In casual conversation, most Linux users will tell you that the Debian distribution is hard to install. Mention that you have installed it multiple times, and people are apt to look at you as if you are some kind of stone-cold geek. After all, wasn’t the original point of Ubuntu was to make Debian available to everyone?
The truth is, Ubuntu came along just as Debian started to solve its own inaccessibility. A look at the Debian Installer proves that it no longer lives up to its reputation. Since 2005, Debian has worked constantly to improve its Installer, with a result that the process is not only simple and quick, but often allows more customization than the installer for any other major distribution.
The story was different once. Before 2005, the Debian Installer tossed users into the deep end, exposing them to unfamiliar concepts and assuming that they knew packages they needed for a graphical interface, and how to choose them from dselect, a package tool that was even more complicated than the rest of the installer combined.
The early Installer was so confusing, that over half a dozen commercial and community-based Debian-derivatives existed to bring Debian to general Linux users. Today, however, only Ubuntu remains of those early derivatives, while Corel, Storm, Libranet, MEPIS, Progeny, and Xandros have all disappeared. Although the reputation for being hard to install was originally justified, Debian has changed so much that other distributions are no longer needed to supplement its shortcomings.
The Default Install Experience
Today, the Debian installer has the following steps for 64-bit processors. Installers for other architectures may differ slightly:
- 1. Choose a language.
- 2. Choose a country.
- 3. Configure the keyboard.
- 4. Enter a host name for the system.
- 5. Enter a domain name.
- 6. Create a root and an ordinary user account.
- 7. Select a time zone.
- 8. Partition disks.
- 9. Choose a repository for installation.
- 10. Select and install software by groups.
- 11. Choose whether to participate in Popularity Contest, which collects statistics on package downloads.
- 12. Choose software to install by package groups.
- 13. Choose where to install boot loader.
And that’s it. Aside from one or two items, such as choosing a host and a domain name, or opting-in to Popularity Contest, the steps in the Debian Installer are as simple as they could get without limiting user’s choices. You might notice, too, that the partitioning section is borrowed with only minor changes from Ubuntu’s installer.
Moreover, to make the install even simpler, the Debian Installer offers a choice of a text-based, graphical or speech synthesis install, each of which has exactly the same options.
In addition, every three or four steps, the installer pauses to download the files it needs from the Internet, and to test that installation can proceed. These pauses give users time to recollect themselves before continuing the installation.
The process is made even simpler through intelligent defaults, which mostly limit user input to answering “yes” or “no.”
In addition, documentation about both each step and possible choices are built in the installer. For example, when choosing a domain, users who are not connected to a network are simply told, “you can make something up.” Similarly, when choosing a repository for the Installer, users are warned that repositories in “nearby countries, or your own, may not be the best choice.”
As a result, users can know next to nothing about Debian, Linux, or even computers in general, and can still have almost complete confidence that they will install successfully.
The only step that is even potentially difficult is the selection of software to install, which is done by groups, and assumes that users understand what a print server or an SSH serve is. Yet even there, a reliable general rule is that if you don’t understand the choice, you probably don’t need it.
At the same time, the Debian Installer includes several choices that other installers miss. Few other installers, for example, offer to let you partition in terms of hard drive cylinders and heads, or provides a list that includes brief explanations of common boot options for partitions or the choice of half a dozen desktop environments.
The Expert Debian Install
The first option in the Debian Installer also include the option for the expert install. Unlike the basic installers, the expert one has less on-screen help, and assumes some knowledge of Linux. It also includes twenty-two steps, adding such choices as language installs and a choice of kernels.
Yet even the expert install is kept from being too overwhelming by constantly returning you to a list of the available steps. If you do make a mistake or change your mind about options, you can use the list to return to an earlier step.
However, the expert install’s difficulty is relative only to the default one. Ubuntu provides the expert install for cases where its basic installer fails, which would hardly be the case if it was objectively difficult.
Whichever version of the Debian installer you use, in the last eleven years, Debian has outgrown its earlier limitations and created an installer that almost anyone can use. In fact, in contrast to do-it-yourself distributions like Gentoo, Arch Linux, or Linux From Scratch, the default Debian Installer is a dancing and singing purple plush toy next to a live velociraptor.