Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Debian molts

The most comprehensive and carefully maintained software distribution I know about is Debian GNU/Linux. Started by Debbie and Ian Murdock in August 1993. It's an open project by an association of tens of thousands of developers and testers worldwide. It's published at four levels of maturity:

  1. Old Stable: The previous Stable. You get security-related support for a year or two after your Stable system becomes obsolete.
  2. Stable: The software in this distribution is feature-frozen. Updates come out to fix bugs, especially security bugs. But the features and functions don't change. You can keep up to date without fear anything in your system will break.
  3. Testing: The software in Debian Testing changes along with the "upstream" software it's derived from. We expect it to work, but it might change and break some feature or function you were depending on.
  4. Unstable: This software changes all the time (that's why it's called "unstable") as the developers find bugs. On any particular date it probably works as well as any other software distribution, but there's no guarantee. Use at your own risk.

You choose which works best for you. If you don't want to participate in the development, use Stable. If you want the latest features and don't mind reporting a bug now and then, try Testing. It you want to help, join Unstable.

Every couple of years, Testing "freezes." We keep fixing bugs but don't add new features. (That's the only way to approach a bug-free system, and MSFT doesn't do it. MSFT's Service Packs and Windows Update "patches" introduce complex new features with new bugs.) After the freeze, it takes a few months to reach zero show-stopping "release-critical" (RC) bugs. When the last RC bug is squashed (or the package it's in removed), there is a NEW DEBIAN RELEASE. Stable becomes Old Stable. Testing becomes Stable. Work begins on a new Testing. Unstable just keeps changing as always.

It's about to happen. The current Stable is Debian GNU/Linux 3.1. It is about to become Old Stable. The current Testing is Debian 4.0. It will be Stable any day now. It feature-froze in November '06 and it's had security support since then. If you install Debian today, you should install Testing.

Debian GNU/Linux 4.0 (nicknamed "Etch") will be available on three "Official" DVDs or twenty-five "Official" CDs. That's the "i386 binary" you can install on an IBM-PC-Compatible computer. (The source code is available for the whole system. That's another 25 CDs. New users don't need it. Developers usually use the online archive, not CDs.) You can also use the disk set to upgrade your Debian 3.1 system. There are dozens of socially responsible vendors who will sell you a disk set by mail. I once considered getting into that business but it is just too competitive. But I'll sell you an Etch disk set when it's released, at an outrageous markup, as a fundraiser for Green Internet Society. Drop me a line to reserve a set, cls@greens.org.

Nobody needs the whole thing. Etch has about 25,000 packages. A typical home workstation uses less than a thousand. A typical Internet server uses less than five hundred. If you have fast Internet access (DSL, cable TV, or fast wireless) you can install only the packages you need, as you need them, over the Internet. That's the recommended method. The most popular packages are on the first CD. You can use the first Etch CD to install a usable home workstation. When you run the installer, it will try to find the online archives automatically, and you can install (and maintain) the rest of what you want from there. There is also a "network install" CD. It fits on a "business card" mini-CD. It's only useful if for some reason you can't deal with a whole CD.

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