It’s All About the Debians

Fedora isn't the only community supported Linux distribution that's worth looking at as a Linux desktop. Debian, the distribution with the largest base of available software packages and the largest development community, has now come of age.

Over the last few months, I’ve been paying a lot ofattention to community Linux distributions. In particular, I’ve shown you what you can do with Fedora, the opensource software project managed by Red Hat that’s both ashowcase for leading-edge open source technology and a foundry forRed Hat’s commercial product, Red Hat EnterpriseLinux( RHEL).

But Fedora isn’t the only community supported Linux distribution that’s worth looking at as a Linux desktop.Debian, the distribution with the largest base ofavailable software packages and the largest development community,has now come of age.

What’s that you say? Debian is too hard to install? Debian’s driver support isn’t up to par or as polishedas the commercial distros or Fedora? Au contraire, myyoung padawan: Debian isn’t just one distribution,but a family of related Linux distros and each variant has itsunique advantages. Chances are that at least one Debian fits yourdesktop requirements.

Lets start with the mother distribution, Debian itself.

Debian GNU/Linux

There’s been a lot of cracks made about Debian, some ofwhich, I admit, have come from yours truly.

“Its nearly impossible to install! ”

“It takes forever to get out, and the community is rifewith politics that hinder its advancement! ”

“Its developers and advocates are rabid religious fanaticswith poor hygiene that are even less-equipped socially than othergeeks to get dates with the opposite or the same sex.”

I admit that while these are exaggerations( well, ok, maybe notthe last one), there is some truth to them. Debian is perhaps theHassidics or Mennonites of the Linux community. Debian developersare perhaps the strictest adherents to open source and freesoftware development methodology due to their “SocialContact.” Debian developers have the tightest controls oversoftware releases, the software is rock-solid, the distribution isavailable on the widest variety of computer architectures, and bydesign, they are rather on the austere, plain-vanilla side in termsof out-of-the-box aesthetics, because customization if left up tothe user. To some people like myself, this is a good thing.

Traditionally, Debian is more concerned with maintaining thelifecycle of your system with incremental package upgrades ratherthan painful release upgrades and operating system re-installs.Indeed, once you install Debian, you should never have to installit on the same system again, ever. Debian’s remote software updateand installation system, APT, is perhaps the best packagemanager of all Linux distributions. With one command, apt-get upgrade, Debian crosschecks its internaldatabase of software versions installed on your system, yields allof the dependencies required, grabs all of the updated packages foryour release level(” stable”, ” testing” or” unstable”) from aDebian mirror server, and installs them — all in one shot.(For more information about APT, see” A Very Apropos APT” in the October 2003 issue of Linux Magazine, available online athttp://www.linux-mag.com/2003-10/apt_01.html.)

Got a GNOME desktop installed be default but you want to installKDE? No problem. apt-get install kdedetermines what libraries and prerequisities you’re missing,grabs the KDE packages along with those dependencies from theInternet, and then installs them on your machine. And as ifthat’s not good enough, APT then prompts you to make anymajor changes, such as asking what graphical login should be usedand what localization settings need to be changed. Need to upgradeto the next version of the distro? One command does that, too:apt-get dist-upgrade.

The latest released version of Debian is always called“stable.” As of this writing, the current stablerelease is version 3.0, with the current“testing” release slated to become the stable releaseby the end of 2004. In addition, a “stable” releasegets minor updates or point releases, such as 3.0r1.

The code names of Debian releases are based on the charactersfrom the movie Toy Story: 3.1, or“sarge,” is expected in late 2004. 3.0, or“woody” was released mid-2002. Previous releasesincluded “bo” and “slink.”

Daily development takes place in the “unstable”branch which is permanently codenamed “sid,” namedafter Toy Story’ s mischevious, toy-dissecting neighborboy. The “unstable” branch is not necessarily unstable,only that it has not yet undergone the rigorous testing process toyet move it into the “testing” or “stable”trees.

If you want to take advantage of the latest releases of opensource software, set your APT sources.list file to reflecta “testing” or “unstable” Debian mirror, as“stable” is typically a year or more behind in packageversions.( Software that is unstable is generally placed in“experimental.”)

Here are the contents of my /etc/apt/sources.list file— it’s only two lines:

deb ftp://ftp.debian.org/debian unstable maincontrib non-free
# deb ftp://mirrors.kernel.org/debian unstable main contribnon-free

( The second line is commented out, because I use kernel.org asan alternate mirror to the official Debian repository whenever itgets overloaded. I just comment out the first line with a poundsign and uncomment out the other, run apt-getupdate and apt-get upgrade, and thenI’m all set for updates.)

The first field on line 1, deb, indicatesto apt-get that the following URL is a Debian packagefeed. The second field is the base URL of the Debian repository youwant to download software from. The remaining fields indicate whichDebian tree you want to download from. I am using unstable, but you can also go with testing and stable. main, contrib, and non-free are the actual package repositories for thetree you’re using.

Starting with the “sarge” release of Debian, whichshould be ready by the time you read this article, Debian isinstalled with the new Debian Installer, an easy-to-use,character-based, menu-driven installation program. As of thiswriting, the Debian Installer was available with thenetinst bootable CD images, which are only 100 MB or so insize. netinst contains just the base-level Debian files; the restof the distribution is downloaded from the Internet.

If you have a broadband Internet connection, the netinst CDs areprobably the way to go. You can get the netinst CD images for yourcomputer architecture from http://www.debian.org/devel/debian-installer/.

The Debian installer guides you through the entire installprocess, and it allows you to choose a pre-set collection ofpackages to install a working GNOME desktop with all the basicamenities, such as the Mozilla web browser and OpenOffice. If youneed more software installed, have a look at the “DebianPackage List” home page at http://www.debian.org/distrib/packages/.

If you don’t want to use the command line to installpackages with APT, you can try installing synaptic, agraphical front end to APT. Simply type apt-getinstall synaptic at the shell prompt to install it from theDebian repository. Then invoke it with synaptic from theshell prompt, or select it from the GNOME menu.

Debian has a huge support community, and many can help you withyour support and installation questions. If all this is a bitoverwhelming at first, have a look at the “Resources”section at the end of this article for some links that can help youget started.

And now, the Debian Derivatives.

Progeny Debian and Componentized Linux

Progeny, a services company formed by Ian Murdock, the founderof the Debian project, is one of the least publicized Debianderivatives, but in my opinion, it’s one of the best choicesfor someone looking for an out-of-the-box, immediately-usable, freeDebian Linux desktop.

Progeny can best be described as a close cousin of Debian“testing,” but with a superior install program( thegraphical anaconda installer used in RHEL and Fedora) andmore polish and enhancements that make it better conforming withindustry standards. Progeny is also Linux Standard Base2.0( LSB) certified and is based on Progeny’sComponentized Linux( CL) infrastructure, which is a moremodular means of creating a Linux distribution. Progeny’scomponents are essentially meta-packages that form thebuilding blocks of a Linux distribution.

Progeny Debian is essentially a big demo of how ComponentizedLinux can be used to produce specialized Linux distributions forthings such as standardized corporate desktops, blade servers,clusters, vertical market applications, set top boxes, and otherconsumer electronics products.


Xandros was one of the first companies to produce anend-user version of Debian. Orginally called Corel Linuxand then spun off as its own company, Xandros arguably produces themost user-friendly Debian derivative.

Some of the notable features of Xandros are that it’s KDEbased, it’s highly “tweaked” with Xandros’sown configuration utilities( it’s made to resemble aWindows desktop), and it also includes Xandros’s ownXFM file manager, which allows you to browse Windowsnetworks and burn recordable CDs. Also of note is the XandrosNetworks application, which is a very easy-to-use GUI thathandles all software updates and installs.

If you’re looking to give a Linux desktop to a neophyte,Xandros is a good choice.

By the time you read this, Xandros Desktop 3.0 shouldbe out. It features a more modern 2.6.9 kernel, withsupport for newer hardware and many feature updates, including anewer KDE base.

Xandros comes in four versions: Business($ 129),Deluxe($ 89), Standard($ 39), and OpenCirculation( free). The Deluxe version comes withCrossover Office, the StarOffice suite, andprinted manuals. The Business edition has all of the features ofDeluxe plus Microsoft Active Directory authentication,terminal emulators, a Citrix client, and better technicalsupport. The Open Circulation Edition, which is a free download, isessentially identical to the Standard edition, except that CDburning is limited to 4X speed, and the default web browser isOpera, which is ad supported.


Ubuntu is a new, community-supported Linux distributionbased on the technologies in Debian, but tailored to the desktopend-user.

Like Progeny, Ubuntu features a pre-configured GNOME desktop sothat users can be productive out-of-the-box. Ubuntu differs fromregular Debian in that regular releases of Ubuntu are scheduled ona six month basis, similar to the Fedora release cycle, and Ubuntumaintains its own large package repository entirely separate fromDebian( some of the others listed here, such as Progeny andXandros, maintain their own mirrors of the official Debianrepository).

Ubuntu comes on a single CD, and it uses a derivative of thetext-based “sarge” Debian Installer. In addition to anx86 version, Ubuntu also provides an AMD64version based on the Debian AMD64 “pure64” developmenttree, so you can install it and run native on Athlon FX, Athlon64, Opteron, and Intel EM64T hardware.


Linspire, formerly known as Lindows, alsopositions itself as a Linux distribution for those looking totransition from a Windows environment.

Like Xandros, Lindows has many proprietary enhancements such asimproved multimedia, the commercial StarOffice suite, an integratedVoice Over IP( VOIP) client, a one-click install tool calledClick-and-Run, and integrated spam and popup blocking.

Linspire is a fully commercial product($ 59.95). As of thiswriting Linspire 4.5 was based on kernel 2.4, butwas nearing a major revision to update it to current 2.6technology. Linspire is also available as a pre-loaded OS onselected Wal-Mart PCs.

” Live CD” Debian Derivatives

There’s an entire category of Debian derivatives that I like torefer to as” live CD” distributions, although some of them can beinstalled on your hard drive. Live CDs are bootable CD’s with theirown self-enclosed environments, all of which can be run entirelyoff the CD.

* SimplyMEPIS. SimplyMEPIS is a KDE-based Linux distribution that has a small but loyal following.Similar to Xandros in its design, SimplyMEPIS is engineered to be easy-to-use and has all sorts of configuration utilities and wizards designed to enhance the end-user experience. It’s the favored Linux distribution of one of my favorite Linux personalities, Robin Miller, who has authored a book, Point and Click Linux( Prentice Hall PTR, ISBN 0131488724), that teaches non-technical users how to use and be productive with SimplyMEPIS,which comes included with the book.

SimplyMEPIS can run entirely from the CD, or it can be installed to the hard disk. SimplyMEPIS is available as a free download via various mirrors or through a priorty access paid download($ 29.95)through the MEPIS website. In addition to its many enhancements above and beyond a typical Debian system, SimplyMEPIS is a fully up to date Linux distribution, including the latest 2.6 Linuxkernel and KDE 3.2.3.

* Santa Fe Desktop Linux. Santa FeDesktop Linux is to GNOME as SimplyMEPIS is to KDE. Also engineered to be easy-to-use, with a pre-configured GNOME2.6 desktop, Santa Fe is a Debian derivative that runs off alive CD, but is also available as a commercial version from Amazon.com that can also be installed to a hard disk.

Santa Fe differs from most of the Debians in that it is pre-configured to work with the optimized Nvidia and ATI drivers,so no extra steps are needed to configure the X drivers for advanced 2D and 3D acceleration.

However, Santa Fe is based on the older 2.4 Linux kernel and GNOME 2.6, so it may be more ideally suited with older PC hardware.

* Knoppix. Knoppix is a live CD distribution developed in Germany that contains a great deal of built-in open source software. Like SimplyMEPIS, Knoppix is KDE3.x based, but is stuffed with about two gigabytes worth of compressed data on a standard CD, including over 2,000 executables in all.

Knoppix has both the 2.4 and 2.6 kernels as runtime options, so that it can boot on a multitude of hardware. Knoppix is optimized to be used entirely as a portable Live CD system, unlike the others listed here.

If you haven’t tried a Debian yet, now’s the time.All the cool kids are doing it.

Comments are closed.