Debian GNU/Linux (Debian for short) tends not to attract the same attention as more flashy distros such as Ubuntu, even though the popular Ubuntu package is, in fact, Debian based.
Moreover, Debian developers like to take their time embracing new technologies, with a relatively lengthy release cycle compared to most of the Linux clan. Indeed, it’s taken almost two years to come up with Debian 5, the latest incarnation of this venerable distro.
A community-developed and entirely free Linux distro, one of the big advantages of Debian is its support for a huge number of hardware platforms. It can be had for everything from run of the mill Intel/AMD powered systems (both 32 and 64-bit) to MIPS, PowerPC and Sparc based machines. Higher up the scale it can even be implemented on S/390 mainframes while lower down the spectrum Debian is also available for handhelds.
All employ the same Linux kernel, upgraded to 2.6.26 in the latest version, which is a little behind the curve compared to some of the others, but a big step forward from the previous incarnation and a very stable implementation. You also get a Gnome 2.22 desktop; again, not the latest implementation, but well de-bugged and stable. Likewise, although KDE users may be irked to find the latest 4.x desktop missing, what they get is a proven and workable solution.
There are several ways of installing the Debian software. A complete set of CD/DVD images can be downloaded if you’ve the time and bandwidth, plus there’s a new bootable Live version that can be run without loading to hard disk. The preferred method, however, is to download a relatively small (153MB) bootable network install image which lets you choose the type of setup you want and the packages to include, then download and install the required code over the Internet.
The time required will vary depending on what’s selected, with over 23,000 optional packages available altogether. Fortunately, you’re unlikely to need more than a fraction of these, our test desktop taking around 40 minutes to install, and a server just over an hour, using an ADSL broadband connection. The latest security updates are applied automatically during the process, and SELinux installed, although not enabled, as standard.
Little changes on the desktop so existing Linux users should have few problems getting to grips with the Debian software and it’s easy enough, too, for those more familiar with Windows. Moreover, it integrated easily into our Windows network environment, providing immediate access to shared folders with none of the interoperability issues often encountered with other Linux distros.
On the downside, you have to download and install add-ons like multimedia codecs yourself, as Debian doesn’t include proprietary code in the standard distro. Plus it’s a little strange to find a browser called Iceweasel rather than Mozilla Firefox and Icedove instead of the Thunderbird email client. But there’s no need to worry. You still get the Mozilla applications. The names have just been changed to free Debian from the trademark requirements associated with the originals.
Another small disappointment is the inclusion of OpenOffice.org 2.4 rather than the newer 3.0 release. Still, upgrading isn’t difficult and there’s a lot else besides for desktop users, as well as support for the Eee PC and other Netbooks.
Server users get plenty, too, including the Xen hypervisor and Samba v3.2.5. The Apache Web server similarly gets an uplift (to v2.2.9) in this release with recent implementations of MySQL, PostgreSQL and other databases, all of which can be selected and installed during the initial setup procedure.
We liked Debian 5 immensely. It‘s not as flashy as Ubuntu and was already a little outdated before it was released, but that doesn’t matter. It didn’t spring any surprises and did everything we required of a Linux distro, plus it’s solid and stable and that’s so much more important.