My view on Debian versus Ubuntu LTS for us today

November 4, 2018

When we started with Ubuntu in 2006, Debian was mired in problems such as slow releases and outdated software that drove people to run 'testing' instead of 'stable'. Ubuntu essentially offered 'Debian with the problems fixed'; Ubuntu LTS had regularly scheduled releases, offered a wide package selection of reasonably current software, and gave us a long support period of five years. This was very attractive to us and made Ubuntu the dominant Linux here ever since (cf). However, we don't and never really have entirely liked it. We weren't enthused from very early on, and we soon came to understand various limitations of Ubuntu such as them not really fixing bugs. Recently we've come to understand that a large portion of Ubuntu's packages are effectively abandonware, cloned once from Debian and then never updated (making bug reports to Ubuntu useless).

(It's not just packages in Ubuntu's 'universe' repo that are abandonware, although being in 'universe' basically guarantees it; our experience is that packages from 'main' don't see many bug fixes either. And 'universe' is much of what's important to us.)

All by itself this has started making Debian look more attractive to me. Debian doesn't have the reliable release schedule of Ubuntu but these days it's managing roughly every two years (which is the same as Ubuntu LTS), and we're not locked to upgrading only at a specific time of year the way some people are. Our user-facing machines are upgraded every Ubuntu LTS release, so they're already not taking advantage of the long LTS support cycle, and we would likely get better support for packages in practice. And since Debian and Ubuntu are already so close, switching probably wouldn't be too hard. But things are actually better for Debian than this, because since I looked last in 2014 Debian has gained some degree of relatively official long term support (and even extra extended LTS for Debian 7).

(Part of the extended support is driven by people paying for it, which is both good in general and means that it might be possible for us to contribute if we started to use Debian.)

As a result, I now have a much more positive view of Debian and I've come around to thinking that it'd probably be a perfectly viable alternative to Ubuntu LTS for us, and in some ways likely a superior one (although we wouldn't know for sure until we actually tried to use it over the full life cycle of a machine).

Will we actually switch? Probably not, unfortunately. Debian being just as good and maybe a bit better doesn't overcome the fact that we're already using Ubuntu and it hasn't blown up in our faces yet. Perhaps I'll do an experimental install of the next Debian when it comes out (hopefully in mid 2019) to see what it's like and how easy it would be to integrate into our environment.

(This entry was prompted by an exchange on Twitter, except that it turns out I was wrong about the Debian support duration; I found out about Debian LTS support as a result of doing research for this entry.)

Comments on this page:

Another interesting feature of Debian is the backport repository. If you want a newer version for a package, you may find it in backports. It should be security updated (but the reality is that it is something you need to watch) but it is currently not covered by the LTS initiative. Ubuntu also has backports, but the coverage is far more limited.

By at 2018-11-10 14:43:32:

I switched from Ubuntu to Debian a few months ago (June) and the only thing that caused a serious issue were the fonts. Apparently I had switched my fonts from the default some years ago to something available on Ubuntu but not Debian. After the switch, my desktop couldn't find the font specified in my user preferences so it fell back to something truly ugly. Eventually I ended up just switching back to the Debian default font & now things are fine.

By Anon at 2018-11-11 17:37:33:

Does Debian have as good a ZFS story as Ubuntu these days or is it still more 3rd party/FUSE only if you stick to the main repos?

By cks at 2018-11-11 17:53:25:

According to the ZFS on Linux wiki page on Debian, official packages for Stretch (and presumably future versions) are in the contrib repository. On the one hand I believe this is not quite as convenient as Ubuntu because I think they have to build the ZFS kernel modules on install, but on the other hand they're a lot more up to date than the Ubuntu LTS version.

(I don't think either Debian or Ubuntu has a good story for 'root on ZFS', but my opinion continues to be that you don't want to do that on Linux in general.)

Written on 04 November 2018.
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Last modified: Sun Nov 4 01:55:59 2018
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