It unleashed the open source movement and impacted the global economy in unforeseen ways. What is Debian and what accounts for its popularity and widespread appeal?
Who are the people behind it? What can we learn about the philosophy and community that fostered it?
In this article, you’ll learn about the background of Debian, its practical uses, and various ways to install and use it yourself.
I’ll discuss what to look for in a host. And I’ll share my personal recommendations for Debian hosts to give you a head start in your search.
What Is Debian?
Debian is a computer operating system, much like Windows and Mac OS X.
It’s a particular flavor of Linux that includes additional software and utilities. Users choose it because it’s much more convenient to have everything in one installer, rather than downloading things as and when required.
Advanced Packaging Tool
The distribution pioneered the concept of package management with the Advanced Packaging Tool (APT).
With a single command, you can add and remove software from your system. You can also update your packages from one central repository.
The ability to stay up-to-date with software combined with its stability makes Debian a popular choice for servers.
Debian bills itself as “The Universal Operating System.” You can run it either as a server or as a desktop. The system can be as minimalist or as complete as you like.
Debian refers to itself as a “GNU/Linux” distribution, in accordance with GNU Project founder Richard Stallman’s insistence that Linux is the kernel and the GNU utilities make it a complete operating system.
While Debian is best known as a Linux distribution, there are also experimental versions based on FreeBSD and the GNU Hurd kernel. The Linux version is the most widely used, and it’s the version we’ll consider in this article.
Originally founded in 1993, Debian has a long history which pre-dates the majority of the web – and the majority of other Linux distributions.
Its founding developer was Ian Murdock, a German-born American software engineer.
Problems Resulting in Better Solutions
The project was founded after encountering problems with another early Linux distribution, Softlanding Linux Distribution, or SLS.
The early adopters of Linux thought that having the kernel and all the utilities were useful, but the distribution was full of bugs.
Murdock intended the project to be developed as free software in a spirit of cooperation similar to the GNU project and the Linux kernel, outlining his goals in his Debian Manifesto.
Debian wasn’t the only distribution founded due to the poor maintenance of SLS. Patrick Volkerding was also motivated to found Slackware that same year.
In this video, Ian Murdock, the founder of Debian, discusses its origins, the open source model, and their impact on the global economy and competitors.
Debian Growing Pains
Ian made the first iteration of Debian formally available in 1996 and has had its fair share of controversy.
In 2006, Mozilla announced that Firefox and Thunderbird couldn’t be distributed with Debian because of the way the developers removed certain images, so they appear under codenames: Iceweasel and Icedove respectively.
Devuan – The New Distribution
Devuan developed by Debian.
More recently, Debian has been forked to a new distribution, Devuan (pronounced ‘Dev One’), because of a disagreement over how the OS boots up. Devuan will not include system. Debian is still much more popular than Devuan.
After a few years, Murdock handed control of the project to Bruce Perens.
Perens developed the Debian Free Software Guidelines and the Debian Code of Conduct to further foster a spirit of sharing and collaboration, though Perens’ tenure was controversial as some considered his management style heavy-handed.
Debian Introduces APT
Not too long after, Debian introduced the Advanced Packaging Tool, or APT, a package manager This was a revolution in the Linux world. APT made it easy to install new software without having to compile from source and to keep the system updated.
The idea of a package manager was quickly copied in other Linux distributions and Linux users have come to expect them in modern distros. Because of Debian’s wide base of software packages, it was chosen as the basis for the Ubuntu distribution.
Toy Story: No, Really
Interestingly, Debian has a rather unlikely connection to Pixar. Early versions were hosted on its servers. Its versions are named after characters in the Toy Story movies, while its trunk is named after the bad boy next door, Sid.
Why? Project Leader Bruce Perens worked at Pixar for 12 years, and part of his time there overlapped with his time working on Debian. This explains this charmingly odd connection between the two.
Versions have been named after Toy Story characters “Buzz,” “Woody” and “Ham.” The current stable version as of this writing is “Stretch,” named after the Slinky dog.
Trivia fans note: the Debian logo may be a homage to Buzz Lightyear’s facial hair.
Versions of Debian – Pure Blends
There are now several versions of Debian, including Debian Live (which can be run from removable media). In addition, there are Pure Blends – versions developed for a specific user group. These include:
Debian Junior (for children up to age 8)
Debian Med (for medical care applications)
Debian Edu (for schools and colleges)
Debian Accessibility, which includes support for braille devices, screen readers and more.
Pure Blends focus on specific app categories.
Ubuntu distribution by Debian.
Its most famous offshoot is the Ubuntu distribution, produced by a commercial company, Canonical. Ubuntu strives to provide an easy-to-use desktop system with up-to-date software packages.
Ubuntu uses a customized desktop derived from the unstable branch of Debian. There’s a bit of a rivalry between the two projects and some clashes over project goals as a non-profit and commercial enterprise, but the code does go back and forth between Ubuntu and “upstream” to the Debian developers.
There’s also a server version of Ubuntu available that powers sites like Wikipedia.
Other Debian Versions
Debian has three major branches:
Packages that are more stable than in unstable but not quite ready for development
Available for download
Packages that have been frozen for development. The functionality won’t change much but security patches will be applied.
Safe for constant use
The development version of Debian.
Available for use but not recommended to rely on
Most of the time, you’ll want the stable version of Debian for a server.
What’s Included With Regular Debian?
Debian has a variety of perks included in forms of software especially.
Debian is made up of the Linux or FreeBSD kernel plus tens of thousands of extra software packages. The latest version has more than 37,000 additional tools and applications bundled right into the OS. Everything that is shipped with Debian is free.
Tools offered with Debian include some recognizable names and some that will be entirely new to non-Linux users:
You can see a full list of packages on the Debian website.
An open-source office suite, essentially acting as a Microsoft Office replacement.
LibreOffice is also cross-platform and supports .doc, .xls, .odt, .ods along with other key formats.
Iceweasel is the old name for Firefox, which Mozilla demanded Debian to rename it. Iceweasel is pretty much an identical version.
A multi-functional media player, covering most file formats. VLC is also cross-platform, popular amongst both Windows and Linux users.
GIMP is an increasingly popular software used by graphic designers.
It stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. A popular cross-platform graphics editor, used by thousands of professional and hobby designers.
QuickML is a server which provides a simple and easy-to-set-up mailing service for Debian.
Cron is a command scheduling package for Debian, already installed as part of the basic system. This is a default feature.
A multiple-use desktop environment, generally praised by users. Gnome is also free.
You can specify which packages you want on your system at installation time. If you’re running a server, you probably don’t need a desktop. There are several packages available in the installation program. You’ll want the web server, the SSH server, an FTP server and possibly an email server.
6 Notable Debian Features
So why is Debian so popular? It mainly comes down to Debian’s feature set.
Debian is stable. The software packages might be a little old in the default stable release, but they will be free of major bugs most of the time.
Stability is a must for servers. You don’t want your system to change very much. It’s possible for some systems to stay up for years without being rebooted.
The simplicity of the Debian Command Line Interface is definitely a loved aspect of the OS. Plenty of resources on it too!
Debian’s package management makes it very easy to maintain the system. To update the system, you just run two commands: # apt-get update # apt-get dist-upgrade.
Debian supports multiple architectures. While the x86-64 architecture dominates web hosting, Debian is available for ARM, MIPS, PowerPC, and the IBM S/390. These are specialized architectures for embedded computers and mainframes, it’s nice to know that there’s flexibility.
Debian serves as the basis for Ubuntu, using the same commands and using the same package manager. If you’re familiar with one distro, it’s easy to get comfortable with the other.
Debian has some of the most stringent guidelines for free software in its repositories. Its main repositories require that software be open source under the previously mentioned Debian Free Software Guidelines.
The Debian Community
Debian has been in development for over 20 years and has a large developer and user community.
You can install Debian yourself on any compatible PC. It can be downloaded using P2P software, or you can install it from an official CD or DVD. Be warned that the CD version of Debian is distributed on 69 discs, so downloading the software is a sensible choice.
Debian offers a “netinstall” image that’s much smaller with basic utilities. If the machine you’re installing Debian on has an internet connection, the installer will download the packages it requires.
Dual Booting Debian
If you don’t want to install Debian, you can run it from a memory stick or optical media. For this, you must install the Debian Live version.
Multiple Operating Systems
If you run another operating system on your machine, such as Windows, you can set it up to dual boot.
Debian will install a program called a “boot loader” on your hard drive. When you power on or restart your machine, you’ll see a menu that lets you choose which operating system to start.
The installation program will offer to shrink part of your hard drive to use for a Debian partition. The traditional partition scheme is to have a swap partition and another partition to run the actual operating system.
Dual Boot Configuration
You can have more elaborate schemes, such as individual boot and home partitions.
If you install Debian in a dual boot configuration, you should install Windows first. Windows will want to install its own bootloader on your hard drive, wiping out any bootloaders that Debian has installed.
If you did this by accident, you can easily restore the boot loader using the installation media.
Installing Debian in a Virtual Machine
One popular option to try locally is to use a virtual machine. Oracle VM VirtualBox is popular for trying out Linux distros because it’s also a free and open source.
Virtual Box provides an easy way to install Debian on your desktop. In this image, the left-hand margin displays 3 virtual machines powering differing operating systems. (Image via WhoIsHostingThis.com)
Installing Using an SSH Server
While VirtualBox is geared toward desktop virtualization, it’s fine for setting up Debian as a test server.
We recommend installing an SSH server because you can paste things in more easily through a terminal window than using the VirtualBox console.
If you install a full desktop system, you can copy and paste between your host and the Debian guest as well.
Your Installation Environment
Whichever method you choose, it’s just a matter of downloading the installation .iso image, copying it to the media you’re using, and booting into the installation environment. You might have to go into your BIOS or setup menu.
This is in order to change the boot order of your machine so your computer will find the installation media.
When the installation media starts, you have a choice between a graphical and a text installer. The graphical installation is easy to use, but the text installer is nearly identical. If you’re installing a server, we recommend this option.
The Debian Installer
There are a variety of Downloadable Install Images available for the latest recommended installer.
If this is your first time installing Debian, it’s best to just accept the defaults. Be careful about repartitioning the hard drive. Even though the installer can resize partitions, it’s possible to lose data, so backup anything important. If you overwrite any partitions, the data on them is gone forever.
You’ll tell Debian what kind of keyboard you have, what your time zone is, and set up your username and password.
Setting Up a Sudo
By default, Debian sets up a separate root account for administrative tasks, but you can also set up sudo. This means that you or a team of admins won’t have to know your root password. Debian automatically sets up sudo when you install a desktop, but you’ll have added yourself to the “sudo” group in order to use it.
You have a wide range of choices available for server software. All of the major server projects are available: Apache, MySQL, MariaDB, PostgreSQL, and so on are all just an apt-get away. If you install a server program in Debian, the system will start it for you and automatically configure it to start at boot time.
My Selected Debian Hosting Providers
Debian is a fantastic, stable distro that’s been around almost as much as Linux has. The popularity of one of its major offshoots, Ubuntu, means that a lot of people in the industry are familiar with the architecture of Debian-based distros.
The bad news is that even though the industry runs on Linux if you really care which distro you want you might have to spring for a dedicated server, a VPS, or a cloud service.
We like A2 Hosting for Debian web hosting. Their entry-level VPS plans start at $5.00 a month, which is a steal for having your own server. The base level gets you 20 gigabytes of storage space and two terabytes of transfers, which is plenty for a small, low-traffic site.
For $6.00Interserver offers a VPS plan starting at 25 gigabytes and one terabyte of transfers per month. Our users rated this host five stars out of five. This provider guarantees an uptime of 99.9%. The downside of a VPS hosting account is that a lot of the uptime depends on what you do on your server. If you misconfigure something that takes your server offline, that’s your fault.
Liquid Web is another company specializing in cloud-based solutions like VPS. The company promises 24/7 “heroic support” for its customers. Debian VPS plans start at $50 per month with 50 gigabytes of storage space and 5,000 gigabytes of transfer.
Points to Remember About Debian Hosting
The official hardware requirements for Debian are listed on its website. However, the page warns that it’s impossible to give server specs since Debian has so many potential uses. It’s best to rely on the guidance of your hosting provider.
Open Source Perks
Everything that comes as part of Debian is a free and open source, so you won’t see additional fees being added to your web hosting bill. However, not all hosts offer a choice of Linux distribution: you’ll often get whatever you’re given, so look specifically for Debian hosting as an option when shopping around.
If you’re looking for a VPS, you’ll have more choice in the type of Linux you can use, so there may be some room for negotiation.
Using the Right Distribution
Some hosting companies run on Debian, but Red Hat/CentOS seems to be more common, owing to its historical use in an enterprise. While hosting companies typically run on Linux, they’re betting most customers won’t care which distro they’re using.
If you really do, you might prefer a VPS or cloud solution where you have maximum control over your environment. Look for uptime guarantees if you want stability.
Debian is also known as the basis for the popular Ubuntu distribution, which strives to make a user-friendly version. A server version of Ubuntu is also available. Both systems are nearly identical under the hood, so if you get comfortable with one, you can work on the other with no problem.
Debian is a mature, Unix-like operating system, which has gone through numerous releases over the past two decades. The OS is still under development and receives regular updates.
Due to long lifetime, frequent updates, and numerous awards, it remains a very popular GNU/Linux distro for servers.
What makes it different from other Linux distros?
Debian has evolved to encompass various software suites and popular utilities, allowing users to install everything in one go, rather than download and add on additional components. Several different versions of Debian are available, which makes it suitable for different niches.
Is Debian free? What about the add-on software packages?
Yes, Debian is free and can be downloaded from various sources on the internet, or via P2P networks. Debian is published under a Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) compliant software license and is free and open-source.
All packages and applications bundled with Debian are free as well.
In case you were wondering, tens of thousands of applications are available through different Debian software packages.
What sort of hardware do I need to use Debian?
There is no simple answer to this question. Debian comes in so many different versions aimed at a myriad of different use-cases that it’s impossible to come up with a straight answer.
Under the hood, Debian is GNU/Linux, so it is very scalable and can run on ancient hardware as well as multiprocessor servers.
Numerous architecture ports are available as well, in case you want to use Debian on specific types of hardware, such as AMD Opteron chips, ARM-based processors, or more exotic platforms like SPARC chips.
Do I need to watch out for something if I want to get a dedicated server for Debian?
There is really not much to think about. Debian should have absolutely no trouble running on the vast majority of currently available dedicated servers. Numerous hosts offer Debian plans and dedicated servers. You should have no trouble installing and running Debian on barebones servers, either.
I am not sure I need a dedicated server right now. What about Debian Virtual Private Server (VPS) plans?
A lot of reputable hosts offer different types of Debian VPS plans. These are usually based on virtualization platforms like VMWare, Xen, Linux-VServer, User-Mode Linux, Virtuozzo, OpenVZ and so on.
Many of these plans are geared towards developers or small businesses, so entry-level pricing tends to be relatively low. Cloud VPS options are available as well.
Are good shared Debian-based plans available?
You should have no trouble finding hosts offering Debian-based shared web hosting plans. Affordable cloud plans are available as well, and they could be an appealing alternative to traditional shared hosting.
Why are there so many different versions of Debian?
There are more than a hundred Debian-based GNU/Linux distributions available.
They are specialized distributions designed for a small and specific groups of users, such as children, visually impaired users, healthcare institutions, schools, universities, and so on.
Debian calls these specialized distributions, “Pure Blends.”
In addition to these, there have been attempts to create operating systems for video workstations or simple media centers.
The Russian Army uses a Debian-based OS with improved security, while Valve uses SteamOS for gaming. Canonical’s Ubuntu, one of the most popular distributions, is also Debian-based.
Does Debian support languages besides English?
The Debian installer is available in more than 70 languages, but the actual level of localization depends on which language you choose. If you are interested in languages like Spanish, French, German, Portuguese or Russian, you should be in the clear.
Is Debian secure?
Debian tries to handle all security issues publicly, so it may seem less secure than it actually is.
Of particular interest is a highly publicized OpenSSL vulnerability that was discovered in 2008. Debian issued a patch, but it was difficult to implement since a lot of keys and certificates had to be regenerated.
But in general, Debian is a secure operating system.
How hard is it to install Debian on my own?
Thanks to Debian’s popularity, well-written and comprehensive documentation and installation guides are available online. You should have no trouble finding the right one for you.
However, if you are inexperienced and if this is your first time installing a server OS, you might seek out some expert expert advice.
Is Debian hosting more expensive than other kinds?
No. Debian uses off-the-shelf technology and since it’s free, there is really nothing to worry about.
What are the downsides to using Debian?
There aren’t too many, at least not from a hosting perspective. Much is just a question of what you value.
For example, Ubuntu is optimized to favor new technology and features. In contrast, Debian tends to lag behind because of its focus on stability.
The biggest downside with Debian is that you have a lot of choices. You need to do a bit of research to determine which version you wish to install — and which packages.
What about Debian support?
Debian.org offers limited support and features loads of useful documentation, guides, and tips. If you want professional support, you will need to find a contractor to provide it.
About David Delony
David Delony is a technology enthusiast based in the Pacific Northwest. He has experience with various web technologies going back to his teen years. David has experience covering technology topics ranging from networking to video games to operating systems.
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Who's Best for Debian Hosting?
We think A2 Hosting is the best choice for Debian.