Why Debian

The following talk is all about Debian for which I was made to speak at the ILUGD meet held on the 18th of April 2004. Most of the references in this talk has been taken from Manoj Srivastava’s (Lead Debian Developer) talk.

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Debian OpenLogo

Why Debian

Debian – Philosophy, Merits and Key Features

Philosophy ** **

Philosophy is the most durable differentiating criterion between the operating systems we are considering. Performance numbers change. Ease of use, reliability, availability of software – all these characteristics change over time, and you have to go out and re-evaluate them over time.

But philosophy doesn’t change.

I must confess that philosophy and community is what lead me to Debian; and I think these are still the most important criteria, and are often underrated.

Why is free software a good thing ?

The popular answer seems to be:-

  • because it is cool,
  • because it is zero cost.
  • because it gives you a geekish image.

The motivations of the authors also are varied, but the coin that they get paid in is often recognition, acclaim in the peer group, or experience that can be traded in in the work place.

But all this is missing the critical motto of why Free Software was designed. I’d like to give an example to the manner in which academic research is conducted. If researchers were doomed to reinvent the wheel, handle, brakes, axle only; then everything beyond that and other innovations (may be the motorbike) progress in the research community would be stunted. People start in research by doing literature searches, looking for interesting investigations, and perhaps correlating unrelated papers, building on the ideas and techniques of other researchers in the field. The secrecy shrouding research in most labs exists only till the moment of publication – and then people share their techniques, and ideas, and results – indeed, reproducibility is a major criteria of success.
Contrast this with proprietary software, where mostly all begins again – from scratch.

People could soar and grow if only we could freely share and build upon the ideas and labours of others. This would lower the time, effort, and cost of innovation, allow for best practices and design patterns to develop and mature, and reduce the grunt programming that raises the barrier to developing solutions in house.

We just have to ensure that the incentive for achievement still exists (and it need not be purely a profit motive).

This belief leads us to choose the GPL, and free software foundation view of things, as opposed to the BSD licence, which are also free software licenses, and at the end lead eventually to choosing Debian. In my personal opinion, the BSD license has been more about personal pride in writing free software, with no care as to where the software went;

Debian is an exercise in community barn building; together, we can achieve far more than we could on our own. The Debian social contract is an important factor in my choice of Debian, with its blend of commitment to free software.


What leads an average computer user to a good OS ?

  • Ease of use
  • Reliability
  • Availability of software (Software Packages)
  • Cost
  • Utility and Usability

Utility, of course, depends on what our goals/requirements are.

There is more to an operating system than a kernel with a hodge-podge of software thrown on the top – systems integration is a topic usually given short shift when discussing the merits of a system. But a well-integrated system – where each piece dovetails with and accommodates other parts of the system – has greatly increased utility over the alternative.Debian, in my experience, and the experience of a number of other users, is the best integrated OS out there. Debian packages trace their relationships to each other not merely through a flat dependency/conflicts mechanism, but a richer set of nuanced relationships –

  • Pre dependencies,
  • Oordinary dependencies,
  • Recommendations,
  • Suggestions,
  • Conflicts, and
  • Enhanced relationships.

Apart from this, packages are categorized according to priority (Essential through extra), and their function. This richness of the relationships, of which the packaging system is aware and pays attention to, indicates the level at which packages fit in with each other. Debian is developed by about 1000 volunteers (Most of which are SysAdmins). That means that every developer is free to maintain programs he is interested in or he needs for his special tasks in real life. That’s why Debian is able to cover different fields of specializations – its developers just want to solve their own special problems. This broad focus is different from commercial distributions which just try to cover mainstream tasks.

It is said that Debian machines at work:-

  • Take less hand holding,
  • Are easier to update,
  • And just plain don’t break as often as the Red Hat and Mandrake boxes.

One of the reasons for selecting Debian over other distributions is its sheer size of the project which strongly suggests that Debian won’t suddenly disappear and one is suddenly left without any support. Debian can’t go bankrupt. Its social contract doesn’t allow the project to abruptly decide not to support non enterprise versions of the distribution. I do not want my OS to be held hostage to anyones business plans!

You can fine-tune the degree of risk you want to take, since Debian has three separate releases:

  • Stable, -- Woody
  • Testing, – Sarge and
  • Unstable. – Sid

On some of the machines people run stable'. Some of the other systems (individual work-stations) run various combinations of testing/unstable. (Note that there are no security updates for testing). What's great is the ability to make finely graded decisions for different machines serving different functions. But even the more adventurous choices are solid enough that they virtually never break. And stable’ just never breaks ;-).

Large number of Supported Architectures.

Supported architectures are:

  • Intel x86/ IA-32 (i386)
  • Motorola 68K (m68k)
  • Sun SPARC (sparc)
  • Alpha (alpha)
  • Motorola/IBM Power PC (powerpc)
  • ARM (arm)
  • MIPS CPUs (mips and mipsel)
  • HP PA-RISC (hppa)
  • IA-64 (ia64)
  • S/390 (s390)
  • Debian GNU/Hurd (i386)
  • Debian GNU/NetBSD (netbsd-i386 and netbsd-aplha)
  • Debian GNU/FreeBSD (freebsd-i386)

Debian provides a great deal of feedback upstream. For example, the XFree86 project does not itself maintain or debug X on all the architecture Debian supports – it relies on Debian for that. This attention to detail is hard for any other Linux distribution to match.

Is it just apt-get ?**

People often say how they came to Debian because of apt-get, or that apt is the killer app for Debian. But apt-get is not what makes the experience so great: apt-get is a feature readily reproduced (and, in my opinion, never equalled), by other distributions – call it urpmi, apt4rpm, yum, or what have you. The differentiating factor is Debian policy , and the stringent package format QA process (look at things like apt-listchanges, apt-list-bugs, dpkg-builddeps, pbuilder, pbuilder-uml – none of which could be implemented so readily lacking a policy (imagine listchangelog without a robust changelog format)). It is really really easy to install software on a Debian box.

So the killer app is really Debian policy, the security team, the formal bug priority mechanisms, and the policy about bugs (namely: any binary without a man page is an automatic bug report. Any interaction with the user not using debconf is a bug).

** A small reading from the Wiki Page of “Why Debian Rocks”:

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This is the crux, the narthex, the throbbing heart of Debian and what makes it so utterly superior to all other operating systems. Policy is defined. It is clear. It is enforced through the tools you use every day. When you issue apt-get install foo, you’re not just installing software. You’re enforcing policy - and that policy’s objective is to give you the best possible system.
What Policy defines are the bounds of Debian , not your own actions on the system. Policy states what parts of the system the package management system can change, and what it can’t, how to handle configuration files, etc. By limiting the scope of the distribution in this way, it’s possible for the system administrator to make modifications outside the area without fear that Debian packages will affect these changes. In essence, Policy introduces a new class of bugs, policy bugs. Policy bugs are release-critical – a package which violates policy will not be included in the official stable Debian release.


The evaluation process each package has to undergo in the unstable distribution before it makes it into testing adds to the quality of the finished product. Once a package has not shown any important problem for a certain time(14 days) period it goes into the testing distribution. This distribution is the release candidate for the future stable distribution which is released only when all release critical bugs are resolved. This careful testing process is the reason why Debian has a longer release cycle than other distributions. However, in terms of stability this is an advantage. (Note: RH Enterprise Linux is apparently shooting for 12 - 24 month release cycles. Closer to what Debian’s historically had.)

The fact that Debian supports as many architectures as it does also feeds into the quality of packages: Porting software often uncovers flaws in the underlying code. Add to the fact that all software in Debian goes though 10 or so automatic build daemons, and needs be bug free when building on these different environments, requires that the build and install scripts be very robust, and requires a very strict tracking of build time dependencies. Add source archive mirrors and version tracking, and you have a fairly robust system (snapshot.debian.net provides for easy rollbacks) .The Debian bug tracking system is a key to the quality of the distribution. Since releases are linked to the numbers of release critical bugs in the system, it ensures that the quality of the release is better than any proprietary UNIX. The Release Manager is fairly ruthless about throwing out any non essential package with RC bugs if they do not get fixed – or delaying the release if it is a critical package with the bug. Compared to commercial Linux distributions, Debian has far higher developer to package ratios. Added to the lack of business cycle driven deadlines, Debian tends to do things right, rather than do things to get a new version out in time for Christmas.

Features Set and Selection of Packages**

Debian has over 10000 packages now(13000 + in SID). The chances are that anything you need is already packaged and integrated into the system, with a person dedicated to keeping it (and a small number of other packages) upto date, integrated, and bug free.

Debian has a huge internationalization effort, translating not only the documentation but also the configuration and install scripts (all debconf interaction can be fully internationalized). It helps to have a massively geographically distributed community – there are native speakers in tonnes of languages.The internationalization effort in Debian matches that for Gnome and KDE.

Other notables, to pay a little attention to, are:

  • The Debian documentation project,
  • Alioth,
  • Debian installer,
  • Debian CD,
  • Lintian, and
  • The package tracking system.

Some other things which will keep me using Debian until they’re supported by something else:

  • debconf and the ability to prepopulate the database
  • make-kpkg with all the install-time prompts turned off
  • /usr/share/doc/{Changelog.Debian,changelog,copyright,README.Debian
  • apt and friends
  • Large package database
  • It’s policy of Free Software

Debian VS BSD**

The BSD kernels, from all accounts, seem to be stabler, and of better quality than Linux kernels seem to be. On the flip side, Linux kernels more feature rich, and the quality has improved significantly, seem to perform much better, and better hardware support than the BSD kernels do. Indeed, I’ve heard comments that when it comes to driver support, the BSD’s are where Linux was 5 years ago. Personally, the supposed added bugginess of the Linux kernels have not exceeded my threshold of acceptability. And, overall, I don’t think that a Debian box feels any less robust and stable than, say, a FreeBSD box. Of course, the recent spate of holes in Linux kernels are beginning to strain that. (However, we should keep in mind that having more features is a contributry factor: the two latest holes were in the mremap(2) call that is not available for any of the *BSD.) ** **

Of course, Debian Gnu/FreeBSD may provide the best of both worlds.

Maintainence and Administration**

Upgrades have been said to be the killer advantage for Debian. More than most other OS’s, the network is the distribution and upgrade mechanism for Debian. Policy, the thought that has gone into the maintainer scripts, and the ways in which they can be called, the full topographical sorting over the dependency web done by apt and friends, all work together to ensure that upgrades in place work smoothly. Reinstalls are not unheard of in an recommended BSD upgrade path (Since 2.8 or 2.9, OpenBSD said at least two times to i386 users “upgrade not supported / not recommended, do a fresh install”).

This ease of upgrades also plays into security of the system; security upgrades are far more convenient on Debian than they are on other systems, thanks to the Security team. For us mere mortals not on vendor-sec, having security.debian.org in our sources list ensures that our boxes get updated conveniently, and quickly, after any exploit is made public – since the security team was already working on a fix before the details went public. This means that systems get updated in minutes, whereas the recommended way to do an upgrade on a BSD OS involves recompiling the entire system (at least, the “world”).

Debian attempts to ensure smooth upgrades skipping a major release - which is not something that I have seen supported elsewhere. I keep coming back to quality of packaging.
Even downgrades are possible. Experience and talks show that Debian can be downgraded to a previous release too. But isn’t recommended/Encouraged anyway.

Administering Debian is the primary reason most people stay with it. I know no other distribution where you can type in apt-get install sendmail, and walk away with a fully functional mail server, complete with SASL and TLS, fully configured, complete with certificates. All administration can be done over SSH given only dialup speeds.

The Debian guarantee that user changes to configuration files shall be preserved, and that all configuration files shall live in /etc (as opposed to being all over the file system) makes for easier backups.Debian is compliant with the FHS, and LSB compliance is a release goal. The distributed nature of Debian development and distribution makes it really easy to set up a separate repository of custom packages that can then be distributed in house; and the policy and build mechanisms ensure that third parties can build the system just as easily in a reproducible fashion.

Portability and Hardware Support.**

Linux tends to support more of the esoteric hardware than BSD does. Whether that is a problem, depends on your needs. Support for the high quality hardware is mostly the same. IBM’s assurance of Linux support on all their hardware, and that of HP, is also an advantage for Linux. Multiple journaling file systems that have come into the Linux kernel recently are also a vital addon. For desktop, the killer factor is drivers. And Linux leaves all the other X86 Unixes behind by a mile. When it comes to portability, NetBSD is supposed to be the byword. I googled to find out, what is suported by NetBSD, and Debian: I found that debian supports ibm s/390 (IBM) and ia64, while NetBSD has support for sun2 (m68010), PC532 (whatever that is), and VAX. Note that what NetBSD call architectures are often labelled sub-architectures by Debian, and thus do not count in the 11 supported architecture count.


There are a lot of things told about the ports mechanism of BSD, and the portage systems of gentoo. I have also heard about how people have problems actually getting things to compile in the ports system. Apart from the fact that compiling everything rapidly gets old.

It is not as if you can’t do a port like auto build of Debian – there are auto-builders on 11 architectures that do that, continuously, every single day – the question is why would one want to? I have yet to see a single, replicable test demonstrating any palpable performance improvement by local, tailored optimized compilations – and certainly none that justifies, in my eyes, the time spent tweaking and build the software all over.

Someone said that when they were younger and felt like playing a prank they would adjust some meaningless parameters on someone’s computer and tell them “this will make it run about 5% faster, but you probably won’t notice it”. With such a challenge they usually responded by becoming totally convinced that their machines had been improved considerably and that they could feel the 5% difference!

Conventional wisdom seems to indicate overall system performance increases are less than 1%. Specific programs can benefit greatly, though, and you can always tweak a critical app for your environment in Debian. Whatever time is saved by running an optimized system is more than compensated for by the time spent building the system, and building upgrades of the system (I’ve heard of people running doing their daily update in the background while doing other things in the foreground.)

Not to mention how integration suffers by not having a central location where interoperability of the pieces can be ever tested well, since every system would differ wildly from the reference.

A source build system is also far more problematic when it comes to major upgrades – There are anecdotal evidence of it not being as safe and sane as the Debian upgrade mechanisms.

Anyway, if we do want to build packages from source on Debian, we can use:

  • apt-get source –b packagename,
  • apt-src, or any of a number of tools.

The real point here is that Gentoo is a distro for hobbyists and hard-core linux users, who can spare the time building their apps. I know Gentoo also provides pre compiled binaries – but does that not defeat their supposed advantage? For an enterprise environment where downtime does cost money this is simply inadmissible and Debian provides the best solution. Those of you who administer more than a handful machines can really appreciate how convenient it is to be able to issue **apt-get update && apt-get upgrade** at once instead of having to go downloading, configuring, compiling and installing software machine per machine, without any sort of automated help ( I am not completely doing justice to emerge / portage here, but the point is clear, I hope ). I can emphasize this enough: for “serious”/production usage, binary distros are the best and only viable solution; Amongst them, Debian ( not only because of APT but also because of all the hard work done by Debian Developers to ensure correctness of the packaging ) is the best [I have tried SuSE, RedHat and Mandrake, and I wouldn’t prefer going back ]

Security And Reliability

There is always a trade off between security and convenience – the ultimately secure computer is one that is never turned on. Secure, but not very useful. You have to decide where your comfort zone lies.

What does one think of when one says Security and Unix like OS?
OpenBSD, with some justification. It is audited and has the small size, small system requirments AND the pure text based install. If you stick to the core install, you get an audited system, with no services turned on by default and an assurance that there are no holes in the default install that can lead to a remote root compromise. However, you tend to end up with old software, and the default install really does very little. Most people agree that the secure and audited portion of OpenBSD does not provide all the software they require. Also, OpenBSD’s performance numbers are, umm, poor, compared to SELinux on a 2.6.3 kernel.

OpenBSD’s secure reputation is justified - but only when you know the project, when you are familiar with what does it really cover. OpenBSD may be a great firewall, maybe even mail or static Web server - As long as you keep out of the ports tree, you do have an audited, security-conscious system. The OpenBSD userland ports break more often than stable Debian – but, in OpenBSD, ports are officialy not part of the system, and should a security problem appear in one of them, you are on your own.

The Debian GNU/Linux distribution has a strong focus on security and stability. We have an Security team, automated build systems to help the security team quickly build versions across all the architectures that are supported, and policy geared towards those goals. Debian handles binary package distribution much better. One can have his own aptable archive and feed all productive servers from it, using Debian’s native apt mechanisms.Even without SELinux, I find the rock solid stability of Debian stable, with the peace of mind that comes from back ported security fixes provided by the Security team, very persuasive. It is easy for an untrained recipient to keep up to date with security; and reduces the likelihood of compromise. This is very important in a commercial environment with a large number of computers, where is it important that the software NOT be upgraded every few months.

Latest Development In Debian

Most of the complains that I’ve heard about Debian, are from the newbies complaing about it’s installer. The hurdles that most of the people feel is, Installing Debian. The blue screened, console based installer seems ultra technical and ugly to them. The installer could be an issue upto some extent, but I think, SPECIFICALLY to newbies. Experience users often find the installer quite easy and simple to use. It’s just the trend of using a GUI based fancy installer that has landed up into the mind of the people resembling Debian as an ultra technical GNU/Linux distribution. The next - generation Debian Installer, scheduled to ship with Debian Sarge promises to fulfill many of the problems for newbies. Also the anaconda installer from Red Hat has been ported to Debian and can be found at Progeny.


There is no other OS or distribution that I know of which has just this mix of properties (ease of maintenance, affordability, stability, size, customizability, strong support). For the most part, I do not want to tinker with and Debug my workstation, I want to get my job done, easily, safely, and with minimal concern about the infrastructure I use. Debian helps me accomplish that.And that’s still the primary reason I use it today, from a technical standpoint. Software installation and upgrade. The packages are top- notch, they as a rule install and upgrade perfectly. Software maintenance is still a really large part of any sysadmin’s job, and with Debian it’s simply trivial. It’s a non-issue. Don’t even bring it up when talking about any problems with Debian, it’s not worth the effort.

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See also