On the Desktop
Written by Jason Perlow   
Saturday, 12 February 2005
Over the last few months, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to community Linux distributions. In particular, I’ve shown you what you can do with Fedora, the open source software project managed by Red Hat that’s both a showcase for leading-edge open source technology and a foundry for Red Hat’s commercial product, Red Hat Enterprise Linux( RHEL).
But Fedora isn’t the only community supported Linux distribution that’s worth looking at as a Linux desktop. Debian, the distribution with the largest base of available software packages and the largest development community, has now come of age.
What’s that you say? Debian is too hard to install? Debian’s driver support isn’t up to par or as polished as the commercial distros or Fedora? Au contraire, my young padawan: Debian isn’t just one distribution, but a family of related Linux distros and each variant has its unique advantages. Chances are that at least one Debian fits your desktop requirements.
Lets start with the mother distribution, Debian itself.

Debian GNU/Linux

There’s been a lot of cracks made about Debian, some of which, I admit, have come from yours truly.
“Its nearly impossible to install! ”
“It takes forever to get out, and the community is rife with politics that hinder its advancement! ”
“Its developers and advocates are rabid religious fanatics with poor hygiene that are even less-equipped socially than other geeks to get dates with the opposite or the same sex.”
I admit that while these are exaggerations( well, ok, maybe not the last one), there is some truth to them. Debian is perhaps the Hassidics or Mennonites of the Linux community. Debian developers are perhaps the strictest adherents to open source and free software development methodology due to their “Social Contact.” Debian developers have the tightest controls over software releases, the software is rock-solid, the distribution is available on the widest variety of computer architectures, and by design, they are rather on the austere, plain-vanilla side in terms of out-of-the-box aesthetics, because customization if left up to the user. To some people like myself, this is a good thing.
Traditionally, Debian is more concerned with maintaining the lifecycle of your system with incremental package upgrades rather than painful release upgrades and operating system re-installs. Indeed, once you install Debian, you should never have to install it on the same system again, ever. Debian's remote software update and installation system, APT, is perhaps the best package manager of all Linux distributions. With one command, apt-get upgrade, Debian crosschecks its internal database of software versions installed on your system, yields all of the dependencies required, grabs all of the updated packages for your release level(" stable", " testing" or" unstable") from a Debian mirror server, and installs them — all in one shot.( For more information about APT, see" A Very Apropos APT" in the October 2003 issue of Linux Magazine, available online at http://www.linux-mag.com/2003-10/apt _01.html.)
Got a GNOME desktop installed be default but you want to install KDE? No problem. apt-get install kde determines what libraries and prerequisities you’re missing, grabs the KDE packages along with those dependencies from the Internet, and then installs them on your machine. And as if that’s not good enough, APT then prompts you to make any major changes, such as asking what graphical login should be used and what localization settings need to be changed. Need to upgrade to the next version of the distro? One command does that, too: apt-get dist-upgrade.
The latest released version of Debian is always called “stable.” As of this writing, the current stable release is version 3.0, with the current “testing” release slated to become the stable release by the end of 2004. In addition, a “stable” release gets minor updates or point releases, such as 3.0r1.
The code names of Debian releases are based on the characters from the movie Toy Story: 3.1, or “sarge,” is expected in late 2004. 3.0, or “woody” was released mid-2002. Previous releases included “bo” and “slink.”
Daily development takes place in the “unstable” branch which is permanently codenamed “sid,” named after Toy Story' s mischevious, toy-dissecting neighbor boy. The “unstable” branch is not necessarily unstable, only that it has not yet undergone the rigorous testing process to yet move it into the “testing” or “stable” trees.
If you want to take advantage of the latest releases of open source software, set your APT sources.list file to reflect a “testing” or “unstable” Debian mirror, as “stable” is typically a year or more behind in package versions.( Software that is unstable is generally placed in “experimental.")
Here are the contents of my /etc/apt/sources.list file — it's only two lines:
deb ftp://ftp.debian.org/debian unstable main contrib non-free
# deb ftp://mirrors.kernel.org/debian unstable main contrib non-free
( The second line is commented out, because I use kernel.org as an alternate mirror to the official Debian repository whenever it gets overloaded. I just comment out the first line with a pound sign and uncomment out the other, run apt-get update and apt-get upgrade, and then I'm all set for updates.)
The first field on line 1, deb, indicates to apt-get that the following URL is a Debian package feed. The second field is the base URL of the Debian repository you want to download software from. The remaining fields indicate which Debian tree you want to download from. I am using unstable, but you can also go with testing and stable. main, contrib, and non-free are the actual package repositories for the tree you’re using.
Starting with the “sarge” release of Debian, which should be ready by the time you read this article, Debian is installed with the new Debian Installer, an easy-to-use, character-based, menu-driven installation program. As of this writing, the Debian Installer was available with the netinst bootable CD images, which are only 100 MB or so in size. netinst contains just the base-level Debian files; the rest of the distribution is downloaded from the Internet.
If you have a broadband Internet connection, the netinst CDs are probably the way to go. You can get the netinst CD images for your computer architecture from http://www.debian.org/devel/debian-installer/.
The Debian installer guides you through the entire install process, and it allows you to choose a pre-set collection of packages to install a working GNOME desktop with all the basic amenities, such as the Mozilla web browser and OpenOffice. If you need more software installed, have a look at the “Debian Package List” home page at http://www.debian.org/distrib/packages/.
If you don’t want to use the command line to install packages with APT, you can try installing synaptic, a graphical front end to APT. Simply type apt-get install synaptic at the shell prompt to install it from the Debian repository. Then invoke it with synaptic from the shell prompt, or select it from the GNOME menu.
Debian has a huge support community, and many can help you with your support and installation questions. If all this is a bit overwhelming at first, have a look at the “Resources” section at the end of this article for some links that can help you get started.
And now, the Debian Derivatives.

Progeny Debian and Componentized Linux

Progeny, a services company formed by Ian Murdock, the founder of the Debian project, is one of the least publicized Debian derivatives, but in my opinion, it’s one of the best choices for someone looking for an out-of-the-box, immediately-usable, free Debian Linux desktop.
Progeny can best be described as a close cousin of Debian “testing,” but with a superior install program( the graphical anaconda installer used in RHEL and Fedora) and more polish and enhancements that make it better conforming with industry standards. Progeny is also Linux Standard Base 2.0( LSB) certified and is based on Progeny’s Componentized Linux( CL) infrastructure, which is a more modular means of creating a Linux distribution. Progeny’s components are essentially meta-packages that form the building blocks of a Linux distribution.
Progeny Debian is essentially a big demo of how Componentized Linux can be used to produce specialized Linux distributions for things such as standardized corporate desktops, blade servers, clusters, vertical market applications, set top boxes, and other consumer electronics products.

Xandros

Xandros was one of the first companies to produce an end-user version of Debian. Orginally called Corel Linux and then spun off as its own company, Xandros arguably produces the most user-friendly Debian derivative.
Some of the notable features of Xandros are that it’s KDE based, it’s highly “tweaked” with Xandros’s own configuration utilities( it’s made to resemble a Windows desktop), and it also includes Xandros’s own XFM file manager, which allows you to browse Windows networks and burn recordable CDs. Also of note is the Xandros Networks application, which is a very easy-to-use GUI that handles all software updates and installs.
If you’re looking to give a Linux desktop to a neophyte, Xandros is a good choice.
By the time you read this, Xandros Desktop 3.0 should be out. It features a more modern 2.6.9 kernel, with support for newer hardware and many feature updates, including a newer KDE base.
Xandros comes in four versions: Business($ 129), Deluxe($ 89), Standard($ 39), and Open Circulation( free). The Deluxe version comes with Crossover Office, the StarOffice suite, and printed manuals. The Business edition has all of the features of Deluxe plus Microsoft Active Directory authentication, terminal emulators, a Citrix client, and better technical support. The Open Circulation Edition, which is a free download, is essentially identical to the Standard edition, except that CD burning is limited to 4X speed, and the default web browser is Opera, which is ad supported.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu is a new, community-supported Linux distribution based on the technologies in Debian, but tailored to the desktop end-user.
Like Progeny, Ubuntu features a pre-configured GNOME desktop so that users can be productive out-of-the-box. Ubuntu differs from regular Debian in that regular releases of Ubuntu are scheduled on a six month basis, similar to the Fedora release cycle, and Ubuntu maintains its own large package repository entirely separate from Debian( some of the others listed here, such as Progeny and Xandros, maintain their own mirrors of the official Debian repository).
Ubuntu comes on a single CD, and it uses a derivative of the text-based “sarge” Debian Installer. In addition to an x86 version, Ubuntu also provides an AMD64 version based on the Debian AMD64 “pure64” development tree, so you can install it and run native on Athlon FX, Athlon 64, Opteron, and Intel EM64T hardware.

Linspire

Linspire, formerly known as Lindows, also positions itself as a Linux distribution for those looking to transition from a Windows environment.
Like Xandros, Lindows has many proprietary enhancements such as improved multimedia, the commercial StarOffice suite, an integrated Voice Over IP( VOIP) client, a one-click install tool called Click-and-Run, and integrated spam and popup blocking.
Linspire is a fully commercial product($ 59.95). As of this writing Linspire 4.5 was based on kernel 2.4, but was nearing a major revision to update it to current 2.6 technology. Linspire is also available as a pre-loaded OS on selected Wal-Mart PCs.

" Live CD" Debian Derivatives

There's an entire category of Debian derivatives that I like to refer to as" live CD" distributions, although some of them can be installed on your hard drive. Live CDs are bootable CD's with their own self-enclosed environments, all of which can be run entirely off the CD.
* SimplyMEPIS. SimplyMEPIS is a KDE-based Linux distribution that has a small but loyal following. Similar to Xandros in its design, SimplyMEPIS is engineered to be easy-to-use and has all sorts of configuration utilities and wizards designed to enhance the end-user experience. It's the favored Linux distribution of one of my favorite Linux personalities, Robin Miller, who has authored a book, Point and Click Linux( Prentice Hall PTR, ISBN 0131488724), that teaches non-technical users how to use and be productive with SimplyMEPIS, which comes included with the book.
SimplyMEPIS can run entirely from the CD, or it can be installed to the hard disk. SimplyMEPIS is available as a free download via various mirrors or through a priorty access paid download($ 29.95) through the MEPIS website. In addition to its many enhancements above and beyond a typical Debian system, SimplyMEPIS is a fully up to date Linux distribution, including the latest 2.6 Linux kernel and KDE 3.2.3.
* Santa Fe Desktop Linux. Santa Fe Desktop Linux is to GNOME as SimplyMEPIS is to KDE. Also engineered to be easy-to-use, with a pre-configured GNOME 2.6 desktop, Santa Fe is a Debian derivative that runs off a live CD, but is also available as a commercial version from Amazon.com that can also be installed to a hard disk.
Santa Fe difffers from most of the Debians in that it is pre-configured to work with the optimized Nvidia and ATI drivers, so no extra steps are needed to configure the X drivers for advanced 2D and 3D acceleration.
However, Santa Fe is based on the older 2.4 Linux kernel and GNOME 2.6, so it may be more ideally suited with older PC hardware.
* Knoppix. Knoppix is a live CD distribution developed in Germany that contains a great deal of built-in open source software. Like SimplyMEPIS, Knoppix is KDE 3.x based, but is stuffed with about two gigabytes worth of compressed data on a standard CD, including over 2,000 executables in all.
Knoppix has both the 2.4 and 2.6 kernels as runtime options, so that it can boot on a multitude of hardware. Knoppix is optimized to be used entirely as a portable Live CD system, unlike the others listed here.
If you haven’t tried a Debian yet, now’s the time. All the cool kids are doing it.

While Jason Perlow's collection of Debian distros is vast, it's dwarfed by his collection of 8-tracks. You can reach Jason at jperlow@linux-mag.com