Debian 2.2 Potato: Memorial to a Hacker
Manufacturer: Debian/GNU Linux
Price: Available from various CD-ROM vendors or free via download from the Debian web site
Reviewer: Stephanie Black
There's a lot to be said for an organization that not only depends on volunteers to develop its distribution and continually work to improve it, but acknowledges the contributions of those who participate in its growth.
In July of this year, Debian lost one of its more celebrated developers, Joel “Espy” Klecker, to Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy. Debian, true to its philosophy, has recognized Joel's vast contributions by dedicating the Debian 2.2 release to his memory. (The written dedication can be viewed at ftp.debian.org/debian/doc/dedication-2.2.txt.)
The distribution itself is beginning to display the same kind of generosity. Debian's reputation has been further from the “novice-user” category than many distributions; this is slowly beginning to change. From installation to usage to tweaking, Debian 2.2 is a release that is fun for the techies and, well, much less of a Waterloo for novice Debian users.
9.2G Quantum Fireball
3-Com ADSL modem
Diamond Viper 770 Video
DLink 530-TX NIC
There is all manner of documentation and clear instruction for obtaining the required boot, root and driver disks with which to install Debian (available at www.debian.org/releases/2.2/i386/install). There is also a caveat about expecting perfect boot disks in one go. Good floppy disks make things easier and faster.
While not all users have DSL, the network installation of Debian proves itself to be sturdy and straightforward, even when using a command-line interface. Within a half hour, the installation was complete. This is probably the most significant change in Debian: easy download and installation via FTP.
The user is offered a choice of simple or advanced installation: the former provides a quick installation of some of the more commonly used packages through a selection of application types (e.g., C++ Development, GNOME games, etc.); the latter allows the more seasoned Debian user to select individual packages. dselect (which, as of this writing, is to be usurped by a new installer in future releases) provides dependency checking and simplifies additional package retrieval and configuration.
Generally, dselect takes care of configuring most packages, allowing the user both the option of keeping the .deb packages and of setting up a running system. In an FTP download, the pertinent network configuration takes place prior to installation for obvious reasons. For some “non-free” packages, the user will be required to download additional software from sites hosting the original software first, such as the case of Real Player or IBM's JDK, and then obtain the remainder of the package via apt-get before configuration can take place. It's a bit detailed but worth it for the software. In addition, there are some packages that aren't permitted to be distributed in anything other than source packages. These require building; the process was, in the case of Pine, clearly laid out in the README. The resulting packages are then built into .deb files installable by dpkg.
I'm a bit on the lazy side and don't like wasting good prewritten code. There are some scripts included with Fetchmail that preclude much of the headaches that some associate with setting up a mail client. These scripts are found in </usr/doc/fetchmail/contrib> and prove extremely useful to those new to, or uncomfortable with, MTA's.
Debian has a long-lived reputation for stability that has made it attractive to companies like Storm, Libranet and Corel, all three of which have capitalized on Debian's lack of easy installation. It's apparent that those who are installing Potato from a CD are likely to run into problems with, among other things, disks that have errors on them. I haven't heard if this is strictly the case with official CDs; if not, Debian may want to look at putting QA restrictions on those producing unofficial versions of the installation media. The network installation has improved tremendously, however, both in speed and security of the download.
The 4.x series of XFree86 is not included in this release, but the developers are in the process of adding it to the next release, or so I've been told. This would be a marked improvement; the current version of 3.3.6x is, at best, erratic. Xservers don't work (and don't not-work) with any kind of consistency. There are still issues with GLX (and the drivers thereof) for certain cards. RIVA-based cards (G-Matrox, among others) are rumored to be wanting more of the support provided in the XFree86 4.x series. To be fair, this problem is not specific to Debian.
The selection of packages in 2.2 is rivaled only by that of SuSE Linux and predictably runs the same risks—so many choices, so many dependencies and so many package conflicts. The choice is good, but several of the packages are in need of updating. This is especially obvious in the vast numbers of libraries included, many of which are present for nothing more than backward compatibility. (Anyone willing to volunteer to fix this?) The variety in the kinds of applications included is stellar, from math and science applications to games, editors and GUIs. The “corporates” don't have much to rejoice about in Debian, but there are certainly lots of tools and toys for developers, graphic artists, academics and hobbyists.
Debian isn't intended for the absolute Linux newbie. Help is available, however, from the users, list <firstname.lastname@example.org>, which is quite active; most list members are willing to show new “Debs” the ropes. Be warned: traffic on this list is extensive (upwards of 500 messages daily).
Debian's only real failure in the past has been its lack of easy installation, and while the developers haven't succumbed to the trend of default GUI installations, they have simplified, clarified and tightened up the process considerably. In short, it's easy for seasoned Linux users to get, maintain and update.
A point 1 release of Potato was, at the time this was written, planned to present a number of security and bug fixes that cropped up in 2.2.0, including one that appeared in one version of the boot floppy. (There is a plan to remove the boot floppy altogether from future distributions.)
There's already an unstable or developer's version of Debian available for those who'd like to get in on Debian development. This will likely become Debian 2.3 or 3.0 and is available at ftp.debian.org/debian/dists/woody.
As the new IvP6 standard becomes more of a reality, Debian developers are making more of a concerted effort to make their code compliant with it.
An incredible amount of work on the Debian distribution has taken place since the 2.1 release, and it's been a treat to run it for the past ten days. It's on its way to becoming a distribution of choice for many who are not inherently technical but who are willing to learn a little to get a lot from their computers. For the technically apt, it's already arrived.
Joel Klecker would be proud.