Debian Linux Distribution Earns Quiet Popularity

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2004-03-22

Debian Linux Distribution Earns Quiet Popularity

Debian GNU/Linux is a stable, complete Linux distribution that has the best software update system of any Linux distribution eWEEK Labs has seen—which helps explain why Debian is one of the worlds most widely used Linux distributions. According to a Netcraft Ltd. report covering July 2003 to January 2004, Debian was the fastest-growing distribution among Linux Web servers, and Debian trailed only Red Hat Inc.s Red Hat Linux in the number of Web sites it serves.

And yet, because its the product of the noncommercial Debian Project, Debian doesnt garner the same level of attention as do distributions from Red Hat and Novell Inc.s SuSE Linux division.

More important, Debian doesnt enjoy the same number of independent hardware and software vendor certifications that SuSE Linux or Red Hat Linux do, a fact that contributes to Debians low profile among enterprise Linux implementations. Also, Debian is a community-supported distribution, and its project mailing lists are the primary source of support.

However, for organizations unwilling or unable to pay for enterprise Linux—Red Hat Enterprise Linux, for example, ranges from $179 to $3,000 per year per machine—Debian offers a solid, capable alternative with broad hardware platform support.

One indicator of Debians attractiveness is the number of other Linux distributions based on it. Several well-known Linux distributions, including Lindows, Xandros and Knoppix, trace their lineage to Debian.

Also under way is a project based on Debian called UserLinux, which is aimed at building a free, enterprise-stable Linux distribution that includes certifications, service and support options. Although UserLinux is still early in development, the project has produced several alpha packages that are available at

Next Page: Stability is key to Debians popularity.

Stability Is the Key

The current stable release of Debian is Version 3.0r2, code-named Woody. (All Debian releases carry the names of characters from the movie "Toy Story.") Debian 3.0 shipped in July 2002 and has undergone two bug- and security-fixing updates, the most recent in November.

The stable release of Debian puts a premium on, well, stability, and it tends to include older packages rather than the current releases of Red Hat Linux or SuSE Linux. For instance, Woody ships with KDE Version 2.2.2, GNOME Version 1.4.1 and Version 2.4.16 of the Linux kernel, all of which are now a few releases old.

Users seeking more up-to-date packages can turn to Debians testing branch, known as Sarge, which can be viewed as a continual release candidate version of the upcoming stable Debian. When the latest Sarge version is fully tested, it will replace Woody as the stable Debian release.

Sarge currently includes Version 3.1.5 of KDE and Version 2.4 of GNOME, as well as Versions 2.4.25 and 2.6.3 of the Linux kernel. Its still not clear whether Sarge will use Linux 2.4 or 2.6 as its default when it is released this summer.

Although the testing version of Debian offers newer feature packages, it lacks the support of Debians security team, which issues security fixes for vulnerabilities as they arise.

Debian also maintains an unstable branch, a collection of packages that forms a release in which active development of Debian takes place, as with Red Hats Rawhide packages.

The unstable branch of Debian is always called Sid.

Perhaps the biggest strength of Debian is its software installation and update system, which is anchored by Debians APT (Advanced Packaging Tool). APT lets administrators easily install and update software by sorting software package dependencies and fetching required packages for installation from software repository sites on the Internet.

Theres a handy GUI client for APT, called Synaptic, thats great for browsing through available software or sorting through which applications are installed on an organizations machines.

Synaptic is much better for package management than Red Hats combination of up2date and its lame add/remove packages tool. SuSE Linux has a nice software installation and update client, but Debian has a much larger number of supported packages available in its repositories.

One of Debians biggest weaknesses is its installer program, which is among the most spartan installers weve seen. In our tests, we had some trouble with hardware detection and found the process much rougher than with Red Hat Linux or SuSE Linux.

Progeny, a Linux technology company started by Debian Project founder Ian Murdock, has ported Red Hats very good Anaconda installation tool to Debian. ISO images for installing Sarge with Anaconda are available at

Debian could also benefit by integrating Red Hats system configuration tools. Although there are GUI tools available for most configuration tasks, Debian lacks a consistent set of utilities for system administration.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

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