A Tryst with Debian Etch Beta 3

August 28, 2006
When a Linux enthusiast hears the name Debian, it never fails to instill in him some awe and respect. After all, this is the one and only not-for-profit Linux distribution which has singularly built up a name synonymous with security, stability and freeness.

I recently downloaded the latest offering of Debian which goes in the garb of Debian Etch Beta 3. Ironically, I came across the correct link through a comment inserted in a prominent news site (I will come back to it later). There are 19 ISO images to download if you want all the packages which runs to more than 17000 and their sources. But Debian also provides a net install CD image roughly around 140 MB size and is the preferred option for people who have a very fast Internet connection. And it is possible to install the distribution entirely via the net.

Since I was severely constrained in the Internet speed department, I decided to download the first CD image of size 643 MB praying that it would be enough to install a full fledged desktop environment. After a couple of hours, I had the ISO image successfully downloaded and burned on to the CD and I was ready to install Debian on my machine.

The main reason for trying out this version of Debian was to check out the new GUI installer which is considered to be a huge improvement over the previous versions. I booted my PC using the CD and I was shown a boot prompt. Here I had the choice of either installing using the text based installer or using the new graphical installer. Also it is possible to install the distribution using the expert mode or the normal mode. If you opt for the normal mode, the installer takes most of the decisions at the cost of your relinquishing fine grained control. Since I like having more control of the installation process, I opted for the expert GUI mode and diligently typed the command :
boot: expertgui
In fact, the installer provides a plethora of choices which one can learn about by navigating using the function keys F1 to F8 prior to entering the command.

Fig: New GUI installer of Debian

In a short time, I was face to face with the new GUI installer which had a clean spartan look to it. The installer in itself has only three buttons. Them being "Continue", "Back" and "Screenshot". The "Screenshot" button will grab the current screen and save it as a PNG image in the /var/log/installer/ location which can be later accessed after the installation is complete. This imparts a nice touch to the whole process as it will, at a later time, aid in providing a visual walk-through of the installation steps to a first time user of Linux.

Debian Installation Walkthrough
The installation steps I had to go through are as follows :
  1. Choose language
    • Choose a country or region
    • Choose locale
  2. Select a keyboard layout
    • Type of keyboard
    • Keymap to use
  3. Detect & mount the CD-ROM
    • Modules to load - like usb-storage, floppy and so on.
    • Start PCMCIA ? Yes/No
  4. Load installer components from CD
  5. Detect network hardware - automatic detection
  6. Configure the network
    • DHCP or static IP
    • Set hostname
    • Set domain name
  7. Choose a mirror of the Debian archive
    • Choose the country
    • Choose ftp location
    • Enter any HTTP proxy information
  8. Detect disks - Automatic detection
  9. Partition Disks - Would be nice to have a help button here for first time users. For others the whole process is intuitive.
  10. Configure time zone
  11. Configure clock
  12. Setup users and passwords
    • Enable shadow passwords? Yes/No
    • Allow login as root ? Yes/No
    • Set root password
    • Create normal user account
  13. Install the base system
    • Select the kernel image - There are 20 images including those with SMP support for 2.4 and 2.6 kernels.
    • Select tools used to generate boot initrd
  14. Configure the package manager
    • Should the network mirror be chosen ? Yes/No
    • Use non-free software ? Yes/No - Really interesting!
  15. Select and install the software
    • Participate in Debian popularity contest ? Yes/No - Cool!
    • Select your choice of packages
      • Desktop environment
      • Web Server
      • Print Server
      • DNS Server
      • File Server
      • Mail Server
      • SQL Server
      • Laptop
      • Standard System
  16. Configure Exim v4 - Mail Transport Agent
  17. Choose dictionaries to use (US, GB...)
  18. Install Grub/Lilo Boot loader or continue without boot loader
  19. Finish the installation
Even though there are a lot of steps involved in the Expert mode of installation (the number of steps are a lot less if you choose the normal mode), each of them are easy to understand. I found the installer to provide fine grained control over which modules to enable.

Usually most Linux distributions enable all the modules available even though many of them are not needed for the particular machine hardware. But Debian allows one to enable just those modules that are most suited for the machine. For example, my machine does not have infrared or wireless supported hardware so I can choose not to load the kernel modules related to these.

Another aspect which endeared me to the Debian way of installing Linux was the sheer number of kernel images available to choose from. The installer provided a choice of no less than 20 kernel images from the 2.4 kernel fit for installing on a 486 machine to the 2.6 kernel with SMP support for Pentium class of x86 machines.

Fig: Partitioning the hard disk

The Grub boot loader also correctly detected the WindowsXP and Ubuntu 6.06 OSes residing on the other partitions on my machine though it failed to detect the FreeBSD OS. But then none of the other Linux distributions I have installed till now have correctly detected the FreeBSD OS while installing the boot loader.

If one has a net connection, I recommend choosing the standard system install (while installing the software) which will install a base system sans X server. And then it is only a matter of installing just those software which are needed using apt-get. I installed the standard system and then with an additional 150 MB download, I was able to setup a desktop system with an editor (GVim 7.0), a web browser (Firefox 1.5.0), a window manager Xfce 4.0 (a very good alternative to the more common heavy weights Gnome and KDE) and two graphics software Gimp 2.2 and Inkscape 0.44. It is clear that the Debian team have upgraded the Etch repositories to mirror the most recent versions of the software. For example, the Inkscape build was compiled as recently as July 2006.

And after all this, my Debian partition utilized only 1.1 GB space which includes the space used by apt-get for storing the packages downloaded for installing. I have started liking the Debian way of installing only what is necessary which does away with a lot of bloat. And I am sure this will be the preferred way of installing Linux in the future when majority of the people have access to high speed internet.

I found the new graphical installer similar to the text installer of FreeBSD in that it is possible to jump around back and forth in the different categories of the main menu. And once a particular task is finished, you are placed back in the main menu.

Bootup times of Debian
The boot-up times are significantly faster than any of the other Linux distributions I have used barring say Vector Linux or Gentoo which are also equally quick to boot up. I dare say I found Debian Etch to boot up quicker than Ubuntu :).

The Pros of Debian Etch beta 3
  • Comes with an easy to navigate graphical installer
  • Has a choice of 20 Linux kernels suitable for a wide variety of x86 machines.
  • Gives fine grained control over the installation with options to enable/disable specific modules.
  • Installs the latest versions of software. A real surprise!!
  • Quick boot up times.
  • Stable and secure - you get the same unadulterated operating system which powers many of the high traffic servers around the world.
  • Support for setting up encrypted partitions during installation .
The Cons of Debian Etch beta 3
  • Internet access is mandatory to install Debian unless you are willing to shell out money to buy a set of CDs.
  • No out of the box support for Flash, Sun's Java, proprietary audio formats, closed source graphics drivers and so on. And these have to be included by the users themselves.
Now for some rants ... ;-)
I had earlier noted that I got hold of the link to Debian Etch beta 3 from a prominent news site where a reader had graciously included it in his comment. Would I have succeeded in downloading the correct ISO (in my case the most recent one) if I had tried looking on the Debian website ? In all probability I would have ended up downloading the wrong version of Debian.

Agreed, Debian supports lots of architecture other than x86 and all these need to be given equal representation. But how much effort will it take to provide a download link to the latest version of Debian simultaneously recommending a specific version for desktop users (even if it is in beta stage) on the main page of debian.org site ? I would guess not much. The download link provided at present takes the visitor to Debian Sarge which is too outdated for use as a Desktop.

On this note, and with due respects, I feel Debian team seriously need to acquire some lessons in the ABC's of marketing. Just because it is a not-for-profit organisation doesn't mean that it has to refrain from marketing itself and rely exclusively on well wishers and enthusiasts to spread the word. It is high time that the Debian site is overhauled and made more user friendly (Read less cluttered) . For one, a new Linux user will not be able to make head or tail about Sarge, Etch or Sid. But if he is told which ISO image is most suited for a specific purpose, that will go a long way in making the end-user experience towards Debian much better.

I would love to see a forum hosted on the official site where users can post queries and help each other on Debian specific problems. If Debian has to regain the lost ground on the popularity front, then it has to take the desktop users (newbies ??) more seriously. While a system administrator is capable of taking care of problems he face with Debian himself, an ordinary user will need some directions. And Debian's capability in handling this section of users will decide how popular Debian gets in the coming future.

Having said all this, I eagerly await the final release of Debian Etch.

28 comments:

  • Nice review, but as you say, Etch is still in Beta. Personally I wouldn't want a Linux noob's first experience of Linux to be one of a Beta, where they might experience bugs/security issues. I believe that is Debian philosophy too. Etch/Sid are NOT for noobs, it is for advanced users who want to test/contribute to the project.

  • Rugmonster

    You're wrong about requiring Internet connectivity to install. Here is where you can get the weekly-build of the i386 20 disc set and here are the 3 DVDs. Using these discs, you can install everything from the Debian repositories as it looked from time of compilation.

  • Nice review, thanks!
    I can't wait to see the final version of etch.
    You're absolutly right with the marketing: why is ubuntu so popular ? Because of marketing! Ubuntu forums here, digg story there and ubuntu on slashdot, osnews, newsforge, etc.
    Hope that debian gets more attention once etch final is out.

  • Far be it from me to make assumptions about Debian's intentions, but I don't think "being the most popular distro" is one of their goals. They don't see themselves as competing with other distros. Debian has always strived to be a) completely free and b) the best distro but only if it's done right. You won't much shoddy work in Debian. What you gain in one area you give up in another :)

  • The problem is that Gnome is still broken in Beta 3. Well, I should say it worked for a couple of days and now it's broken again because yelp is broken.
    Is it possible to install Gnome and exclude an app that actually prevents all of Gnome from installing?

  • ABCC

    I agree with the statement about Debian not making it clear which install cd is "the one to have" and there not being a forum on the debian site.

    When I was linux newbie I set my sights on either Debian or Gentoo, and on the strength of the easy-to-access support community aka the Gentoo forums I chose that over Debian.

    As a reply to the first post, my experience was a bit frustrating, a touch of commitment and a day of browsing in lynx later and I was the proud owner of a fully functional Gentoo install :) (and still am 3 years later, with Debian on another partition)

  • Yes... and of course, 20 (read TWENTY) cd isos or 3 DVD isos fall from the heaven!!! ;-D You do really need an internet connection, said that the best installation way is the net-install iso. Otherwise, you have to pay for burned cds!!!
    Nice and wise review: I was a debian user who switched to kubuntu because of the out-dated packages in debian repos, but now seems that things are changin' a little. Let's see if this will be true also for the spartan (euphemistically speaking) website!
    Bye

  • As to the cons and rants. I hope Debian never offers any proprietary stuff in their stock distribution. Leave that to the Debian spin offs. The same goes for marketing. Debian does not have to worry about licensing issues as it now stands.
    I no not think that stock Debian will ever be the place for a noob to go. That is why there is Mepis and ubuntu, etc. They all have their place.

    Glenn Thigpen

  • "I wouldn't want a Linux noob's first experience of Linux to be one of a Beta, where they might experience bugs/security issues."


    Debian Etch is already more stable than eg. Ubuntu Dapper.

  • Some strange comments at the end like the other people have said.

    Apart from Ubuntu all distributions require you to have an internet connection or to buy the discs. Just because Ubuntu provides discs for free at an expense to themselves, does not make it a con for debian that they don't buy discs for you too.

    To state that this is the same distribution used on servers worldwide is misleading. This is a beta and anyone using it on their servers is mad.

    The fact that it is a beta is also a perfectly good reason not to provide a link. You don't want all and sundry downloading a beta and then complaining or ruining debian's fabulous reputation for stability.

    The author has strange expectations.

  • Ben

    "Since I was severely constrained in the Internet speed department..."

    "After a couple of hours, I had the ISO image..."

    Those of us on dialup pity you. You poor poor poor... But there is no time for sarcasm - I must be leaving.

    Since I am severely constrained in the being filthy rich department, I will leave the Rolls at home and just take the Ferrari today, methings.

  • Darth Bates

    He didn't say that, you idiot! He said that IF you wanted to do a net install you would have to download only a single 140 MB ISO image, BUT if Internet is a problem you shoud download (or buy) the whole 20 disc set.

  • Etch (testing) is best for noobs, but Sarge (stable) isn't. Because Sarge is too stable and too secure and old. Many applications are outdated and cannot be used easily/friendly in Sarge. Sarge is only good for MIS because it's stable and secure and you don't need to worry about that machine too much. Etch is good for noobs because the softwares in Etch are newer/updatable and can meet the needs of noobs in time.

  • "Debian Sarge which is too outdated for use as a Desktop"

    Could you please drop by Denmark and tell that to 3 users includeing me?

    And when you write about non free software as "The Cons of Debian Etch".. Hmmmm
    Why dont you put in some information about "non-free contrib" and "debian-multimedia.org" in /etc/apt/sources.list (no need for easyautomatix then) if you see the lack of w32codecs, flash and so on as such a big problem.

    Try this sources.list and play your freakin wma files :P

    #etch
    deb http://ftp.de.debian.org/debian etch main non-free contrib
    deb-src http://ftp.de.debian.org/debian etch main non-free contrib
    deb http://www.debian-multimedia.org etch main

  • While expert mode certainly exists for good reason, I do wonder: what particular questions did you want to answer differently than what the non-expert install does by default?

  • Komodo Dragon

    Geez, cool down and give the author kudos for an article well written!

    We technical people tend to write in short script, sometimes up to the point of poor legibility or ridiculity (sheet happens). I can understand well that this unnerves many a n00b, and a humanist winds in distress. Yet this is the way we write - and you'd better accomodate quickly (hello n00bs - here is looking at you).

    Try NOT counting bauds, no matter how the compulsion will be riding you. Try understand what THE POINT is. See a doctor if you cannot (get rid of the compulsion, that is) because a tense mind understands nought.

    A link on the Debian-Homepage leading directly to where the installation media can be found is indeed a _good_ practice; one which our Debian has got to learn. Same for the keeping hand of new users, who are less than proficient in matters like software installation or systems administration.

    Generally speaking, any activity of Debian people toward more user-friendliness is right. And this is precisely what the author has done; a concise account on how the new Debian installer can help me, you, and everyone. Kudos for this good deed!

    Yours,
    Waran of Komodo

  • The article wrote: Internet access is mandatory to install Debian unless you are willing to shell out money to buy a set of CDs.

    No, thats not true. They give you all the tools you need to burn your own CDs (or are you talking about the cost of the blank media?)


    The article wrote: Stable and secure - you get the same unadulterated operating system which powers many of the high traffic servers around the world.

    That's not true either. Etch is still changing pretty quickly and noone in their right mind would be using it to power a high traffic server. For that you want a much more stable build since you don't want a random kernel or libc update breaking your stuff. For any server expected to be up 24/7 you really do want a distro that changes as slowly as Debian Stable (only security fixes) - since if it's not broken don't fix it.

    Here we run Debian Stable on our servers with only specific packages needing newer software (postgresql, rails) which we get straight from the upstream projects. This gives us the bet balance of stability where we want it (the core OS) and flexibility where we need it (the packages we develop our software to)

  • DarkKnight

    Nice to read a review of the new Debian Beta. I will have to give it a try.
    You are right about the debian website, it could be updated a bit (I will have to look into that and see if I can help on that front).

    As for user support, try the debian mailing lists! (http://www.debian.org/MailingLists/) They have thousands of users and plenty of support. There are good reasons to prefer mailing lists over forums, so please don't whine that there are no forums.
    Mailing lists are not hard to use, and so long as you are clear about your problem/request you will get plenty of help.

    As for keeping the non-free software out of debian, that is a tough call. Yes, java and proprietary drivers would be nice, but not at the expense of the debian project. the debian-multimedia.org repository is a great idea, now all we need is one for hardware drivers too.

  • Billy

    i have been running etch for the past 4 months and it works great. i did struggle with hooking up sarge so i got valuable experience. when i upgraded to etch things went mostly smoothly. debian is the greatest.

  • I wasn't aware they had finally created a GUI installer, that's cool.

  • Great article.
    I also love the comments here about how you don't actually need an internet connection to install Debian when you don't want to buy CDs. Especially the one about how they provide all the tools to burn your own CDs.... Hahahahaha!!! So you download the tools to burn the CD with what? And what do you burn on the CD... I mean how do you get the ISOs? Hahahahahaha. And they probably consider themselves technical computer type people who understand logic!

    I'm not exactly a n00b, having first installed Linux in 1999 and running Linux exclusively at home now for 2.5 years. I recently changed from Debian Sarge to Ubuntu because of some of the cons eluded to above. I was considering Etch, but.....

    The Debian site is hard to navigate. It's very, very poorly designed and counter-entuitive, as if it is deliberately trying to ward people off.
    Getting help is not easy. I get really shitty when I'm trying to learn a new package and I have a simple question, am tired and my eyes are going fuzzy, I go to a forum and get "RTFM" or similar response. This happens infinitely more in Debian forums than Ubuntu forums (n/0). The other choice is joining a mailing list where you fill up some folder in your mail client to try and get an answer. Great. Thanks.

    I'm not trying to be an anti-Debian troll here, just pointing out that some of the cons/rants mentioned are valid. I'm experienced with Linux and familiar with the counter arguments mentioned in the above posts, but really, I just want the home desktop to be easy to use.

    I'm glad to see that Etch is looking so good now (I've already grabbed a few debs for my U.), but I can't justify changing the whole system back over. Againm great article.

  • "Debian Etch is already more stable than eg. Ubuntu Dapper."

    This is complete rubbish. You must not have been using Etch when Xorg 7 landed. At its current state Etch is not far behind Sid. Stop hating and get informed please!!!

  • Matěj

    Good review, but two comments. In terms of marketing beta version -- really, there are some parts which are truly beta (i.e., broken) -- two weeks ago, LVM installation (and I don't know if any other distribution offers it in their standard installer) was severely broken. Somebody wrote about broken Gnome (I have no idea -- this is almost pure KDE user + occasional Firefox and OOo), so thanks G*d that newbies won't find it.

    Concerning non-free stuff. Aside from unofficial repositories (which I use and they serve well), there are also plenty of installers in the standard non-free branch of Debian -- so you can have Flash (installed via flashplugin-nonfree), or Java (either full download via sun-java5-jre, or made one with java-package.

    Matej

  • >> Debian Etch is already more stable than eg. Ubuntu Dapper."

    > This is complete rubbish.


    No. What you are saying is rubbish. Eg. do you remember that recent problem with Ubuntu Dapper when update prevented X from working? Lots of Ubuntu users had problems with that. Well Debian Sid did have exactly the same problem at the same time as Ubuntu Dapper. But Etch did not have that problem at all.

    The truth is that Ubuntu is based directly on Debian Sid. Etch is much more stable than Sid because packages are first tested in Sid before those go to Etch. Just look at this link on Debians site:

    http://bugs.debian.org/release-critical/

  • »[…] Xfce 4.0 […]«

    You can’t be serious. You have to have version 4.2 if not 4.3.90 of Xfce.

  • Ravi

    @Mathias
    Yes you are right. I have ver 4.3.90.2 (Xfce 4.4 BETA2) to be exact. I had generalised it while writing the article by stating it as "latest version of Xfce4.0" - which would also include 4.3 because it is a minor version. :)

  • Good distribution, I have learn Linux with it and still use it for my server. It seems that Debian has a will to get modernized. Etch installer is more quicker and simple. Bonne continuation. Bravo