Sunday, 19 September 2010

What Makes Debian One of the Most Popular Distros Out There: 5 Good Reasons

Debian is one of the oldest and most popular distributions among the Linux users. There are probably hundreds of distributions which are based on Debian, or others which are based on distributions which in turn are based on Debian. Although I'm not a Debian developer, I use it for over two years or so, and slowly got to love this OS.

This is not a 'Debian is better than X' article, it's just about Debian alone. So, let's proceed and see what makes Debian so popular and loved among the Linux users.

Stability. I know as a Debian or Ubuntu (or why not, some other distribution) user you probably heard this a million times. But yes, stability. Debian is renowned for the fact that its 'stable' version is always released only if all known critical bugs have been fixed and it's been stripped from most of the ones with a lower priority. When you install Debian stable you have the certitude that it will not give you a headache, that it is secure and that all the tools and daemons will work the right way. There is a reason for which Debian is used by so many web hosting companies as their preferred Linux distribution for their servers.

Huge community. From a user's point of view, especially a tech-oriented one, having enough persons from which at least one will know the answer is a blessing. There are the Debian mailing lists, the IRC channels (both the official OFTC one and the Freenode one), the forums. And why not say it, does a great job too in helping Debian. How's that?, you may ask. Well, Ubuntu is so popular and used by so many people that on the online forums you can get a straight, good answer to a question in minutes. And since Ubuntu is based on Debian, over 90% of the questions which apply for Ubuntu will apply for Debian too.

Good documentation. I'm talking here books and books of official online documentation. We have the Debian Wiki, we have powerful manuals written by professionals, and to list some, here are the New Maintainers' Guide, the Debian Policy Manual or the Debian Packing Manual.To say nothing about all the third-party help sites, news sites, blogs and articles referring to Debian. This makes Debian a very rich-documented distribution, and knowing help is out there if you do a little reading is a key aspect for any user.

Debian Free Software Guidelines. The social contract is a major aspect which affected how Debian developed and continues to be developed. Debian is one of the distributions which follow a very specific code from which there is no straying. Debian will always be 100% free, it will be open, it will fulfill the community needs and it will respect the free software standards.

Debian fits perfectly both as desktop or as web server. With high security and stability standards, Debian makes the perfect fit for a web server. But Debian comes with over 17,000 from which a huge amount is made by GUI applications, desktop environments and many other user-friendly tools.

And the list goes on. The true power of Debian lies not only in the few points I listed here, but in its users and mentality. Software done this way will always be there, because it relies on an entire community to survive, and as long as the community is there, then so is Debian. A proof to this is that Debian has been around almost since the beginning of Linux, in 1993, when Ian Murdock, founder of Debian, announced the availability of Debian on August 16, and together with Slackware or Red Hat, it is at the top of the pyramid regarding tradition in the Linux world.


Anonymous said...

You might want to amend your opening line - MEPIS is actually based on Debian (stable) - no steps in between.

Alasdair said...

Small point. mepis idea is based on debian after a brief period of deviating to ubuntu for a couple of versions. Mint would have been a better example, but even that is now looking to debian as its bse.

Craciun Dan said...

Didn't know about that, probably it has stayed with me from when it used Ubuntu. Thanks for pointing that out!

el duderino said...

Another big plus from debian IMO, is it's democratical structure. For example, to release Lenny there was a vote calling about the binary blobs issue, and people decided that we should make an exception this time and allow it in the kernel.
Although that wasn't my wish, I recognize the value from this big community and it's democracy. Much better to stay in the movement and work together to make debian the best 100% free OS (for squeeze those blobs are already being sorted out) than leave the project cause one doesn't know to dialogue with people that think a bit different and then start some small fork.

LinuxCanuck said...

Debian is great. Its users aren't. They are among the most obnoxious users out there. So your point about community is not relevant.

Why are Debian users a pain? They are among the most newbie unfriendly people and rigid to the point of dogmatism. I am sure that there are many great Debian users, but as always it is the squeaky wheels that get your attention. They almost relish pushing people away which is why it has become marginalised while Ubuntu has grown.

As for Debian being stable, some would call it stale. When I installed Debian 5 it would not recognise my Wacom tablet while it works OTB in Ubuntu and almost every other distribution. The problem is the kernel is too old even after doing all the updates. It is at least 18 months behind most other distros.

I don't want to rain on your parade, but Debian needs a heavy dose of reality. Most people want stability but don't want to dwell in the past. I realise that there is Debian Sid and in fact use Sidux (now aptosid) and much prefer it to Debian itself.

This all goes to prove that there is a distribution for everybody. The question is why are so many people taking a pass on Debian. It is a shadow of what it once was and you don't need to look to the competition for the answer. PR pieces like this one won't help. It needs some navel gazing and a makeover, IMO.

Hannes said...

Debian is stabile but when it's released kernel, applications and whole system is little bit "out of dated". Somehow i've started to prefer Fedora, though it's surely not for newbies.

Debian good be good one for your friend you just want distro without headeache and you don't have to be there every week helping him/her.

el duderino said...


To get a wacom tablet working with debian Lenny, I simply had to install the wacom-tools package.

I agree that debian isn't newbie friendly, that's why I always suggest other distros to people that want to start using linux. For experienced people though, I think it's one of the best options out there. One can get a very up-to-date system using the testing branch. For the more stable oriented folks that only need some updated packages, there is the excelent backport repo available.

As about the community, I really can't tell very much, then when I was a complete newbie, it was back in 1999/2000, and I remember people helped me a lot with problems I had at the time.

Debian's target aren't only desktop users, so it's installer has to be as flexible as possible. I like debian docs, but realize that they might be not very easy for newcomers.

Anyway, with all respect, I think that not every system has to be newbie friendly. Take a look at Arch, Debian, Slack, Gentoo, OpenBSD,etc. All of them have a big user base, and their goal is not to conquer the market. Those people make the systems and the docs for themselves, and their projects have also achieved a great amount of success in this regard.

LinuxCanuck said...

@el duderino

You make a good point. Not all distros need to be newbie friendly. But all distros mentioned by you are for niche distros and tend to be small and specialised. If that is who Debian is going after that is fine, but the title of the piece is on popularity.

You can't become popular by annoying a large segment of users. If you want to win users over from other distros being in your face and elitist is not a good strategy.

I have seen Debian users in their forums lambaste someone for asking how to install Firefox. After a long explanation about why FF sucks and why Iceweasel is FF done right, the user never got any help and when he persisted the user was called an idiot. Most newbs would make a simple "mistake" like that as FF is something they would want.

As a blogger I have been told by Debian users that they will not read the content until I stop calling it Linux and use GNU/Linux. You don't find that kind of aggressive and zealous behaviour in other distributions. I have been active on help forums for ten years and blogging for a third of that time.

This all makes me wonder if I would want to associate with such people and the answer is: No! No matter how good Debian is, its users are a turn off for me and many others. Using Debian seems to create a monster in the Linux (intentional) community. It seems to be a refuge for Nazi types masquerading as free software advocates. By which they mean that it is free as long as you think like they do.

I would like to say something good about Debian. It is a solid platform to build on. It is built on good base with a long history by well meaning and principled people. The IDEA of a democracy is great. In practice, like in real life politics, it is flawed. It slows down development in a field that is moving very fast. So by nature, Debian cannot keep pace with Ubuntu or Fedora which are not hampered by the restrictions that Debian has imposed on itself. I would love to see it work better.

When I say that it is a great platform to build on, I mean that others are doing a better job in bringing it to the masses. Since this article was on popularity I chose to respond as I did. It is everything else and not Debian itself that needs re-working, IMO.

I would love to see someone take Debian and make it successful. Some would say that this is being done by Canonical and to a lesser extent Warren Woodford. The question is why can't Debian?

Anonymous said...

Why don't you show some respect for the fact that it IS Debian GNU/Linux? Instead of calling the crowd that insists upon the right name zealots and refuse to "read content" why not grow up and realize that a truth is a truth and not necessarily asking permission to fit into your personal convenience.


Borivoje said...

Complete agreement with the author. I am using Ubuntu, after trying many other distros (Still exploring). I tried openSUSE, which look quite well. But the thing mentioned - the community is not in abundance like Ubuntu's is. (I might be wrong, this is the opinion got from searching google for solving problems).

Anonymous said...

Although I typically use derivatives like (K)Ubuntu or Mepis on my desktop systems, I regard Debian as something of a base standard. In other words, if someone wants me to check out a new distro, my question is "what can it do that I can't do with Debian". Unless there's a compelling answer to that question (and sometimes there is), I don't bother.

What's ironic about Debian is that some of the things that make it great also make it un-popular, at least for standard desktop use. It's stability comes at a price of long development cycles. It's commitment to freedom means getting the software you need can be a little more difficult. It's sheer scope of supported platforms means that some things have to remain "generic" and "primitive" (e.g., the installer) to ensure broader support.

The irony is why so many people make derivatives of it: because it's awesome enough to base your distro on, but un-awesome enough to make you want to make a derivative distro in the first place.

Bernard said...

Who says Debian isn't "newbie friendly"?

Debian was, in fact, my first Linux distro, and that was back when Debian still had only that notorious text-based installer (Debian 2.1 "Slink" and 2.2 "Potato"). Before that, my experience was chiefly with Windows '95/98/98se.

Mind you, I "cheated" -- I read the installation guide, the FAQ, and parts of other references on the Debian site; I learned a ton of stuff that a Windows user never learns. I learned how to install a "real" (non-Win) modem. The actual install went well.

It took me two tries to install, and I never figured out why the first time didn't work. But XP was on it's way, Office was already requiring "product activation", and I could see the writing on the wall -- so I rebooted and ran the installer again, and it went exactly like the install guide said it should.

Time passed. I was running Linux on the used computer I wasn't afraid of breaking, then dual-booting on my main machine, then one day I realized that I was no longer a Windows-user who dabbled with Linux, but a Linux-user who for some reason was still maintaining a Windows-install that I never used. My Windows drive became my back-up storage.

That was about 2000-2001. It's a lot, lot easier now. If Debian isn't "newbie friendly", well then, by the same standards, Windows isn't either -- and in that case, the term "user friendly" has no useful meaning.

Anonymous said...

It is easy to write anecdotal horse crap with a *works for me* conclusion, but when it comes to real world, it means NOTHING.

If you have used Debian for so long, you probably haven't used/seen anything else to compare its user friendliness with any other OS. User friendliness is not an absolute measurement. Nor does it mean the same for everyone.

If doing a simple stuff, like installing a browser of choice takes 5 pages of reading and 20 minutes of download/compile, the OS is probably not user friendly, but I'm sure some would call it user-unfriendly to be able to mark and install in 30 secs. probably because it does not offer the flexibility, something like flexibility of merging a patch your fellow mate wrote or tweaking compiler options, your own compiler of course, to make use of a unique feature of your rare processor, perhaps, or to be able to disable a feature which is included in the main branch, but you don't want to use it because it is too simple or is a direct copy of a feature developed by Microsoft.

If you think Debian is user friendly, you are talking about a completely different "user".

Anonymous said...

Just a humble opinion.
I have been using windows and many different distributions of Linux. I just don't understand why people keep saying things about Debian which are in fact not true. I believe those are people who never installed Debian at all. There are so many distros just "based" on Debian. It means that the "base" is Debian. Just go to:
and download the latest live DVD from Debian. You can try any desktop interface. I personally use KDE. You don't need to install. Just test it live and you will see that your freedom has a price. You will understand that the way to go to get stability and keep your privacy is Debian. Why get other distributions made by people who just pick up a stable and secure distro as Debian and keep fiddling around with it and adding bloatware that you will never use? Creating security holes which will never be closed? Sending away and maybe making money with your private information? Why not using the most stable and one of the oldest and well stablished distros?
Why not just try Debian.

Anonymous said...

I searched for a small distro with kernel 3.16 and xfce 4.10. I was using debian 7.6 xfce and it is rock solid. However i wanted to use the latest Rosegarden music studio software, so i needed upgrade.

I tested openSuse in Virtualbox and the network installation iso was 400MB and downloading took for a while. The user interface was modified to look a like winXP. I wanted to stay away from MS style ui or code, so i installed Debian Jessie beta 2 Xfce, the Iso file is 660MB and loaded a bit stuff from the net like LibreOffice.

What i see bad in future of debian is that slow and shitty gnome is overdriving. Here i now have systemd, spi bus, gnome policykit and other stupid stuff i did not have in Wheezy 7.6 Xfce.

So the good distro is: