Two weeks ago, I conducted an interview on r/linux, where I asked redditors what their favorite Linux distribution was and why. I got plenty of votes for other distros such as Fedora and Arch Linux, for which I will have reviews on those coming up soon, but first I want to display the preferences expressed by those people who chose Debian.
In this post, I have anonymized the contents of those comments, so that they cannot be linked back to usernames.
Debian is one of the most popular Linux distros
Even though Ubuntu has somewhat stolen its limelight in recent years, and Linux Mint to some extent as well, Debian still has a place among those who appreciate the design decisions and packaging around it. And by packaging, I’m referring to combining the packages together into a distro – we have not gotten to the point of physical Linux PCs for sale from the OEM (yet).
Facts about Debian
Before we get to the why people use Debian part, let’s give you some grounding in case you have no idea what Debian is, or that it is a Linux distro. But indeed, the nuanced topic of distributions often has heads rolling in boredom by a vocal majority of users who just want to install some brand new operating system on their dying Windows computers. However, I do believe that when the user is armed with some information about a distribution’s history, they can make more educated decisions about which distro they should use, and have an appreciation for the distribution that they end up usng.
Fact #1: Debian was made in 1993
Many contributors have enhanced Debian over the years, but the credit fr starting Debian in the first place goes to Ian Murdock (RIP). This makes it the second-oldest Linux distribution that is still actively maintained. The crown of course, goes to Slackware, which is the oldest active Linux distribution of all time.
Fact #2: Debian has a strict free software only policy
This should come to the surprise of nobody, but when it comes to freedom, one could say that Debian is like Texas. They take a hard-line approach on packages, requiring that every software published is free and open source (FOSS) software. Some people do not like that, but then again, that is why we have dozens of distributions to choose from, right?
Fact #3: Debian releases are named after Toy Story characters
Sarge, Lenny, Woody, Buster, Jessie, Sid, Potato… what do all these release names have in common? Well if you ask any Debian maintainer, they will tell you that they are all (?) Toy Story characters – but I have a mild doubt about Bullseye, though. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch Pixar movies at large, as much as I used to. It’s a shame; imagine if the Debian releases were named after Muppets (Fozzy FTW!).
Fact #4: Debian supports a wide variety of architectures.
They support Intel 32-bit, Intel 64-bit, Itanium, MIPS, ARM, IBM System Z (aka s390x), SPARC, and PowerPC, as well as variations of all these. Whereas pretty much every other distro is only shipping 64-bit Intel and ARM builds nowadays, Debian literally ships with everything. At least you no longer have to worry about your obsolete computers ending up in a junkyard as soon as the architecture is dropped by some proprietary vendor – sounds familiar?
Fact #5: Debian has a social contract.
This social contract is largely regarded as the reason why Debian can proudly be called one of the least shady distros in the sphere – though if you ask me, hardly any distro can be classified as shady.
Basically, the contract outlines the policy Debian will follow when making releases, deciding on important matters, and so on. Think of it like bringing a democratic government to Texas.
Reasons why people like Debian
Now, let’s get to the good stuff and see for ourselves what these people said about the Debian systems that they are using, and why they are so good for them.
Reason #1: Debian is stable and blob-free
When we are talking about stable in the context of Debian, we are not just talking about bug-free, we are talking about frozen packages, that do not even get minor updates, unless you are using Sid (testing). This has caused its fair share of controversy in the past, but its widely agreed by Debian users as the reason really big companies and institutions rely on Debian to run their mission-critical software.
Of course, just because it is frozen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t get security updates. Indeed, Debian publishes security updates for its packages in a timely manner, making it one of the more secure distros to work with.
Reason #2: Debian works on everything without the need of much hassle
I guess people with brand-new computers that have dubious hardware, or owners of gaming PCs, will vehemently disagree with this reason – as with other distros – but the fact is, PCs that are designed for Linux should generally run Linux without as much as a hiccup, and Debian has managed to achieve just that. The only other distros I can think of that have achieved a similar level of “it just works (but in a minimalist style)” are the Red Hat distributions, and Slackware.
Reason #3: Flatpak works on Debian
Not exactly something that people would consider a big deal, but then again, why do you think Ubuntu (and all the distributions derived from it) use Snap?
The ability to use newer packages on an otherwise frozen system is extremely valuable as it complements the rock-solid nature of the distro with the ability to run newer software. Sure you can do that with AppImages too, but they have a reputation of being pretty to big. And a pain in the rear to audit.
Reason #4: Debian is not too hand-holding or complicated at the same time
I guess when people say they have a gripe on distos such as Ubuntu, they mean when the computer is literally telling you to use it “like this, like that” which annoys a lot of people who already know how to use a computer, and consequentially should be restricted exclusively for people who do not know how to use computers at all.
But then at the same time, nobody makes memes on how difficult it is to install Debian. All eyes on the elephant in the room.
Reason #5: Debian is a good game station and game server
I guess I’ve been living under a rock because this is groundbreaking information for me. With respect to the entire collection of Linux titles, then yeah, Debian can be a great choice for running all those games across the network. At least it can run Minecraft. Everyone has a good respect for Debian for its ability to run a stable game server – and game station.
The biggest reason why people use Debian
Everything that I have told you so far are pretty convincing reasons, but are not the biggest reasons according to the Debian community at large. Indeed, if you ask anyone on a Debian forum the reason why they like Debian, they will respond with something like this:
It gives me control over which packages I want on my system.
And I think that about sums it. The Debian maintainers exercise this control by carefully A/B testing which packages they should include in the base Debian distributions, to make sure there is no bloat. This trickles down to the users, who make their own changes to reduce the amount of body fat on their distributions. What you get at the end is a lean, mean, stable machine that has about zero percent chance of giving you the black screen of death.