Version 5 of the Debian GNU/Linux open-source operating system offers the same top management tools and processor support that previous versions of the Linux operating have. There also are a host of updates to open-source components, and the Linux distribution is still a great fit for servers and a solid desktop choice. However, the top reason for upgrading from version 4 may be the relatively short three-year security fix window, less than the coverage time offered with Ubuntu and Red Hat Enterprise Linux-derived CentOS.
Debian GNU/Linux, the open-source operating system that's proven more influential than any Linux flavor this side of Red Hat, recently hit the Internet's FTP mirrors in the form of an updated 5.0 release.
Version 5, which is also known by the Toy Story-inspired name "Lenny," sports the same excellent software management tools and broad processor architecture support that marked previous Debian releases. In addition, the new release includes a host of updates to the open-source components that comprise it.
Unlike the Debian 4 release that I last reviewed, which impressed me with its disk encryption leadership among rival Linux distributions, Lenny doesn't significantly advance the state of Debian or of Linux in general. Beyond its slate of software package refreshes, the best reason for existing Debian users to upgrade to the new version is that, as per the project's security policy, version 4 will fall out of security fix coverage one year after Lenny's Valentine's Day release date.
Stability and long life are frequently cited as the chief reasons for choosing Debian, particularly in server roles for which administrators might wish to "set and forget" their machines. However, the roughly three-year security fix window that applies to Debian releases falls short of the five years of coverage that Ubuntu offers for its Long Term Support releases, or the seven years that the similarly free-to-acquire CentOS derives from the Red Hat Enterprise Linux releases on which CentOS is based.
Still, Debian is a great fit for server deployments, and is particularly well-suited for hosting applications that draw on open-source components, such as Apache, MySQL, or any of the other thousands of applications that the Debian project has packaged up for easy installation over one of the project's many repository mirror sites.
I often turn to Debian as a foundation for assembling virtual servers for my testing, since the distribution's very good text-based installer makes it easy to spin Debian into whatever arbitrary sort of Linux server I seek, and since I find the configuration applets that come bundled with many Debian packages handy for setting up unfamiliar components.
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Debian 5.0 can also work well in a desktop role, thanks in part to what appear to be contributions drawn from the Ubuntu Linux releases that are themselves based on a Debian foundation. For instance, during my Lenny testing, I recognized the system's Update Manager and Software Add/Remove tools from my use of Ubuntu.
Debian 5.0 defaults to GNOME 2.22.2 as its desktop environment, but offers KDE 3.5.10 and Xfce 4.4.2, among other, lesser known options, as desktop alternatives.
Finally, Debian's broad processor architecture support—which spans 12 architectures and sets the distribution apart from any other Linux flavor of which I'm aware—makes Debian a natural fit for the fast-growing class of embedded Linux implementations.
Debian is freely available for download from the Debian project or from one of its mirrors via www.us.debian.org. As a noncommercial entity, the Debian project doesn't offer support beyond community resources, although the project maintains a directory of companies offering support services here.
The entire Debian distribution, which includes all the freely redistributable packages in the project's main repository, spans 31 CDs or five DVDs. I typically download the distribution's 180MB network install image and pull down the packages I need from a friendly neighborhood mirror site.
Lenny in the Lab
I tested the x86 version of Debian 5.0 running on a few virtual machines atop Sun Microsystems' VirtualBox. I also had it running bare on my Lenovo Thinkpad T60 notebook. Debian 5 supported my Thinkpad T60 hardware without issue, including the sometimes troublesome suspend-to-disk and suspend-to-RAM functions. Also on the power management front, Lenny supported processor frequency scaling out of the box.
On one of my virtual Debian test instances, I set out to test an in-place upgrade scenario involving Debian 4—aka Etch—and a running Mediawiki/Apache/MySQL installation. Support for in-place upgrades of production machines is one the capabilities that the Debian project has long touted, and, for the most part, my experience upgrading my Etch server to Lenny did run smoothly.
As instructed by the project's extensive upgrade documentation, I modified my test system's software source configuration to seek out the new set of packages that comprise Lenny, and proceeded by upgrading first my system's software tools, and then upgrading the rest of the system. When I rebooted into my new Lenny system, however, my Mediawiki instance was inaccessible until I figured out and executed a needed Apache config file change.
Considering that I'd drawn my entire Mediawiki installation from Debian's repositories, it would have been nice if the system could have handled the configuration change as part of the upgrade. I also would like to have seen the system roll the update script required to upgrade the Mediawiki database into the process. Mediawiki version 1.7 shipped with Etch, and Lenny ships with version 1.12.
Considering the complexity of application level upgrades—particularly ones that involve a chorus of components, as Mediawiki does—it would be great to see the Debian project take on the goal of packaging and offering installation options for entire software appliances, perhaps in a future Debian version.
Live Free, or Not
When it comes to promoting and ensuring the ideals of free software in the applications and components it distributes, the Debian project is among the most strict. For instance, Debian ships rebranded versions of the Firefox Web browser (branded "Iceweasel" in Debian). Also, debate raged among Debian developers whether to excise software encumbered by proprietary firmware from the system.
For all its reputed free-zealotry, however, Debian makes it fairly easy to arrive at a working—if not philosophically pure—Linux installation. For instance, when I installed Lenny on my Thinkpad T60, the installer pointed out that I would need a particular binary firmware file to make my Intel 3945ABG Wi-Fi adapter function. The system told me the name of the required file, and offered me the option of inserting a USB drive from which to load that firmware—which I did, after plucking it from a nearby Ubuntu machine.
Along similar lines, once I'd completed my Lenny installation, I found that a USB hard drive formatted with Microsoft's NTFS file system did not mount automatically, as it does in other Linux distributions. Undaunted, I opened Debian's software installation application, searched for the term "ntfs," and installed the package ntfs-3g. Once the package had installed, an icon for my NTFS drive popped up on my desktop.
Debian 5 ships with the open-source Swfdec Flash player, which worked well for me when playing Youtube videos and viewing Flash-based Website advertisements. Swfdec didn't handle all the Flash content I encountered—the music player at Pandora.com being one example. However, I could install Adobe's own non-free Flash player easily enough by clicking the non-free box in the system's Software Sources utility, and installing the player through the system's regular software tools.
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