Friday, May 16, 2008

I (heart) Debian

As I mentioned, I am using a virtual installation of Debian "etch" to learn how a Linux server works, and I wanted to write about how impressed I am with Debian in particular as a rock-solid, stable, and principled Linux distribution. I was just reading through some of the online documentation provided on their website and I just get the warm fuzzies about it :-). Of course, this is a sign that I've either 1) finally lost it or 2) have achieved a level of geekdom seldom dreamed about or 3) a bit of both. Okay, here's what I love about Debian:

Stability and Functionality

Debian takes great care testing software and making sure that it is as bug-free as possible, which results in situation where it is both a) never on the cutting edge of software technology and b) extremely reliable and functional. They maintain three versions of Debian at a time: the stable distribution (currently named "etch"), the testing distribution (currently named "lenny") and the unstable distribution (always named "sid"). The names come from the Pixar film Toy Story, a fact which I just recently learned. Debian is often criticized in the Linux community for being so slow to release, and is not nearly as popular as a desktop distribution as, say, Ubuntu (more about this comparison to follow).

Strong Principles

In the late 1990s, when the free-software movement developed the term "open source" to describe free software projects in a way that the business world could understand, the creators based the Open Source Definition (OSD) on the Debian Free Software Guidelines. Debian as an organization adheres very strictly to these when choosing software to include in its distributions, and there have been controversies (in the free/open source software world) about the policy, including a high-profile rejection of the Mozilla Firefox brand name. For the average end user, this does not amount to much, of course, but that's one of the main reasons Debian is able to keep its reputation for integrity - they are willing to make controversial or otherwise unpopular decisions. Debian also insists on officially being called "Debian GNU/Linux" in reference to the fact that the Linux kernel is only a part of the operating system as a whole. Free software pioneer Richard Stallman has an opinion about this as well.

Foundational for Other Great Distributions

Debian is the basis for many other distributions, most notably Knoppix and (of course) Ubuntu. Since I moved to Ubuntu, I have often thought of it as Debian's "really unstable" branch, though Ubuntu has a different mission in mind and is associated closely with Canonical, which, like Red Hat, is a for-profit company seeking to gain an enterprise Linux market share (not that there's anything wrong with that :-)). Debian was my first choice as a Linux distribution when I got into all this, and I'm happy I went with it.

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