Why Debian

Several people have asked me why I have chosen to focus on Debian GNU/Linux (from here on referred to simply as Debian) instead of a different distribution for teaching a course on Linux and systems administration. So here are a few reasons:

Debian is available for multiple architectures. This makes using it for a class preferable to some other distributions because macintosh owners can likely get Linux to work on their computers without having too many differences.

I think that Debian's package management has several large advantages over RPM and other systems. Debian keeps track not only of packages installed, but also of all packages available. Debian also keeps track of dependencies and conflicts, again not only of packages installed but of all packages. Debian will retrieve files for you and will get all necessary packages needed for a particular installation candidate. By itself RPM does not provide this functionality, though there are many programs to find RPMs for you. I have found that when installing things on RPM-based systems, I have often had to find and download several packages, only to find that they depend on yet another package that I have to download. The process of installing software is greatly simplified by Debian's apt-get. You can also install RPMs in Debian by using alien, or you may choose to compile programs from source.

Perhaps the coolest feature of apt-get is that it can be used to upgrade all of your packages to the current version by typing "apt-get update; apt-get upgrade". That's it. This gives Debian an advantage in terms of security because all packages can be kept current with remarkably little effort. Debian is also more security-conscious than many Linux distributions and attempts to have reasonably secure defaults as installed. When considering a Linux installation, ensuring security is one of my primary concerns.

Debian GNU/Linux seems to be a good example of Linux in terms of philosophy. Debian is perhaps stricter about licensing than many distributions and is run in a more open way than many distributions. I highly recommend that you read more about the Debian package if you are interested to understand what I am only briefly touching on here.

Debian is not among the more desktop-oriented distributions. But as this is a course in administration, it is more important to me to cover services and security than window managers and themes. Linux is about much more than X; to just use a graphical user interface is to completely ignore the real power and capabilities of Linux. Hacking (in the real sense of the word) is about tinkering with config files instead of having the innards abstracted by control centers and graphical configuration tools.

It would be hard for me to defend Debian as an "easy" linux distribution. The current Debian installation process is fairly complicated. Debian, unlike many distributions, does virtually no automatic hardware detection. Howerver, I think this makes Debian a good choice for a class on system administration because it immediately provides the opportunity to explore and learn. Debian makes few assumptions and instead asks you what it should do. Debian may take longer than other distributions to get properly installed and initially configured, but once set up it is much easier to add packages and keep the system secure.

If you are familiar with the basics of Linux and Debian, I encourage you to try different distributions. Running Linux differs from running Windows, or other "traditional" operating systems, because it provides an environment for and involves a great degree of hacking and learning. There's no reason to stop learning just because you are comfortable with Debian. Each Linux distribution is different, and there is no perfect distribution, so experiment and see what works for you. Debian can be a great place to start if you are willing to make the effort. Happy hacking!

(Last updated April 2001)