks for sharing. If you have anything else you'd like to share, my virtual door is always open. Feel free to drop me a line either on the DWW forum or at jessefrgsmith AT yahoo DOT ca. Cheers.
    - J Smith

  22. Mr. Smith, thank you very much for coming by. I'm sorry to hear that people have considered your article an "attack", that is a sad commentary that we still haven't overcome the cold and terse nature of plain text.

    Rather than "complaint", I was trying to demonstrate that the vast majority of your negative experiences were due to what I consider to be unfamiliarity. Take without further context, I was led to believe you were "surprised" that the install was smaller than the DVD, "surprised" that the DVD was listed in sources.list, etc.

    The Debian installer has always suffered from the same "direct and terse" aspect that has lead to so many flame-wars over the years. To paraphrase Dr. McCoy, "I'm an engineer, not a diplomat." Many people have taken that terseness for unsophistication the same way your reporting of "bugs and bumps" was taken as an attack.

    Peace, may your aim never waver,


  23. Well don't bother to post over at DW, they do not like "debate" any more.... Anything that is not "PC, kumbayee, warm and fuzzy" is DELETED! There is about 1/2 to 3/4 LESS posts in the past few weeks and some users they just delete their comments period.

    The bunch over there is very thinned skinned.

    And your comments are spot on in re Debian. The response here is nothing but BACK PEDALLING and CHANGING THE STORY!

    For what ever reason there is a certain faction now in the Linux community that absolutely flips out if you put out a distro over the size of CD! Hence the "heavy" comment. This faction just can not deal with the thought that a DVD can include so much more software, drivers, DE's, etc. ready to go v. having to add them later. I prefer nice big fat heavy DVD ISO's filled to the brim with my distro with the latest and greatest that will fit. One stop download!

  24. Debian is not a handsome giant (except to mothers everywhere) but it is upon its shoulders that so many stand on. It is fine to dislike the king, but it is deeply errornous to wish the king to be one of his courtiers.

  25. I tryed for the first time in my life to install Debian (in this case version 6) on my laptop. Never other distro worked as well as Squeeze! I am completely satisfied, all hardware work perfectly at first shot!
    Long life and prosper to all you and Debian.

  26. I have to say that I like the Debian installer a lot.
    It's simple, yet very feature rich with the secure remote install over SSH being one of my favorites.

  27. Anonymous17/8/11 20:58

    I started out years ago with redhat6, Caldera then went on to try Suse. Finally I tried Debian, not having tried it so far because of all the reviews saying installing Debian was hard. I was surprised at how easy the install was. I was equally surprised at the convenience of apt and the amount of software available. Since then I have settled on Debian as my distro of choice. I have also followed Ubuntu and derivatives, installing them and always managed to break them after the initial install and then adding additional software. This has kept me from using these. Debian testing works better than Ubuntu and all derivatives. That is my experience.