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Debian at 17: As Important as Ever

It's hard to believe that Debian has 17 years under its belt, but the project celebrated its 17th birthday on August 16. Though Debian may not be quite as well hyped as other distros, it's still one of the most important FOSS projects around.

It’s not exactly a milestone birthday, but Debian’s 17th birthday deserves a bit of recognition. Ian Murdock’s baby came into the world on August 16th, 1993 and has been a force for free software ever since. Debian might seem a bit crufty compared to newer, faster-moving distros, but it’s still one of the most important.

Debian kicked off when Linux distributions were still a relatively novel concept. The only older surviving distro is Slackware, Red Hat didn’t enter the picture until 1994. Depending on how you look at it, Debian either enjoys a very small niche user base, or one of the largest of any Linux distribution. Strictly speaking, Debian is widely (though it’s hard to say how widely) deployed on servers and not quite as popular on desktop systems compared to Fedora, Linux Mint, or Ubuntu.

Then again, Ubuntu is based on Debian, and Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu. One could make a case that all Ubuntu users are also Debian users, too.

No Debian, No Ubuntu

Which brings me to the first reason that Debian at 17 is more imporant than ever. Without Debian, we’d have no Ubuntu. Ubuntu may be better recognized, more user friendly, and more adept at bringing in new users — but without Debian, Ubuntu would be stopped cold.

That, of course, goes for all the Ubuntu derivatives too. Linux Mint, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and dozens of others. Debian provides a solid foundation for all the buntus. Canonical may be enjoying decent growth, but the company couldn’t afford to take on the development of the entire system alone. Canonical and the Ubuntu Project specialize in polishing upstream software and repackaging, much of the heavy lifting for Ubuntu comes from Debian.

No Commercial Interest

A lot of people like what Canonical has done to Debian, but not everybody. Some people prefer their Linux commercial free — and for those folks, Debian is the best choice.

One of the reasons that Debian is deeply important is that it’s one of the few projects with no commercial influence. Quite a few companies have commercial interest in Debian, but the project is a non-profit and no company has undue influence over the direction of the project. I’m not one to object to commercial sponsorship of a FOSS project, but it’s good to know that at least one distribution is entirely community led and developed.

This has its downsides too. Debian’s release schedule is unpredictable, and slow. Debian is inching up on the Squeeze release, or Debian 6.0. Since 2000, Debian has only had five stable major releases. Granted, many Debian users run testing or even unstable, but the lack of actual releases has not been useful for businesses or users who want predictable and stable releases.

All work is done by volunteers, which means that some of the pieces of Debian may be neglected or move very slowly because no one is interested or available to work on things like making the installer more user friendly. The nice thing about a sponsored distro is that the non-sexy bits of development still get done even if no one in the community is interested in doing them for free.

But for free software die-hards, Ubuntu has too many compromises and Debian is where it’s at.

Debian also provides a model for all fledgling free software projects. Its Social Contract and Free Software Guidelines provide a really good model for emerging projects. Projects like Fedora, Ubuntu, and openSUSE have learned a lot from Debian — sometimes Debian is a model of what should always be done, sometimes Debian serves as a good bad example (e.g. some of the project’s legendary flame wars are textbook examples of what to avoid).

Old Hardware, Weird Platforms

There’s an old joke about Linux running on a toaster. I’ve yet to see Linux run on a toaster, but I have seen Linux run on Ultra SPARC, Alpha, and some other less popular hardware architectures. Guess what? In each case, it was running Debian.

Projects like openSUSE, Ubuntu, and Fedora have thrown in the towel on PowerPC as it’s aged and slipped under 1% of desktop users. Fair enough, it makes good sense to focus on the most popular platforms. But it’s good to know that at least one project is looking out for the little guys and users with oddball hardware that still has some life left in it. Debian runs or has ran on Alpha, SPARC, PA-RISC, IA-64, S/390, PowerPC, ARM, and others. Oh, and that boring old x86 and x86-64 stuff too.

For real adventurous types, there’s the non-Linux ports of Debian. Ports are in progress, in varying states of completion, for GNU/Hurd and the NetBSD and FreeBSD kernels. If you want to enjoy the software that comes with Debian without the Linux kernel itself, Debian gives you the option. I’m not sure how useful that is, but it’s there if you want it.

In all seriousness, the support for niche architectures is a valuable service to the community. Most people have the means to buy a new system when their old one becomes obsolete — but not everyone. It’s good to see that Debian supports some older hardware and architectures that may have been abandoned by other distros and OSes. I’m sure that Debian has enabled plenty of users by supporting the only hardware they can get their hands on.

Many, Many More

Even if you don’t use Debian, or even a Debian-based distro, there’s a lot to appreciate about the birthday distro that should be acknowledged. The larger free and open source software community is far richer thanks to Debian, and we should all wish it well and hope for at least another 17 years of continued Debian. At its current pace, Debian should have at least three or four more releases by 2037.

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