Back to Linux Basics With Debian GNU/Linux

By ServerWatch Staff (Send Email)
Posted March 31, 2004


Debian GNU/Linux: Reliable, solid, and free infrastructure server

As the bigger guns in the enterprise Linux space move to commercialize their software as much as possible, the Debian project continues to provide a Linux distribution that offers organizations the sort of commodity infrastructure for which Linux was originally known.

First launched in 1993, the Debian project is run as a distributed democracy, electing project leaders and hammering out assorted issues via a wide array of mailing lists and strict adherence to the project's social contract, a statement of purpose designed to keep the fruits of its labors free and open.

Debian GNU/Linux is largely distinguished by rigorous quality assurance, a wide range of platform support (11 architectures so far), and solid package management tools that make staying up to date and secure a snap.

The Linux distro is obtained in several forms. Organizations can purchase it from Linux CD distributors, as a download of CD images, as a network installation from a set of boot floppies, and through a novel system called jigdo, which makes assembling a Debian CD from the project's global network of mirrors relatively simple and fast.

Installation

Debian is installable from a CD or over a network. If the installer is properly configured during the initial installation steps, the very latest patches and security fixes are downloaded from the Debian project's servers instead of their outdated counterparts on the installation media.

Debian's installation program is sometimes derided as inadequate because it eschews many of the GUI-wizard-like trappings widely adopted by other Linux distributions. Instead, it uses text-based menus and dialogs that provide some assistance; although for the most part it assumes the person conducting the installation did some reading before booting the install disc and is familiar with basic concepts, like disk-partitioning and what a master boot record does.

The installation manual is thorough enough to offset most of the difficulties a less-than-chatty installer introduces though.

One area where Debian's installation quickly parts ways with other distributions is during package installation. While other Linux variants tend to complete the installation assuming a few basic configuration parameters, Debian's installer (in conjunction with its packaging system) affords the user an opportunity to make decisions about security or functionality-related issues during the process. Users who prefer a "fire and forget" installation may find this approach annoying, but it does provide a reassuring level of control and serves a teaching function by explaining some of the security-related configuration choices it offers.

As with other distributions, Debian offers a collection of packages defined broadly by task, allowing the user to create a customized setup out of the many available packages Debian's developers maintain. The flipside of its package approach is Debian's notorious dselect package installation program, which is fairly capable, albeit widely disliked. It's worth paying close attention to dselect's on-screen help before attempting to use it, mainly because the keystrokes that drive it have little in common with other apps in the Unix world.

Once mastered, dselect is a remarkably useful portal to the thousands of packages the Debian project makes available.

Use and Administration

In general, the Debian project takes a simple approach to system management. Packages with complex configuration choices are generally set up to query users for settings during installation, which simplifies the largely a text editor and command-line driven environment. The most "friendly" configuration tool available for Debian is probably Webmin, which shouldn't be underestimated in terms of utility. It does, however, rely on the user knowing it's been packaged and made available.

In other words, Debian users should not expect a Red-Hat-like icon on the desktop saying "Start Here."

Debian's strength, however, continues to lie in its package management system. The package downloader apt-get functions as an anchor and pulls down requested packages from online archives, ensuring any dependencies they may have are also downloaded and installed.

In the past few years, other Linux distributions have adopted similar tools (or taken advantage of the fact that apt-get is open source and used it outright), but Debian still seems to have the most depth in this area. Related tools enable admins to create local errata mirrors (which are excellent for, among other things, pushing patches out from a testbed to other machines on the LAN) and performing other package management tasks with relative ease.

Overall

Debian is a solid Linux distribution tended with much care and dedication by a global network of developers. Because of its relatively slow development cycle, it isn't the most cutting-edge in terms of the software available in the Linux world, but it is studiously maintained in terms of patches and security fixes. Consequently, Debian is a rock-solid and stable platform on which to run many infrastructure mainstays, such as DNS, file/print services, and Web servers. Its suitability for these purposes is limited only by the amount of in-house Unix/Linux expertise available in a given organization.

The Debian project also supports a large number of platforms, including Intel x86, Alpha, ARM, HP PA-RISC, PowerPC, SPARC, IBM S/390, and Itanium. The latest releases don't explicitly support AMD's Opteron, but a howto document covers the details of compiling 64-bit Linux kernels to run under Debian on that platform.

Where Debian's value becomes more questionable for enterprise users is the area of overall support, both in terms of technical assistance and application availability. Unlike Red Hat and Novell, which aggressively seek partnerships with such enterprise notables as Oracle and IBM for their distros, the Debian project has little in the way of contact with that world. This, unfortunately, limits its range for applications found in many enterprise operations.

Pros: Good support from the project in the form of mailing lists and live chat; Conscientious quality assurance makes for a rock-solid, stable final product; Best-of-breed package management in the Linux world.
Cons: Limited support for commercial enterprise applications; Hardware detection during installation is lacking; Long waits between releases make sticking to Debian-packaged applications tough, as critical new features become available.

Reviewed by: Michael Hall
Original Review Date: 3/31/2004
Original Review Version: 3.0/Stable/"Woody

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