Take Your Pick of the Debian Litter

Tuesday Aug 9th 2005 by Carla Schroder

If the recent release of Sarge left you cold, here's a collection of Debian variants to consider in your quest for the perfect Linux workstation.

Since Knoppix burst dramatically into the Linux scene there has been an explosion of Debian-based distributions. This is welcome news to us lonely souls who have long been preaching that Red Hat is not Linux. Linux covers a far wider spectrum, as a quick peek at DistroWatch demonstrates. You'll find everything from tiny specialized Linuxes that fit on embedded devices, USB keys, floppy diskettes, or miniature CDs, to full-blown "kitchen sink" distributions that fill a DVD. Red Hat deserves a substantial amount of credit for supporting Linux development, popularizing Linux, and spawning a host of other Linux distributions. Just don't think that Red Hat is all there is to the Linux world.

Why Use Debian?
If you haven't tried Debian, or tried it and got frustrated, I encourage you to give it another look. In my not-very-humble opinion, it has a number of strengths over RPM-based systems:

  • Superior package management and quality control
  • Runs on more hardware architectures than any other Linux
  • Translated into more languages than any other Linux
  • Separates Free and Non-Free packages into separate archives, giving users easy selection control
  • Largest official package archives (currently over 15,000)
  • You can upgrade a Debian system continuously and indefinitely, without ever needing to reformat and reinstall

Usually the largest obstacle to new Debian users is the installer. The old installer was tedious and time-consuming. The much-vaunted new Sarge installer, released this year, is a huge improvement, but it still has a few rough edges. (It also has some advanced abilities not found in any other Linux installer, which will be covered in a future article.) Once you get past that system maintenance is dead easy, thanks to Debian's famous apt-get package installer and updater.

Then the next hurdle is customizing the system for your needs. Every distribution in this article do can be replicated by any do-it-yourselfer with enough skills and time, which may or may not be cost-effective. Let's take a look at some Debian-based distributions and see what they have to offer.

Libranet gets my vote as best Debian-based Linux, and best All-Around Linux; a usable, up-to-date Debian for either desktops or servers. It is "real" Debian with a first-rate installer and the Libranet Adminmenu for system configuration. It is 100 percent compatible with "real" Debian, and it includes Libranet's own "update-safe" repositories. These are tested packages that let you stay current safely.

If you're used to something like Red Hat, SUSE, or Mandriva, which come with a plethora of GUI configuration tools that are not compatible with the system's text configuration files, and often not with each other, Libranet will be a pleasant surprise. The Adminmenu lets you switch back and forth between using the Adminmenu or editing the files directly, without making a mess of things. It includes such tasks as configuring X.org, sound, an excellent kernel configurator, user administration, service configuration, firewall configuration, printer administration and font management.

Libranet's hardware detection is absolutely primo. You get sound, nVidia drivers, wireless drivers, and browser plugins without hassle. If you want a system free of closed, proprietary drivers and plugins, Libranet doesn't make it easy to exclude these things. But for users who want them it couldn't be easier.

Libranet costs $99.95 on CDs, or $89.95 via download, with discounts for existing users, students, seniors, and disabled people. It comes with a 30-day money back guarantee, installation support, a support database and excellent user forums.

Xandros Business Edition
Xandros Business Edition is a dynamite choice for admins of mixed Windows/Linux LANs. It comes with everything the hardworking admin needs for easy integration: Active Directory support, Citrix client, Crossover Office, Novell Evolution with MS Exchange integration, VPN client and VoIP. This means users can login seamlessly into a Windows network, get e-mail, and run Windows applications like MS Office, Adobe Photoshop, and browser plugins like QuickTime and Shockwave. Yes, hardcore old geeks like me shudder at the very notion of plugging into Windows servers, but for folks who need to do this, Xandros does it best.

Xandros comes in several editions - the Business Edition is the most expensive at $129.95. Xandros may also be purchased installed on a new PC from a number of vendors, including WalMart, Linux Systems Corporation and Linux Certified.

Linspire: Easy-to-Use Debian
For desktop users who want everything to "just work," or who are new to Linux, Linspire is a great choice. It is terrific on laptops, and handles hotplugging, wireless NICs, and stinky old cheapskate Winmodems with ease. The package selection is trimmed down to a good basic set, and the menus are simple and logically organized. The Click-n-Run warehouse gets mixed reviews; at $49.95/year it's a fair price for the convenience of easy software searches and one-click installations, but it really needs to include a lot more applications.

Power management works great - I had several laptops running for three weeks without shutting down, and going into and out of hibernation repeatedly without a hitch. Linspire is targeted at home users, but it also makes a nice transition to Linux for business users migrating from Windows.

It has a few minor annoyances. It does lots of things on its own, without so much as a by-your-leave, like Windows. (Though I give it credit for not asking meaningless questions like "I must do X before I can proceed, or else everything will be borked. Shall I do X now?") It does not require the creation of an unprivileged user account during installation, which is a mistake for a distro aimed at home users, and I shall rant against this violation of the most basic security practice to the day I die. Presumably ace system administrators will remember to create user accounts. $59.95 for the boxed set, or $49.95 for the download.

Custom-Built Debian by Progeny
Any Linux can be customized any way you like; if you don't want to do it yourself Progeny will do it for you. Progeny customizes both Debian and RPM-based systems. This can be a real lifesaver when you need need high-demand, mission-critical systems, or need to set up complex, difficult services like OpenLDAP, Kerberos, VPNs, clusters, and such.

Free-of-Cost Debians
Ubuntu and Kubuntu deserve honorable mentions. They are still a bit young, and there are questions as to how closely they are going to track the official Debian archives. But both strive for ease-of-use, up-to-date packages, and short release cycles. Ubuntu is built around the GNOME desktop, Kubuntu uses KDE. Both are general-purpose Debians packaged with applications for desktop users, and can easily be configured for server duties.


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