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'Lenny': Debian for the masses?

Ubuntu without the straitjacket

By Scott Gilbertson, 16 Feb 2009

Review The venerable Debian Linux distribution has experienced a significant new release with its latest update, dubbed Lenny. While Debian is still not the easiest Linux distro to install and use, Lenny makes significant leaps forward and remains one of the most powerful Linux options.

Many Linux newcomers stick with popular distros like Ubuntu or Fedora and feel intimidated by the likes of Debian. As Linux evangelist Mark Pilgrim once quipped, Ubuntu "is an ancient African word meaning 'can't install Debian'".

But Ubuntu is a Debian derivative. And Debian's reputation for being difficult isn't nearly as deserved used to be, so if you've found Ubuntu getting in your way, the latest Debian release is worth a look - Lenny even offers a graphical installer - which actually arrived with the previous release, called Etch.

Lenny installer

Get to grips with the Debian graphical installer

Still, Debian's main audience is made up of hard-core Linux users and server admins, many of whom scoff at Ubuntu's decision to "dumb down" Linux and remove - or make it difficult to - tweak the distro to suit their whims. Debian, on the other hand, prizes personalization and customization, not ease-of-use. And fear not, Lenny still offers the advanced shell-based install with its myriad of options and packages, as well as all sorts of CLI-only configuration tweaks.

Lenny was released this weekend, but for review purposes, we used the "testing" version (beta 2), and we did not encounter any significant bugs.

Of course, that doesn't mean Debian is a pain-free install. In fact, if you're looking for something that just works, better to stick with Ubuntu. But if you want something that just works your way, and you don't mind a little bit of pain to get there, then read on because the latest version of Debian delivers.

Among the new features in Debian's Lenny release are upgraded desktops, the latest version of, IPv6 support, and more.

Debian ships in GNOME, KDE, and XFCE desktop flavors. The default option is GNOME 2.22. Although the GNOME development team has already moved on to GNOME 2.24, the Debian team has decided to play it conservative and stick with GNOME 2.22. Unfortunately, that means you'll miss out on some nice features, like tabbed windows in the Nautilus file browser.

Safe and stable

The Debian release notes tout native Flash support through the swfdec-gnome codecs (which, unlike Adobe's Flash plugin, are not proprietary), but we had some trouble getting them to work. Of course, you can always add the repository to Apt's repository list and grab all the multimedia codecs you need - Flash, MP3 and more.

While Debian may be playing it safe with GNOME, it has opted for the latest stable release of - version 7.3. The latest brings some nice new features like hot-swappable support for input devices such as mice and keyboard and enhanced support for touch screens and tablets.

Debian is perhaps best known as a server operating system, and Lenny has plenty of upgrades for those looking to deploy a Debian server. The server version of Lenny now features MySQL 5.1, PostgreSQL 8.3, webmail IMP 4.2, and more. Also worth noting in the server release is that Debian has dropped support for Apache 1.x and moved to Apache 2.

Debian has always been the ultimate in customization, with the full span of options running to no less than five DVDs - or if you prefer, some 30 CDs. Lenny continues that trend with an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, however, to get the basic system installed you only need one DVD.

Install gets graphic

Debian also offers a net-install .iso which includes the Debian installer and then downloads only the packages you choose to install, but unless you have a very fast internet connection, the net option will take quite a while. Interestingly, though we didn't test it, Debian also has a new option to install Debian from MS Windows (on i386/amd64 machines).

We opted to use the graphical installer on the DVD option and found that, while there may be prettier versions out there, Debian's gets the job done. The partitioner offers to use the entire disk, the largest contiguous free space, and LVM. We used the whole disk, but should you choose to use the manual option, it helps to have a basic knowledge of disks and partitioning since the installer does not offer any graphical disk sizing tools.

The other downside of the graphical option is you end up with the GNOME desktop. There's no option to install only KDE or XFCE. Lately, some of the larger distros like Fedora and OpenSUSE have added installer tools that allow you to choose KDE or GNOME, which is a nice touch. Sadly, Debian doesn't offer such tools, so if you want KDE or XFCE, you'll need to head into the advanced CLI-based installer.

Setting up our user account was a snap, and Debian offers scan any other DVDs, CDs, or network drives so that Apt can go ahead and install all your auxiliary software at once. We skipped on this option for testing purposes, but it can save you loads of time setting up your system, and we wish more distros had something similar.

After that, the installer will ask you to choose a number of pre-configured collections of software like desktop environment, web server, print server, file server, and a half dozen more. Obviously, there isn't as much control here as you'd find in the CLI installer, but again, it shows where Debian shines: options.

Lenny desktop

Any desktop you want, as long as it's GNOME

It would be nice if the installer provided some information about exactly what each of the options provides, but it doesn't. We assume that's what the CLI installer is for, choosing specific packages. In the end, we went with the standard desktop package (GNOME, et al) as well as the laptop option, the web server (Apache 2 and associated), and the SQL database package.

Once everything is installed, you'll boot into a Debian branded GNOME desktop that offers most of the usual GNOME tools and panels. Lenny was able to recognize our WiFi card right out of the box and had no trouble detecting and connecting to our network printer. Lenny also recognized our iPod and camera without a hitch.

The main problem you're likely to encounter with Debian is installing proprietary Nvidia graphics drivers. Unlike Ubuntu's "restricted drivers" option or OpenSUSE 11's "one-click install," getting the Nvidia drivers installed in Debian requires some manual effort.

The system was fast and very stable in our testing, on par with other major distros.

As for tweaking your system once it's set up, the ever-powerful apt-get package system makes installing and removing software a snap - just like in Ubuntu, and of course, there are plenty of CLI-based system configuration tools that you won't find in Ubuntu.

Overall, our experience with Debian was not nearly as painful as when we first tried it out five or six years ago.

We wouldn't recommend it for Linux newcomers since it requires more command line know-how than most, but for the seasoned user grown tired of Ubuntu's hand-holding, Debian makes a powerful step up on the Linux ladder. As always, Debian's customization options will likely ensure that it remains a popular choice for webservers, but Lenny makes for a powerful desktop as well. ®

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