Why prefer Debian GNU/Linux over another distribution

Quite some time ago I wrote a blog post explaining why I preferred Mandriva over other distributions. But I have now switched to Debian GNU/Linux, so it is time for an update. I will mostly compare with Mandriva because that is where I come from and what I know the best, although most points are rather universal.

So, these are some reasons why I prefer Debian GNU/Linux over other distributions:

  • All officially released Debian GNU/Linux stable versions are supported for a long time. Where most other free distributions are supported for about 1,5 year, this is much longer for Debian stable. For example, security updates for Debian Etch were published up to about 3 years after its release.
  • Debian is more stable than most other distributions. This is due to the large amount of testers and due to Debian’s unique development model: the “unstable” branch contains only software which is considered stable upstream (with a few generally accepted exceptions). When a package is in “unstable” for 10 days without new release critical bugs it gets moved to the “testing” distribution. The stable releases are a snapshot of the testing distribution after a freeze during which all release critical bugs are fixed. Releases of the stable distribution are not time driven: the stable distribution is only released when it is really ready.
  • By using apt pinning it is possible to easily mix and match packages from different repositories so that you can run the latest version of specific applications. Apt pinning can be used to pick packages from the extensive backports repository or to install packages from the testing, unstable and even the experimental repositories without having to update your whole system to the same release (unlike Mandriva for example, and as far as I know the same is true for other distributions like Fedora). Instead, carefully defined dependencies will make sure that all packages which need to be updated together are pulled in, resulting in a working system.
  • Due to Debian’s development model it is possible to run a pretty up to date system at any time without sacrificing stability by using the testing distribution. I am now running Debian Lenny testing different systems for more than a month, with software which is often more up to date than in Mandriva 2010.1, yet the system is much more stable in general than my systems which were running Mandriva 2010.1.
  • Debian is fast. Debian Squeeze boots up very fast without hacks like Mandriva’s speedboot, readahead or preload. Also application start up is very fast. I am not really sure why this is the case, but my guess is that this is due to Debian’s simplicity: it does not install too much daemons and boot up scripts by default. Also Debian uses dash instead of bash for /bin/sh, which also results in faster boot times. Shutdown also feels faster than what I was used to in Mandriva.
  • Debian is secure. Because stable versions are supported for about 3 years and because security updates get released very fast. Debian also plays a rather active role in fixing security problems. For example, Debian’s webkitgtk maintainer searched for all webkit security patches and ported them to the webkitgtk 1.2 branch. The fixes were included in Debian’s webkitgtk and then were also included upstream in webkitgtk 1.2.3.
  • Debian is available for lots of platforms. You have an old PowerPC based laptop, a GuruPlug or OpenRD system with ARM processor or a SUN UltraSPARC server? Debian will run on all these systems.
  • Debian values freedom. Debian allows me to use my GNOME system without PulseAudio without loosing my volume applet in the panel (like was the case in Mandriva). But of course, if you want PulseAudio it is available and you can install it. Debian is not exclusively tied to the Linux kernel: there exist versions with a FreeBSD or even HURD kernels. The choice is up to you. Debian uses the Exim MTA by default but if you do not like this, other MTA’s are available and are equally well maintained and integrated into the distribution. Debian does not include non-free software by default, so that you can safely use distribute and even modify the software in all possible situations without having to worry about the license. But if you want to use non-free software, it is available in the non-free repository.
  • Debian is very “standard“. It does not replace standard components by its own implementations like especially Ubuntu is doing. That means that Debian does not use non-standard things like Upstart, notify-osd or indicator-applet by default or does not move the window decoration buttons to the left side. Of course if you do want to use these csutomizations, they are all available (Debian values freedom!), but by default Debian prefers to use the standard upstream software. This ensures the best compatibility with upstream now and in the future, because all these non-standard Ubuntu things might cause conflicts later on with new upstream design decisions.
  • Debian is not owned by a commercial organization. The free distribution is not some kind of crippled version of a commercial product which has all features and software available. It ensures also that decisions are not taken based on commercial interests, but only in the interest of the community. If you do want commercial support, there are many companies supporting Debian all over the world.

Related to that: today is Debian’s 17th anniversary and Debian Appreciation Day. If you use Debian, let the Debian community know you appreciate their work http://thank.debian.net.

Why prefer Mandriva over another distribution?

Yesterday someone asked on a Dutch website the same question which comes back on sites like Slashdot every time a new Mandriva release is announced: what is the the advantage of Mandriva above other distributions like Ubuntu, OpenSUSE and Fedora.

This made me think and so I wrote down a couple of reasons why I use Mandriva on my desktop systems.

10 advantages of Mandriva above other Linux distributions

  • The default graphical theme in Mandriva looks much better than Ubuntu’s brown mess.
  • All graphical configuration tools are centralized in the Mandriva Control Centre.
  • Mandriva has some unique configuration tools, such as msec which permits you to change advanced security settings from the GUI.
  • Mandriva makes it very easy to install 32 bit libraries and applications on the x86_64 version. In Ubuntu some of the more important 32 bit libraries can be found in the ia32-libs packages, but if you need something else which is not in there for whatever reason, things become more complicated and messy: you can for example extract the libraries by hand from the 32 bit deb package and install them in /usr/lib32, or you’ll have to create a complete 32 bit chroot. In Mandriva you can simply install packages from the 32 bit distribution on the x86_64 release by means of the standard console or GUI installation tools.
  • (shameless plug) The program menu is much nicer if you have installed KDE and GNOME together on your system (in Ubuntu and other distributions you will get very long menus containing lots of KDE and GNOME applications mixed together.
  • Mandriva’s booting times is about the fastest possible for a generic distribution thanks to Speedboot
  • KDE as shipped by Mandriva is generally a bit more stable and polished than in Ubuntu
  • Mandriva’s GNOME corresponds more to the default upstream GNOME than for example in OpenSUSE (e.g. by default it does not use that messy Slab menu)
  • Very flexible graphical installer in the Free and Powerpack editions for people who want a more complete and custom installation than the one from a standard live cd
  • Mandriva’s development community is very open and accessible, eg. via IRC and mailing lists. If you do a little bit of effort, it’s pretty easy to become a Mandriva package maintainer yourself and to integrate your contributions yourself in the distribution.

Some disadvantages of Mandriva

  • Security updates are sometimes a bit later than other distributions and for some packages even completely missing. It has to be said that these are mostly not too important security problems and I’m not aware of any problems this has caused for anyone in practice. Also bugfix updates for some reported problems are sometimes late or not done at all.
  • While the graphical themes are much better than Ubuntu’s in my opinion, I still think they cannot beat the upstream KDE and GTK+ themes.
  • The Mandriva configuration tools sometimes have annoying bugs or do not have the best looks possible.

Personally, I consider Mandriva and Debian as the best distributions available. I think Ubuntu is overhyped a lot and does not offer much (if anything?) you cannot do with Debian. I also think Debian’s distribution model consisiting of the Stable, Testing and Unstable distributions is great and makes it possible to have a pretty stable and “rolling” distribution with fairly up to date software at any time. However, the fact that I can directly contribute my own improvements to Mandriva and the fact that installing 32 bits stuff on x86_64 is dead easy, make tthat Mandriva is still my preferred choice on desktop systems.

Anyway, the choice is up to you!