See an alternate opinion: Debian vs. Fedora
by Bruce Byfield
Debian Linux and the Fedora Project are among the most influential Linux distributions of all time. Not only are both Debian and Fedora among the top ten for page hits on Distrowatch, but many of the other top ten are derived from them. But why would you pick one over another?
To be honest, the differences are fewer than they were fifteen years ago. In 2003, when Fedora began, Debian was the main representative of the .deb package format, and Red Hat, Fedora's predecessor, represented the .rpm format, and your Linux experience was very different depending on which you chose. Since then, the differences have diminished, but there are still subtle differences that might influence your choice.
However, those differences no longer include package management. Around the turn of the millennium,.debs were alone in resolving package dependencies, but .rpms added the feature long ago. Today, contrary to old myths that refuse to die, using Fedora's dnf command to install packages is roughly equivalent to installing packages with Debian's apt- get. Even the comparative slowness of yum, dnf's predecessor, has become irrelevant as the change of tools becomes complete.
Where differences do exist is in the organization, governance, available system architectures, package repositories, and default installations. These differences may affect your choice, or simply be necessary to know to avoid uncertainty.
Debian is a self-contained community-based distribution, while Fedora acts as a testing ground for Red Hat Enterprise Linux and CentOS. Although much of Fedora's governance is community-based, Red Hat appoints some positions on the Fedora Council, including the Project Leader.
By contrast, the Debian Project Leader is voted on yearly by Debian maintainers, and decisions about Debian are referred to a technical committee, as well various groups such as the mirror managers. Large policy decisions may be set by referendum. In general, Debian is known for its innovative governance, including voting by a Condorcet method, which compares the votes for each possible result against every other result. Whether Fedora or Debian is more difficult to say, given that Fedora is partly controlled by Red Hat, while Debian is a meritocracy in which only official package maintainers have a vote.
Versions of Debian include ten different hardware architectures, including 32 and 64 bit Intel chips (called i386 and amd64 for historic reasons), Apple, and two different ARM ports that support everything from singleboards like the Raspberry Pi to main frames. By contrast, Fedora focuses on 32 and 64 bit Intel. However, a search will uncover versions for Apple and ARM (including Raspberry Pi). Recently, too, Fedora has started offering as a standard download Atomic, a version designed for working with containers.
All Fedora releases are maintained for about 15 months, while Debian usually offers partial support for the previous release under the name of oldstable. Debian also has a project whose goal is to ensure support for each new release for five years, in imitation of Ubuntu's long-term support policy.
The main difference is that Fedora releases on an average of every six months, except for the occasional delay. Debian, though, places a far greater emphasis on quality, refusing to release until its high standards are met. Often, Debian has grown seriously out of date by the time a new version is released.
The use and relationship of package repositories can be obscure in both Debian and Fedora. Core Debian for each release is maintained in a repository called Stable, which is generally the choice for servers. However, because the interval between stable releases can be as long as two or three years, many users prefer to use the Testing or Unstable releases. These names are relative; Ubuntu, for example, is based on packages from Testing or Unstable, and many home users dip regularly into them as well. Still, problems can occur, such as when Debian is making a major technological change such as the switch to Systemd.
Other Debian repositories exist to keep the Stable release patched and current, such as Updates and Backports. There is also Experimental, whose packages are uploaded by way of introduction and can sometimes be unreliable.
The core of all these repositories is called Main. However, Stable, Testing, and Unstable also contain Contrib for software that is free- licensed, but requires proprietary software to run, and Non-free, which contains proprietary packages such as Flash or some video drivers. Of all these, only Main is tested for a release, although in the process Contrib and Non-free are generally improved, as well.
In Fedora, development is done in Rawhide, a repository roughly equivalent to Debian Experimental. From Rawhide, versions for workstations, servers, and containers are produced. A branch of Rawhide becomes the fedora repository, the approximate equivalent of Debian Unstable, or perhaps Debian Testing. Updates patches and maintains fedora, and is developed in updates-testing.
All these repositories contain only free-licensed software. Unlike Debian, Fedora has no semi-official provision for other software. This arrangement suits those who restrict themselves to free software, but can be inconvenient for others. Consequently, a number of third party repositories have emerged, including RPM Fusion, and RPM Livna. These repositories sometimes conflict with each other or the official Fedora release, and should be used cautiously, and apart perhaps from Fusion and Livna, should not be mixed.
Even with the emphasis on free-licenses, the software selection in both Debian and Fedora is immense. Fedora includes just under 20,000 packages, while Debian is frequently estimated to have 40-50,000 packages. But whether that estimate includes duplicates for different architectures is never stated.
At any rate, neither Debian nor Fedora users are likely to run out of packages in a hurry. You might, find that Fedora has more recent packages, but, after twenty-five years of Linux development, the difference between an older and latest package is not as great as it used to be.
Myths about the difficulty of installing Debian long ago ceased to be true. The modern Debian installer is more detailed than the installers of some distributions, and a little rough looking, but no more difficult to use. A graphical version is available, but offers no advantages over the text or speech-based installer. However, the expert installer is ideal for difficult installs, offering detailed choices that can sometimes make the difference between failure and successful installs.
In comparison, Fedora's Anaconda installer has become so minimalistic that I sometimes have difficulty in knowing what to click next. Unlike Debian's installer it requires a minimum of user input -- which is fine, except when you run into problems and need more options.
Fedora 25, the latest version, is distinguished by being the first major distribution to use Wayland, the replacement for the ancient X Window System that manages Linux's graphical interfaces. However, this is more of a technological triumph than anything a user is likely to notice, except for an apparent increase in speed.
What users are more likely to notice more is that Fedora defaults to a GNOME desktop. For years, GNOME was also the default for Debian, but in version 8, the latest version, the installer offers half a dozen desktop choices. You can get the same choices in Fedora after doing the main install, but Debian's choice during installation is more convenient, as well as more in keeping with the preferences of modern users.
Debian and Fedora do many things differently. Yet once the average user deciphers these differences, most can be satisfied with either one.
Sometimes, an unexpected situation might make your choice obvious. A difficult install, for example, will lead you to Debian. Yet more often, the choice between these two popular distributions depends on what you value. On the one hand, if you require stability, then Debian might be your choice -- although you might, instead, find a more polished version of Fedora in Red Hat Enterprise Linux or CentOS. On the other hand, if you want the latest releases and innovations, then Fedora might serve you better.
Similarly, if you want to use proprietary software, Debian's Contrib and Non-Free repositories should cause fewer problems than the third party repositories that surround Fedora. Or perhaps a distribution like Debian that is free of corporate influence is more to your taste, or a minimalist installer like Fedora's.
Still, no matter which you choose, you can be reasonably confident that you can't go too far wrong. Admittedly, Debian can look somewhat rougher fresh from the install, but, functionally, the differences today between the two distros are few, and growing fewer. Both are mature operating systems, polished by a long series of releases, and well-suited to most users' needs and preferences.
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