Debian has a reputation for being an expert’s Linux distribution. System administrators and users who remember when Linux’s main interface was the command line, but for the ordinary user, it is a distribution to be feared. It took a comprehensive revamp, the story goes, to make Debian suitable for users in the form of derivative distributions like Linux Mint and Ubuntu that focus on user-friendliness. However, the truth is, far from being intimidating, Debian has plenty to offer any level of user.
Sure, two decades ago, Debian was intimidating. In 1999, I took three tries to install it for the first time myself. But way back then, every distribution was hard to install.
Times have changed since then, and Debian has changed with it. These days, Debian has nothing on the truly challenging distributions, like Arch, Gentoo, or Linux From Scratch. It is simply more comprehensive.
Once you get past the old story, there are at least seven reasons to consider using Debian. Most of them involve flexibility — but only if you want it:
The Best Installer Available
Two decades ago, Debian had one of the worst installers of any distribution. For those who have never used Debian, it continues to have that reputation, making it sounds like a distribution only for the hardcore.
However, those who have actually installed Debian know better. For over a decade, the Debian Installer has been dedicated to offering an easy installation that can be as hands-on as a user chooses. Those who simply want an installation can accept the defaults and usually get something they can use, while those who want to customize can get as detailed as they want. Other distributions like Ubuntu have a quicker installer, yet even they fall back on the Debian Installer for solving problems.
Choosing the Level of Risk
Debian’s efforts are focused on producing general releases — the contents of the Stable repository. However, Debian also maintains the Testing and Unstable repositories, not to mention Experimental, if you enjoy taking risks.
These repositories are maintained for the sake of developers, but as a side- effect, they allow users to choose their level of risk. System admins overseeing servers or anyone else who values stability can stay with Stable, and enoy a mostly trouble-free existence.
Those who want more recent packages can venture into Testing or Unstable. That may sound risky, but consider: derivatives like Ubuntu borrow from Testing or sometimes Unstable. The derivatives do their own test, of course, yet it can be said that other distribution’s stable releases are based on packages that Debian considers not ready for production.
Usually, the only caution when straying from Stable is that you should research the state of Unstable. For instance, when major changes like the introduction of Systemd are happening, or in the few months after a general release, it may be unwise to upgrade core system or desktop components from Unstable.
Three Degrees of Freedom
Debian has a dilemma when deciding what applications to include. On the one hand, Debian is dedicated to free software. Officially, after all, it’s Debian GNU/Linux, and installs with only the main section of the repository enabled, which contains only free software.
On the other hand, many users want to use software that is more legally complicate. Therefore, Debian also includes contrib, consisting of software that is free in itself but depends on proprietary software, and non-free, consisting of popular proprietary software. If you want anything from contrib or non-free, enabling these sections takes all of two minutes.
This compromise is why the Free Software Foundation does not acknowledge Debian as a free release. Personally, though, I appreciate the fact that Debian lets me choose the level of freedom I prefer — even if I never permanently install anything from contrib or non-free.
The Package Manager Ecosystem
Today, package management systems that automatically resolves dependencies are the norm. But it didn’t use to be that way, and Debian was one of the pioneers in this field. As a result, Debian has had the time to develop one of the biggest collections of utilities for installing software.
Whether you want an easy-to-learn commands like apt, a list of critical bugs before installation from apt-listbugs, or automatic updates with cron-apt, Debian has it. You can even combine many of the available utilities with wajig, simplifying the installation process by offering aliases.
When I have problems with any Linux distribution, I usually check two sources: Archwiki, which documents Arch Linux, and the Debian wiki. I rarely go anywhere else, or need to. I’m not sure why Arch has such thorough documentation — because of its do-it-yourself philosophy, presumably — but in Debian’s case, I suspect that it is so prominent that it has attracted more attention than the average distribution from the always too-few writers documenting Linux.
Ubuntu , Debian’s most popular derivative, is useful sources of online help, too. It begins with Debian’s tradition of documentation, then add conscious efforts to make Linux more accessible.
Security and Stability
If you ever wonder why years pass between Debian general releases, take a look at the Debian Policy Manual. Generally unread by users, Debian Policy is the guide to how packages are structured. It prints out to over twenty-five letter-sized pages, detailing what each pack must maintain, how it must interact with other packages, and countless other things that non-maintainers never think about. However, the take-away is that by the time a package goes into a Debian general release, it has been through more scrutiny than its equivalent in any other distribution.
Bugs still happen, of course. A package is only reliable as the code written by upstream developers, and Debian contributors can make mistakes. However, I have never seen a distribution that releases security features more quickly than Debian. I have known Debian maintainers to take personal leave from their day jobs so they can dive home and patch a bug.
By itself, Debian has lots to offer. However, derivatives like Ubuntu and Linux Mint are more user-friendly, deepin has a more innovative interface, antiX is more suitable for older systems and runs without Systemd, and Tails and Parrot have stronger security. Yet none of the dozens of derivatives would exist without Debian. While retaining its own popularity for decades, increasingly, Debian is becoming the upstream distribution for almost two-thirds of Linux.
The only distribution that comes close to Debian’s first or second hand influence is Red Hat, and its influence on Linux development was strongest in its earliest days. Today, Debian has few serious rivals except those of its own making.
Alternatives, exist, of course. Besides Red Hat, Gentoo, Slackware, Ubuntu, Arch, and a dozen more have their own bands of devoted users. All the same, unless you always stick with a single distribution, it is almost impossible to use Linux and not run across Debian’s influence at some point.
For me, that is an argument for going to the source. As Debian has taken on the responsibility of being the source of dozens of derivatives — many concerned with security — it has adapted to its new role with increased flexibility and ease of use.
Today, if you know enough to install Linux at all, you can install Debian. Just as important, the advantages of doing so are great enough that, you owe it to yourself to ignore the outdated myths and see for yourself.