Why Debian is the one True Operating System

Part ONE of my rambling:

Debian 2.2 (aka Potato) was the first GNU/Linux distribution I ever installed (or used). I didn't know what I was doing. I was just reading about free software and decided to give Debian a try. So I formatted my hard disk, inserted the Debian cd and rebooted. I had a copy of the Debian Install Manual in hand. It took me a while to get confortable with the installer. After an hour or two I had installed the base system. Of course I hadn't set up X yet. But since I had managed to get my internet connection set up I could use lynx to grep the net. And so 3 days later I had X decently set up.

I'm not going to lie to you, the process was hell. At any point I might have given up and gone back to windows. But I didn't, because I remembered all the times I had to do this sort of thing with windows. I remember when windows rescue disks didn't have cdrom drivers (my disks definitely didn't), and I had to spend 2 weeks getting my drivers set up with no documentation (using a hex editor on the driver is not documentation).

However once I had X working, the sheer number of packages that I could install was awe inspiring. All the games, all the everything, it was amazing. I have been a happy camper ever since.

I was learning to use a free operating system and that was a huge thrill. Previously I had wasted a lot of time mastering a non-free operating system (windows) and Debian was showing me that that was all for nothing.

In windows there is a limit to what you can do, and so there is only a very limited number of ways to solve a problem. It really took me a while to adjust to Debian. The first idea was that there are more ways than one to tackle a problem. The second was keep it simple. The most important one took a bit longer: everyone deservers free software, and non-free software isn't good. An extention of this is that you can write your own software, and change existing software. The whole concept of ./configure, make, make install, was eye opening.

There are other ditributions that I might have chosen, or that I could use now. But I am always afraid that I won't remember to uninstall some non-free program. I really care about that sort of thing. It's why I installed Debian in the first place.

So in the end there are practical and ethical reasons why Debian is better than windows. First the practical benefits:

Part TWO of my ramblings:

Until now I've mostly been describing why I think free operating systems are better than proprietary ones. Now I'll take some time to reflect on why Debian is better than some of the other free operating systems out there.

Commercial Distributions (GNU/Linux)

Debian has certain advantages against Commercial Distributions of free software. First is the fact that Debian contains much more software than any one commercial distribution. At least this is when you compare the amount of free software. Many commercial distributions inflate their cds with commercial software and demos and such, but when it gets down to it they offer little extra.

Second is the fact that Debian has a much better packaging system than the commercial distros. I don't mean packaging format. The .deb format has advantages over .rpm but they aren't insane. What is good is that there is a coherent set of packages that are easy to access. This is probably not the best way to describe this advantage. A better way of looking at the difference here is that Debian is continuous whereas commercial distributions are mostly discrete. For example you can more or less easily upgrade one version of Debian into another. This might be possible with other distros but it is much harder. With Debian you can live on the edge and upgrade daily, or live in the stable world, or live in between in testing. This is yet another level of choice that the user has.

Another advantage of the packaging done by Debian is that is very decentralized. Software installation is one of the very few places where I appreciate decentralization. What I mean is that in Debian you, the user, get to decide what gets installed. In most commercial distributions you get a load of software installed. Much that is not useful to you, and much that is missing. In debian you get to decide. Again more choice.

This last advantage is in some respects due to the fact that debian was designed this way. Debian is more than a distribution it is an OS. Many distributons aren't really operating systems (proprietary operating systems are much worse in this regard). In my opinion an operating system has to allow you to do whatever you need to do. But most so called OS's out there are designed for an imaginary average user. They are one sized fits all. And so they don't really fit anyone. Debian on the other hand can be tailored to fit anyone.

I know this from experience setting up Debian. I've set up servers that run Debian and I've set up workstations that run Debian. And you really can set up anything in between. Some distros let you pick an installation type but they usually don't offer fine grained control. Or if they do they make it near impossible to do your own thing.

apt is the essence of Debian. For those unfamiliar with Debian apt is the tool you use to install software. apt-get install emacs is what you type to install emacs. apt-get update is what you do to tell your computer to check for upgrades and apt-get upgrade is how you tell your computer to install them. Very quickly you begin to feel incredible power. You very easily install hundreds of packages a day. With other OS's this is painful (believe me, I have wasted much of my life clicking ok and watching windows waste my life away), but with debian it's almost fun.

The BSDs

Debian's advantages over the BSD's are more of a matter of taste than cold hard facts. In any case I'll proceed. Debian can only really be compared to FreeBSD since it is really an OS in the same sense as Debian. NetBSD is almost only a kernel, it comes with very little software and can be considered for many purposes to be only the base upon which an OS (in the macro sense) can be built.

What advantages does Debian have over FreeBSD? Some of the advantages come from the Debian way of doing things, others come from the fact that Debian uses the Linux kernel and much more of the GNU tools and the larger user base that there is for GNU/Linux.

On the packaging side this time Debian wins because of less flexibility. FreeBSD from what I could tell didn't really have the same binary packaging of gazillions of different applications. They had a great deal of applications in binary form, but most of the applications making up the system were distributed in source form with requisite patches that were automatically applied. The whole thing would automagically compile, but it was compilation nonetheless. This is a wonderfully general way to proceed, but to me it has several problems. First is the fact that many users don't want to bother with compilation. I for one am at least sometimes in this group. When running on a computer with a small hard drive, I don't want to have to compile much of anything. I usually only use my fastest or my most stable system for any compilation or development.

FreeDos and others

Basically Debian wins here because it's not a specialized or toy OS. Debian can pretty much do whatever you need it to. This means you can use it as a web server, as a desktop computer, or as a number crunching machine. In fact the ease of installing and setting up software on Debian results in me often doing all three on the same computer. I'm writing this on a machine at work which has got: X11 + firewall + dhcpd + nfsd + Samba + spamassassin + IMAPd + Apache + Squrrelwebmail (the printer recently moved to the other room, so I'm no longer running cups).

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