Get Your Debian On

DebianAfter we’ve lived a while, we can look back and possibly notice various milestones that represent time markers along our progress. For me, one of the most significant markers are the release dates of Debian GNU/Linux. They don’t come often, and that, like most things, is both good and bad.

I’ve written a modest amount about GNU, Free  and Open Source software, and Linux in the past. In essence, there is an long, ongoing and growing movement to create software and freely give it to the world. Debian is large collective of individuals around the world who gather up Free Software from all its many homes and bundle it together for everyone, so that they might more easily install it on their computers and keep it up-to-date.

Back in 1983 Richard Stallman, being fed up with software vendors restricting what he could do with MIT’s computers, created the GNU Project whose purpose was to create software that could be freely seen and modified, so that computer hardware and software might reach a greater potential.

Four years later in 1987, Larry Wall released the first version of the Perl programming language, and another four years after that in 1991, Linus Torvalds released the first version of the Linux kernel.

Now, having a Linux kernel by itself won’t do much for your computer. To make use of your computer, you need a whole lot of other things that allow it to interact with both itself and you, more sensibly. The GNU project fills this role, and what we call the Linux operating system is really a combination of the Linux kernel and the GNU systems operating together. This is why many people insist that Linux should more truly be called GNU/Linux.

All the component software pieces are not always easy to gather and get working well together, particularly in the early days. You can easily get all the program code, but you must compile this code, and make sure that other code exists on your system too, and compiles with the right versions, if you want things to operate. It can be a nightmare. This is where the various GNU/Linux distributions step in. Debian was one of the first, released in 1993.

Back then, getting GNU/Linux to run well on your computer hardware was no task for the meek, even with the help of distributions. But Debian quickly distinguished itself as the distribution of choice for anyone wanting well thought-out and engineered implementations. Debian also distinguished itself by holding true to the GNU project’s vision of Free software, going to great lengths to establish policies related to the inclusion of software in its distribution and the licensing requirements that software must meet to warrant inclusion. They continue operating with the same commitment today.

While other GNU/Linux distributions may release new versions of the various software packages far more often than Debian, it has been my experience that none can meet Debian’s solidity, stability and security. Debian releases new versions when the system is right and good, and not before. Debian developers are, as a rule, proud to be Debian developers and their reputation is very important to maintain. This is a quality shared by most free software creators and advocates.

In the various capacities many of you know me, one of them is creating computer systems for organizations. Debian is always what I choose when a client needs a server, and it is also what I choose when they need workstations that are meant for work that does not always require the latest bells and whistles. I choose Debian because it represents the highest quality in every respect. And I choose Debian precisely because they do not have many major releases each year, which means their systems will remain stable and without any costs.

I urge everyone to look at Free Software when considering new computer systems for work or for home. I urge everyone to consider moving to Free Software when they have a need to upgrade. The benefits are enormous, while the problems are usually minimal. And you can’t beat the price.

It surprises me now how many people are not only open to using Free Software, but also actually using it. I recently had the fortune of meeting the owner of a local computer shop that was devoted almost entirely to Windows, except for a few netbook sales with shipped with Linux pre-installed. Now, this shop runs all their internal computers except for two on Linux and has plans to do some great and wonderful things with Linux for their clients. It was not me that manipulated him somehow into adopting it — I am about as far from a salesman as you can get. Instead, it was his own intelligence, openness and imagination. And, as much as that, his courage and confidence to move beyond status quo.

As you know, there are many parallels between computers, networks, software, and hardware — what they represent abstractly — and our current society. In many ways they reflect each other, both culturally and academically. Right now, issues of fundamental freedom lie at the core of both. What choices do we actually have? What choices do we have the courage and fortitude to make a reality? What is the right thing to do, even if it runs against the status quo?

The are so many people around the world who have devoted so much of their lives and efforts to make these choices possible for you now. Choices in all things. Choices that will bring more of the same, or something utterly new. Are easy choices the best? Are they bad? Very little is actually neutral.

I suppose this is as close as I get to a sales pitch. The freedom is yours. And mine. At least for now.

And now, it’s back to my little mad scientist’s lab to test various upgrade scenarios for my client’s machines, since Debian’s newest face has walked out onto the scene once again. I love this time; purging out the old ways into something new. A little risk and excitement, and probably a failure or two. But, the sweetness follows.

PS. If any of you want to try out Linux, try Ubuntu instead of Debian. It’s made from Debian — Debian’s branch in testing. They will hold your hand and you won’t have to know anything, and that makes most people happy. You can even try out without installing it, by downloading their bootable CD, and booting your computer to it. It’s much slower, but it will give you an idea or two, perhaps. Heck, maybe you’ll even decide to install it and use it! Feel free to ask me anything, too.