The legend of Debian Linux

July 13, 2005

Officially, Debian is a widely used Linux distribution that meets people's needs with stability, lots of software and years of security releases. The Debian community has lots of developers and will tell you that it's just the right thing if you're tired of living on Red Hat's bleeding edge.

Unfortunately, that's a legend. The truth is somewhat different, as I have found out by actually running a server using Debian's 'Woody' release.

By the time it was replaced with a long-delayed new release this June, Woody was antiquated, long overdue for a replacement and full of obsolete and orphaned software (including the kernel). The failure to get a new release out had become a long-running sore spot (and somewhat of a joke) inside the Debian developer community.

If you griped about obsolete software versions to almost any serious Debian user, their likely advice was to in effect not actually run Woody: they would suggest updating to Debian 'testing'. Testing isn't a release; it's a usually working rolling snapshot of what Debian developers are working on. Naturally, testing comes without many of the promises Debian makes about its regular releases, like security updates.

My impression is that almost no serious Debian users or developers actually used Woody; everyone was using testing instead, and Woody was for people who didn't know better. Woody was so unsuitable for real use that Ubuntu has created a popular and fast growing business more or less out of taking periodic snapshots of Debian testing and turning them into a stable releases.

Thus, all of those things told about Woody were in fact a big Debian legend. Woody was not suitable for anyone with even relatively modest needs for relatively current software, which included me on my server.

Debian has just come out with 'Sarge', their new release; maybe the fable of Woody won't repeat itself all over again. (The omens are so-so, seeing as Sarge ships with some significant bits pre-obsoleted, including the default kernel.)

These days, I'm seriously wondering whether I can take that gamble with some new servers we're planning, or whether the odds are against me. (Or maybe I am just grumpy due to the problems my existing Debian Woody server is giving me because of its obsolete software versions.)

Comments on this page:

From at 2005-07-14 09:39:58:

If you griped about obsolete software versions to almost any serious Debian user, their likely advice was to in effect not actually run Woody: they would suggest updating to Debian 'testing'.

I'm sure you knew I'd chime in. This actually would not be my advice at all. I would heartily recommend running woody. I still run woody, and will continue to for some time until I schedule a planned upgrade to sarge over the next year.

I've always approached the "stable" Debian branch as a stable, secure framework. I install this base system that gives me a starting framework that I know will a) never change drastically in functionality and b) will be consistently supported via security updates.

From here, when I find myself needing added functionality, or more recent software than exists in the "stable" repository, I take a few steps:

  1. See if the package I want is available on the many well-supported archives of backports. is one, and is another that I find handy, specifically for packages relevant to the so-called "LAMP" web development platform.
  2. If no package can be found there, I generally snag the source and roll my own package
  3. If the source proves too difficult to package, I just do the old "./configure; make; make install" routine, which is sub-optimal but good enough in a pinch.

The reality I find is that the latter two scenarios rarely ever play out. I have almost always been able to find supported packages for what I need, and that's been rare as well. I realize there are always situations where you need "bleeding edge" software, but frankly I have never run into many of them. Most of the servers I run are: webservers, mailservers, CVS servers, etc. These are things for which well-established stable software has existed for years. I don't need bleeding-edge software to do them. I need stable representatives of that software that are supported by security updates but don't otherwise change.

Written on 13 July 2005.
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Last modified: Wed Jul 13 23:42:55 2005
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