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REVIEWS Debian 3.1

LINUX DISTRIBUTION

Debian 3.1 After years of waiting, Richard Drummond finally gets the chance to see if Sarge is worth its stripes. BUYER INFO Latest version of popular Linux distro with good package management tools and support for a wide variety of hardware architectures. See also: Debian derivatives, such as Ubuntu. ■ DEVELOPER Debian ■ WEB www.debian.org ■ PRICE Free Three years in the making, Debian 3.1 is here at last. At least, we think it is. At the time of writing, there are 10 days and around 50 release-critical bugs to go before the scheduled release date, and some developers are still haggling over whether it should be called Debian 4.0… Joking aside, naming it Debian 3.1 is about right. It’s a huge improvement over version 3.0, but that’s mainly due to the leaps and bounds made in the last three years by the open-source software that Debian provides. Apart from the installer, there have been only small, incremental changes made to the Debian infrastructure itself. No new architectures are officially supported beyond the 11 that 3.0 catered for (the AMD64 port didn’t make the cut and, not surprisingly, there’s still no stable GNU/Hurd port). Thus, this new release of Debian, codenamed Sarge in the Toy Story tradition, is more deserving of the 3.1 tag than a full version bump.

With much more modern applications, release 3.1 again makes Debian competitive on the desktop – for now. That’s not to belittle Sarge, though. People who are still using the previous stable release, Debian 3.0 (‘Woody’), are making do with XFree86 4.1.0, GCC 2.95, Gnome 1.4 and KDE 2.2, poor souls. An update to Sarge brings them newer, if not bleeding-edge, software (see Sarge’s Core Software box, right).

The slick apt front-end Synaptic takes a lot of the drudgery of out of manhandling Debian packages.

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What’s more, while the new installer is superficially similar to the old one, underneath it’s a totally different beast, with the various installer tasks provided as plugin modules. In a new development, it can be operated in two modes, ‘guided’ or ‘expert’. The guided mode leads you Debian has always had a reputation for through the install tasks in sequence, asking you questions in a series of being difficult to install. But 3.1 has a debconf-based dialogs, and is thus brand-new installer that can simple and quick, but the expert significantly ease installation and mode allows power users to take full should tempt new adopters. Replacing control of the process. the old boot disks system, the new One area that has been greatly Debian Installer again offers a panoply improved is partition management. of installation methods including The new partman, a dialog-based CD-ROM, floppies, hard disk and front-end to parted, now offers guided network installs. But unlike the old or manual partitioning, supports system, it also provides hardware ext2/3, Reiser, XFS and JFS filesystems, detection as standard, using Debian’s and supports software RAID and discover system. And though it still doesn’t provide a logical volume management. In guided mode, you can choose to take over a graphical interface – instead full disk or use any free space, and employing a text menu-based interface similar to the installer of old – partman will then divvy up the disk according to your selected partitioning the new installer architecture does allow for other implementations in the ‘recipe’. For example, the desktop future (a GTK interface is in the works). recipe creates root and swap partitions. What’s more, 3.1 is the first Debian release to include OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Apache 2.0; the first to support Linux filesystems other than ext2 and Reiser; and the first to offer hardware detection by default.

Installation: eased!

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9/6/05 4:58:03 pm


REVIEWS Debian 3.1

WHAT NO AMD64? The x86-64 architecture is not officially supported in Debian 3.1, but if you want to install Debian on your Athlon 64, Opteron or EM64T Intel box, you can. One option is to go with the plain old 32-bit i386 branch and install one of the supplied 64-bit kernels specific to your processor. Another is to use the experimental ‘pure64’ distribution for x86-64 CPUs (see www.debian.org/ ports/amd64). The former doesn’t support 64-bit apps; the latter can’t handle 32-bits apps, although there are some workarounds for this. If you want the full benefit of the new processor architecture, use the pure64 version. The vast majority of Debian’s packages are already available in 64-bit form, although some have not been

In manual mode, you are presented with a list of disks and any existing partitions they contain. It’s your choice to create new partitions or to delete, copy or – for FAT, NTFS and ext2/3 partitions – resize existing ones. For each partition, you choose whether Debian will use it, what filesystem it uses, whether to format it (or to retain existing data), the mount point, and so on. You can even label partitions and select mount options.

Hardware: detected! We tested the new installer on eight machines, a range of x86 and PowerPC hardware. On the more modern hardware, we tried a mixture of CD-ROM and network-based installs. On an old Pentium 100 box we tested floppies; on a 68k Mac we ended up booting the kernel and installer image from the hard drive within Mac OS using BootX. The documentation regarding this hasn’t been updated in the Sarge install guide, but even though BootX offers only incomplete support using an initial RAM disk image, it actually works well enough.

ported yet – notably OpenOffice.org. If you do need such apps or proprietary i386 software (such as Macromedia’s Flash plugin) you can install a 32-bit Debian tree in a chroot environment. Not very elegant, but it works. A full solution for providing multiarchitectural runtimes in Debian is being investigated. This would cover support for 32-bit and 64-bit environments for processors such as AMD64 or EM64T CPUs. The proposed solution goes further than just providing execution environments supported in hardware – the plan is also to address software emulation, such as that provided by Qemu (see http://fabrice.bellard.free.fr/ qemu). Expect a solution in Etch (the codename for Sarge’s successor).

The installer’s new hardware detection capabilities make it much quicker to use. The discover process is run several times during the install. The first pass is to find the device from which to load the installer modules – typically a CD-ROM, although USB, FireWire and PCMCIA media are supported too – and to load the drivers you need to use it. The second pass of discover is to find your network device, and the third and final one to find the media to install to. We were impressed by just how well the hardware detection scheme worked, and not just for PCI and USB hardware. For example, on a Mac it can detect devices built in to your IO controller. It even detected and supported a FireWire Ethernet device. ISA hardware generally cannot be automatically detected, though. The new partition manager is excellent, but it’s a little slow and requires going through a cascade of menus. This is one part of the install process that would really benefit from a mouse-driven graphical interface. Our only real complaint is a lack of support of the HFS/HFS+ filesystem

The installer’s new partition manager is bristling with features and now even supports RAID and logical volume management.

for those who wish to dual boot with Mac OS. HFS/HFS+ drivers are provided as an optional installer module, so at least you can mount Mac partitions manually, but partman itself offers no support at all. Post-install we had a minor problem when configuring X. Debian’s dialog-based X configuration system uses discover to find your graphics hardware and – on x86 systems at least – probes the BIOS for your monitor capabilities. So in theory it should be a doddle to use. However, on none of the systems we tested did discover pick the correct X driver, instead falling back on the system default (the VESA driver for x86 systems, and the fbdev driver for PPC). This worked in Woody, so something is obviously amiss with the X debconf scripts. It can’t be discover at fault, since invoking this manually reports the correct X driver. This isn’t a major defect, as you just have to select the correct driver yourself

Packages: perfected? The main selling point of Sarge is the power of its packaging system. By this we don’t just mean apt – we mean the whole infrastructure. This includes debconf, the system that allows packages to configure themselves interactively by prompting the users with dialogs; the alternatives system; doc-base, the central documentation repository; the menu system; and more. What’s more, Debian has a comprehensive packaging policy that gives you a cohesive environment, not a jumble of parts. Its developers do an excellent job of splitting the software they maintain into multiple packages. This lessens the curse of dependency hell, and means that you can install the software you want without pulling in a lot of junk that you don’t. With 15,000 packages now in the Debian repository, finding and installing the software you want can be timeconsuming, especially when installing from scratch. Two improvements in 3.1 help here. Firstly, the task selection system has been revised. On booting and configuring your new Debian install, you can choose to install package ‘tasks’ – sets of packages grouped for specific, er, tasks. If not, you can manually select packages as usual. Aptitude replaces the confusing dselect as the front-end for this. For examples of tasks, the desktop task installs full KDE and Gnome environments; while the web server task nets you Apache 2 with Perl, PHP

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SARGE’S CORE SOFTWARE Kernel 2.4.27/2.6.8 glibc 2.3.2 GCC 3.3.5 XFree86 4.3.0 KDE 3.3.2 Gnome 2.8.3 Mozilla1.7.7 OpenOffice.org1.1.3 Apache 2.0.54 MySQL 4.0.24

and Python modules. This does speed up the installation if your requirements match one of the seven supplied tasks, but the system needs to be extended. There’s no C development task, for example. We’d also like to see the desktop task split into separate Gnome and KDE package sets. Another problem is that the task selection tool doesn’t provide descriptions of what the tasks contain, though you can access them with aptitude or Synaptic. Which brings us to the other feature to ease package management: an updated version of Synaptic, the GTK-based front-end for package management. This has been improved dramatically since Woody was released, and it really is a pleasure to use now. It shows off the features and flexibility of the Debian packaging system, and has an indispensable search tool that lets you drill down into the package database and find the information or software that you need. Debian 3.1 builds on the strengths of 3.0. The new installer and hardware detection speed up and in some cases simplify installs, so should help attract new users. It contains more and more up-to-date packaged software, so for a while at least the stable Debian release is current. But Debian really needs to sort out its release processes if it is to stay relevant and not lose mind-share to derivatives such as Ubuntu. We simply cannot wait three years for the next stable version. LXF

LINUX FORMAT VERDICT FEATURES PERFORMANCE EASE OF USE VALUE FOR MONEY

9/10 8/10 7/10 8/10

As flexible and competent as ever, and the new installer and hardware detection in Debian 3.1 will gain it new fans.

RATING

8/10

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