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Why GNU/Linux for academics and why Debian in particular?

February 26, 2010

This vignette is an attempt to explain my position as to why I use GNU/Linux and Debian GNU/Linux, in particular, and why you as a reader, surfer, or couch academic, should want to run GNU/Linux and Debian. I first briefly describe GNU/Linux, then Debian, and provide reasons (compelling?) why you should consider Debian GNU/Linux over Windows or Mac.

GNU/Linux is the proper name given to what is casually referred to as the Linux operating system. Yes this is an argument that has been rehashed over and over again whether or not referring to GNU/Linux as Linux is sufficient. I do not believe it is and prefer to use GNU/Linux. GNU is the userland, e.g. the libraries, applications, compilers, etc., that you use to interact with the kernel, in this case Linux. There is also the GNU/Hurd operating system but it is still in it’s infancy (and yes I am aware that folks have ported the GNU userland over to FreeBSD, etc). Linux is the kernel. The kernel is the bridge between the software and the computer’s hardware. You blame Linux when your hardware isn’t supported and blame GNU when your favorite application is buggy? Linux is central, it’s vital, it’s the heart of an operating system. GNU is the appendages, the organs, and the organ system. Thus it’s a symbiotic interaction that together form the GNU/Linux operating system. Linux is named after Linus Torvalds and GNU is primarily the brainchild of Richard Stallman. GNU/Linux is open source (defined by several licenses such as GPL, BSD, etc.), thus you can get the source and freely modify it, improve on it, contribute to it, and even make money off of it (and other people’s free work!). Everything is developed completely in the open. In most case, you can get GNU/Linux for free. GNU/Linux is available in what are called distributions. A distribution takes the hard work out of GNU/Linux by putting the pieces together nicely, packaging up applications, adding pretty themes, and in general making the computing experience much nicer for the end user. Examples of popular distributions include Red Hat, Ubuntu, openSUSE, and Debian GNU/Linux. Red Hat and openSUSE, via Novell’s SLED, offer commercial distributions complete with support with Red Hat geared towards servers and SLED toward desktops. Of course you can run either as a server or a desktop. Now there are distributions such as openSUSE, Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, etc., that are available for free. Ubuntu is one of the most popular distributions, is geared towards new users of Linux, and is in general a pretty good computing experience. Mac OS X users should love Ubuntu. I am not going to get into the different desktop environments, GNOME, KDE, XFCE, etc, but suffice it to say that there are some amazing desktop environments for Linux and UNIX based OS that are just as good and better than Windows or Mac.

Debian GNU/Linux, or Debian for short, is a distribution founded by Ian Murdock. It was a call by Ian to develop, in the open, a distribution completely by volunteers. It has been hugely successful and has received attention and support (i.e hardware donations, sponsorship of conferences) from several large hardware vendors, including HP and IBM. It has one of the largest, if not the largest selection, of precompiled packages available in the Linux world. Debian has a long release cycle (releasing when ready) and is traditionally known for having releases that are extremely stable with albeit sometimes old software. Debian sports a developer community of 1000+ and has a very good, informal, support community. Ubuntu is based on Debian.

So why GNU/Linux and Debian GNU/Linux in particular?
1) Transparency
Both GNU/Linux and Debian are 100% transparent. Bugs, security issues, etc. are in the open. That means you are aware of vulnerabilities and could potential help to solve them. Academia is suppose to be a transparent community where we can contribute and learn from one another. The source code in GNU/Linux and Debian is always available and because of this we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

2) DFSG
Debian looks out for there users by strictly complying with the Debian Free Software Guidelines. Some may see this as a problem as well but I don’t (for example, Firefox = Iceweasel).

3) Stability
GNU/Linux and Debian are both extremely stable especially when compared with Windows and Mac OS X. I realize that others experiences may be different and that’s fine. Also depending on the distribution you choose to run in GNU/Linux will have a great bearing on stability. Also the security holes in GNU/Linux are fewer than Windows and Mac and when they are arise you are aware of them, they are not hidden, and fixes are usually fast. Finally, viruses are extremely rare on Linux.

4) Lots of applications just an apt-get away
OpenOffice.org
LaTeX
Emacs
R
Firefox
Thunderbird
Octave
GIMP
etc.
Some of the applications work even better on Linux than Windows such as Emacs and LaTeX.

5) 64 bit support
64 bit support in Windows and Mac, in my opinion, pales in comparison to Linux especially Debian. All of my applications, kernel, etc., are 64 bit whereas in Windows and Mac you’re still forced to have to run some 32 bit applications and a kernel in the case of certain Mac hardware. This performance difference is huge.

6) In general, Debian just works
Debian in general just works out of the box. Unless you have extremely new hardware then everything should be detected. A default install of Debian, i.e. where you close your eyes and just keep hitting enter, will give you a complete desktop with a office suite, web browser, email client, graphics manipulation program, etc., all for free and additional packages are just an apt-get away. This is not a feature unique to Debian but a function of the whole GNU/Linux community.

7) Academia is suppose to be community that fosters the sharing of ideas right?
So this one, in my opinion, is the most important. Academia is suppose to be about sharing ideas, learning, and seeking knowledge collaboratively. So why would you use an operating system that doesn’t fully embrace these ideals? GNU/Linux, Debian in particular, allows you to contribute, improve on their code, or just use it for free. If you have an idea, file a bug report, and a developer will potentially implement your idea. Or with access to the code you can develop it yourself.

While this is not exhaustive these are some of the reasons why I choose GNU/Linux and Debian. So why not Ubuntu you ask? Well in my opinion, it’s buggier, because they release too often and I don’t really trust Canonical and Mark Shuttleworth. I see Mark as a little bit of a leech on Debian and while I think Ubuntu has contributed to Debian and upstream projects, it still seems meager compared to how much they’ve benefited. Debian’s slow release cycle also means you don’t have to update as often and you get a release that is more stable. All Ubuntu does is add some frosting on the cake and that frosting looks more and more like Mac OS X.

Thoughts, comments, things you think I should re-address or clarify are welcomed.

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10 comments

  1. You’re absolutely right, Debian GNU/Linux rocks!


  2. I agree, Debian is the way to go. On the desktop, I prefer to change my software sources to use the Testing or Unstable branches to get newer software (KDE4 desktop, for example), but on the server we definitly run the Stable branch.


  3. Stability the main issue. Also the advantage of almost 20,000 software packages available. If I do need something it’ll be there. Last but no least:
    0->Freedom to run the program.
    1->Freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs.
    2->Freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
    3->Freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

    Regards


  4. You are right, that’s why I’m running Debian Testing now :)

    However, there is one thing a new user must cross; the ‘problem’ of too many choices, sometimes to a point of confusion – like you have mentioned
    – GNOME, KDE, XFCE, etc, and
    – apt (aptitude, dpkg, synaptic…), zypper , yum, etc
    However, once a new user have made that choice, it’s a better, safer, stabler environment that they will experience.

    Let’s just hope that ubuntu wouldn’t convince the debian people to screw up debian themselves. The “It’s ready when it’s ready” is a good timeline, hoping to match ubuntu’s timeline to freeze is an absolute mistake that shouldn’t be made.


  5. I think you forgot the most important: GNU/linux being open source is mostly built on open formats. This in theory makes it easy to collaborate across disciplines and platform. Proprietary software tries to lock-in the user and the firm – making it difficult to always use the best tool for the job.


  6. I was a distro hopper for some time, but I decided to settle with one distro finally – debian. Big repositories, stable, testing, unstable, many resources, and howto’s…
    Stable was too outdated for me (as home desktop user), so my choice was testing (squeeze). I read many times, that debian testing is more stable, than any other distro stable repo.
    But I had many problems. First problems with install, then color depth was 16 bit instead of 24 bit, problem wit network manager,.. and several others. after some time I decided to uninstall it.
    After a couple of weeks, I’ve tried again. Some problems were the same, same were repaired, new problems appeared. I’ve tried to go over it, but if you can’t set color depth (even with xorg.conf), can’t change screen brightness (this was fixed after some time)… it’s quite annoying.
    Another try after several weeks, and some problems again.
    Las time I installed squeeze (no network during install, but with 700MB CD), I wasn’t able to suspend it. I guess, not all programs are installed, like OpenOffice, tomboy notes.. but why basic functions were not working? So I installed pm-utils, suspend worked, but it didn’t wake-up. this fixed it:

    http://osdir.com/ml/debian-bugs-dist/2010-02/msg02808.html

    I’m OK with little bit of work, or setting my box. I was using Source Mage (source based distro), Archlinux… but I don’t want to fix my broken system instead of working on it. As you said – I like if it’s working out of the box, which wasn’t my case.

    I don’t want to use Ubuntu, because I don’t agree with some things which canonical is doing.

    I don’t want to complain about debian. I would like use it. But not if it’s so buggy.
    I just want to ask you, and another users, what’s your experiences with debian testing. Am I just unlucky?


    • Hi Tricqster,
      If you install Debian from the first cd and select ‘Desktop’ when tasksel offers you that option and if you are connected to the internet at that time then OO.org and other goodies will get pulled in. Also are you a GNOME user? If so you could always do this after you install to get a full GNOME desktop w/ additionally goodies like OO.org, Iceweasel, GIMP ….

      tasksel install gnome-desktop --install

      It’ll install a lot of goodies but you definitely can’t complain about the lack of packages :) … You can do this on squeeze as well. Basically what it does is run tasksel and install all the applications associated with that task.

      I’ve never really had an issue with suspending not working. If I do it’s usually because I need a newer kernel or Xorg.

      Regarding the stability and buggy nature of testing and/or unstable, to me it’s kind of the nature of these distributions. Testing and unstable are both moving targets. When Debian goes into a freeze, they both become more stable. I always prefer stability over newer packages, i.e. Debian stable, over testing and unstable when hardware allows me to. The only programs that I ever need a newer version than the ones provided in stable are just R and OO.org. If I need to I will roll my own R (which I can also get from adding a repo from http://www.r-project.org) but I know that a more recent version of OO.org usually gets backported as it is a heavily request item. So I don’t prefer to run testing or unstable when possible. But I am not sure if it’s true that testing is more stable than other distributions releases. I’ve always found Debian to be solid and I have definitely encountered issues when running testing, especially as I prefer KDE and the whole KDE 4 migration has been a PITA but that’s the case for all KDE users not just Debian KDE users. I have always found Ubuntu too unstable for me and required too much tweaking while Debian just works. But your mileage may vary. In the world of Windows, I guess I would prefer Windows XP to Windows 7?

      I wonder if you’ve filed bug reports on your problems?

      But here’s my overall advice to anyone reading this: Use stable if it works for your hardware, if it doesn’t consider testing or unstable. If you need a newer package in stable, including a kernel in most instances, request that backports.org backport that package or roll your own.

      Also, while I may not be a big fan of Ubuntu, I think they’ve done lots of great things for GNU/Linux (getting it attention, for example) and would never shy away from putting it on a friend’s computer. I might also suggest you check out Mandriva too. I’ve always liked Mandriva and like their themes (does that just mean I have bad aesthetic taste?). The thing that I like about Mandriva, Fedora, and openSUSE more than Ubuntu is that I feel they do a lot more upstream work and get paid to do a lot more work upstream, especially Fedora and openSUSE developers. Where would GNU/Linux be without Red Hat, Novell, and Sun? So if Debian doesn’t work for you please consider Mandriva, Fedora, or openSUSE.


      • Hi Desjardins. Thank you very much for your tips, and opinion. :)
        After reading your post, I’m wondering about Debian install – to give it another try. ;)

        I don’t need newest packages, so some time ago I was considering similar scenario – install stable + backports.

        > I wonder if you’ve filed bug reports on your problems?

        I think, they were mostly reported already.

        I agree with your last paragraph. So if not Debian, then Fedora, or openSuse. I’m using Slackware mostly in these days, but it needs a little bit of work (sometimes), there is no gnome which I prefer, and it’s needed by some apps.


      • Yes I forgot about Slackware. It’s a nice distribution but I don’t like having to spend too much time compiling essential, at least what I consider, applications that are available in binary form in other distributions. I am aware that some of the offsprings of Slackware do a better job of this though and I think Salix OS sounds interesting especially since they include R and OO.org3 something that Slackware doesn’t readily do and that they remain 100% backwards compatible with Slackware something that I believe benefits Slackware as well. So if you like XFCE4, you might consider trying Salix OS too.


  7. I started my GNU/Linux journey with Fedora, but due to graphics issues I couldn’t go beyond 9. I then went for BLAG (an excellent distro, but unfortunately without support at present).

    The joy of keeping my data stored on a different disk allowed me to try Trisquel, Mint and Gnewsense, but I must admit Debian seems best for me.

    The conclusion I’ve arrived at with many distros is that the shinier and ‘user-friendlier’ it is, the more difficult it is to get under the bonnet to fix things if they go wrong (or in the case of Mint, denying that there is a problem and constantly accusing hardware!).

    Debian seems to have the right balance of not being too bloated, but still not being too intimidating for the new user (I’ve just got a good friend to start using it also).



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