Ubuntu -> Debian ?
February 16, 2009 1:37 PM   Subscribe

As a moderately experienced Ubuntu user, what should I know before giving Debian a try?

I moved to Ubuntu/Linux approximately a year and half ago. Prior to that, I had zero experience with Linux. I also knew absolutely no one using it, so the learning curve was pretty steep for me even with the relatively user-friendliness of Ubuntu. I also tried a few others around that time - OpenSuse, Mint - but came back to Ubuntu because it was the only one I was able to get everything working under.

By now, I consider myself somewhat confident in all daily tasks, and I'm interested to try Debian both for a change, and because I'd like to try building from basics. Simultaneously, this is what makes me nervous - I understand that a fresh Debian install will give me no GUI, and I have to go from there. So basically I'm looking for a tutorial, or the exact steps I'd need to get up and running.

Beyond that, I'm concerned about my wireless working as that was the my biggest problem last year (my wireless chip is Atheros ar5007, and right now I use the madwifi driver). Will setting this up under Debian cause me any extra hardships?

So to sum up, I could basically use advice from anyone with Debian experience. thanks.
posted by mannequito to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Actually, installing Debian is pretty painless. It's come a long way, so it's pretty easy. I just install from the netinst cd. Ubuntu uses the same installer as Debian, just in a GUI. You won't have sudo out of the box, so once installed, su to root and apt-get install gnome-desktop-environment You'll be 90% of the way to Ubuntu with just those lines.

You can install sudo, so you get the Ubuntu experience. apt-get install sudo, then visudo to edit the /etc/sudoers file. You can add yourself to the line just below root's with the same syntax. If you want to use it inside Gnome like Ubuntu does, you can open Gnome configuration tool and set sudo_mode to true inside Nautilus' settings. I'll try to find the exact location and report back.

That will definitely get you started. Why not try that much then post back if you need more assistance?
posted by cdmwebs at 2:24 PM on February 16, 2009

You can certainly install some or all of Gnome, KDE, or the various vanilla X11 window managers from the Debian installer, and have a graphical login prompt come up at boot time. Scratch that worry off your list?

The exact steps you need to get up and running, from the horse's mouth.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 2:37 PM on February 16, 2009

You may experience trouble with wpa under debian, this has some issues relating to proprietary code that ubuntu is OK with distributing, but debian has a stricter set of rules about closed source / patented software. I have machines that can use wpa under ubuntu, but with the same hardware cannot use wpa under debian.
posted by idiopath at 2:48 PM on February 16, 2009

I'm going to chime in and say that your experiment may not be worth doing. Ubuntu and Debian are based on the same basic architecture, same package-management system, etc. The biggest difference is that Debian lags about a year behind, because they value rock-solid stability over cutting-edge stuff.

If you take a Ubuntu base install and a Debian base install, add the same programs (firefox, open office, yadda yadda), you're left with something that has very little functional difference to the end user.

If you're looking to 'build from basics', install a stripped down ubuntu (like server edition) and then add the programs and desktop environments you want selectively.

On a desktop machine it's just not worth going back to a distro that supports less devices and has older, less functional packages in the repos.
posted by chrisamiller at 3:11 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: hmm, interesting, but wpa won't affect me in my current situation.

idiopath, since you've tried both on the same machine, is there a difference in speed, particularly boot time? That was one of the main motivating factors in wanting to try out Debian.
posted by mannequito at 3:13 PM on February 16, 2009

Why not fire up debian in a virtual machine before wiping your ubuntu install? You can play with different packages, different window managers, etc. Sun's Virtualbox is free. There's even a .deb package for it.

I have a couple debian and xubuntu servers at work. Honestly, I dont see much of a difference. Ubuntu is debian with some tweaks. If you want faster boot times then try something like xubuntu, which is really just a stripped down ubuntu. Its the big windows manager (gnome, kde) that cause the laginess, not the distro itself. Xubuntu runs the xfce window manager, which is surprisingly light. Logged in with all the bells and whistles running it uses less than 180 megs of ram. With x just displaying the login screen it uses 80-90megs of ram.

IIRC, the last time I installed debian it wasnt command line only. There was a graphical installer that installed gnome for me and then booted into gnome. I dont think I touched sudo or startx or init.d or anything. The modern debian installer is not the debian of legend. If you want a challenge you can play with gentoo, slackware, or damn small linux. Again, you can do all these things in virtualbox.

I cant comment on wireless, but Virtualbox should answer that.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:45 PM on February 16, 2009

Seconding that this isn't worth trying, unless you want to just try out as many distros as possible for the heck of it. Ubuntu's philosophy is to provide a smooth, well-integrated, easy "it just works" experience, primarily for desktop users although they also have a server product. They accomplish this goal better than any other distro in my opinion, and I've been using Linux on desktops since '96 or so. Debian's philosophy is stability, stability, stability, and "if it ain't broke don't update it", to provide a stable and secure platform for servers, although people also run it on desktops. They accomplish this goal very well, and Debian is my preferred Linux distro for servers, but this comes at a price. As already mentioned, the stable version of Debian uses packages that can be a year or more old, as that particular version of that particular software has been judged to be stable. You're not going to get the latest and greatest with Debian stable. You could run unstable or testing, but you will run into problems with something. They aren't called that for no reason.

TL;DR version: Ubuntu is geared towards a smooth desktop experience, Debian is geared towards a stable and secure server experience. If you're going to run Linux on the desktop, there's really no reason to run anything other than Ubuntu.

As far as boot time, pretty much all Linux distros are going to be about the same, maybe varying by 10 seconds give or take, on the same hardware. Switching to vanilla Debian will give you no advantage in this area.
posted by DecemberBoy at 3:57 PM on February 16, 2009

Honestly, I dont see much of a difference. Ubuntu is debian with some tweaks.

It really is a lot more than Debian with some tweaks. Practically every package is patched for a new feature, tested, released, patched for a security update, tested some more, released again, etc. Almost nothing is vanilla. There's like 6 or 7 people that maintain the kernel alone. Updates come out every single day, every remotely theoretical security hole found in anything is patched by the next day at the latest.
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:02 PM on February 16, 2009

I run Debian testing at home and at work. I always install from the NetCD installation and apt-get the xorg stuff right off the bat. Very easy, not particularly illuminating in my opinion. I do it that way because I have a crappy computer at home and I don't want to fill it up with random cruft.

I use Debian testing because I don't want to deal with ancient web-browsers, etc. In fact, I've put some unstable packages on too, because sometimes even testing is really out of date. Sometimes packages in testing and/or unstable break. Sometimes packages on Ubuntu break too, but it seems like less. Plus, whenever I go looking on the web to get help for a problem, I'm always finding help for Ubuntu (usually but not always useful for Debian).

I'm thinking of switching to Kubuntu (I like KDE) to get a little more of the new packages that "just work". So far, I've been too lazy to really switch. I installed Kubuntu on a virtual machine in KVM though. If you want to have some fun without as much hassle, you could probably install Debian under KVM in Ubuntu. It could give you a dry run without the hassle. Something goes wrong, you can minimize the KVM window and go on the internet to look up what to do. I guess KVM can be a bit of a hassle itself, but then at least you've learned how to use KVM (I'm willing to help if you like) which is potentially useful.

Debian is not going to be any faster than Ubuntu.
posted by Humanzee at 6:23 PM on February 16, 2009

I made the opposite transition when Ubuntu first came out. Mainly on a lark, to see if these guys were blowing smoke or not. Ubuntu does bring a lot to the table. They moved aggressively to smooth the desktop experience and probably burnt out a developer or two in the process. Much of that work is now in Debian, via the nature of open source.

At this point, Ubuntu really is Debian with some tweaks. Yes, the kernel team has a lot of members, comparatively, but it's a very large and important package. When you consider the armies that Redhat and Novell employ to work on the kernel, its suddenly very tiny. In contrast, with Debian you're almost expected to build your own kernel. But for all this effort, most of the packages come through with only a few tweaks to the packaging header and a rebuild against Ubuntu libraries.

But it might be worth trying out Debian to see how the "other side" lives. Pay close attention to the website, bug tracker and community. They have a very democratic system that sometimes works against itself. Their release system is generally slow as molasses and many people run the "unstable" rolling release as a result. Which has advantages and disadvantages.
posted by pwnguin at 8:15 PM on February 16, 2009

If you want to compare boot speed, do yourself a favor and install bootchart on Ubuntu and time your results. Human impressions are fallible and prone to confirmation bias, whereas the bootcharts can helpfully diagnose problems in either Debian or Ubuntu boot.

Ext4 is very helpful on startup; it dramatically increases readahead throughput and cut my laptop boot from 45 to 20 seconds. Online defrag tools should further help this.
posted by pwnguin at 8:21 PM on February 16, 2009

If I re-read your question correctly, you want to install Debian to learn more about how the system works overall, yes?

I'm not sure why everyone else is trying to talk you out of trying Debian. It's stable branch is rock solid and, yes, behind the newer stuff. I always run Debian testing on my personal desktops, laptops and VMs. Unstable is fun and exciting, but not usually very reliable. I moved from Debian to Ubuntu for a while, and then decided that I didn't need the easy setup stuff most of the time. I knew what drivers I needed or I knew where to go to figure it out (hint: http://www.google.com).

If you want to learn more about it, go for it! There's no better way! When you are proficient in Debian, then you can attempt Gentoo ;)
posted by cdmwebs at 8:25 PM on February 16, 2009

Want to try gentoo? Just install apt-gentoo instead:

apt-gentoo enhances the Debian package installation experience to make it fully competitive with newly-popular source-based distributions. As packages are installed, apt-gentoo automatically downloads their build logs from the build network. The logs are then slowly scrolled past on the user's terminal to simulate building the software on the local machine. apt-gentoo optionally, and by default, gives increased realism by spinning the CPU in a tight loop between build log lines, and writing large files to disk.

An additional utility apt-gentoo-benchmark is included to tune the delay loops for your hardware by finding the length of time taken by typical compiler and linker runs. (On slow or low-memory hardware we recommend leaving these values at their defaults.)

posted by chrisamiller at 9:00 PM on February 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ubuntu is Debian with tweaks. Whereas the Ubuntu user above is impressed that updates come out every single day...

...those updates usually start in the Debian core, trickle to Ubuntu really quickly, are retested there, and re-released as part of Ubuntu. Debian is pretty much rock-solid stable, and has been for years, which is why they built Ubuntu onto it.

If you really want to get your hands dirty, leave a little space on the drive unpartitioned, and some day, come back and install Gentoo onto it. Gentoo requires you know a little bit more about what's going on under the sheets, and is really useful for getting to know more about linux itself.
posted by talldean at 9:02 PM on February 16, 2009

I've used both. I wouldn't expect a boot speed difference you could notice between a full Gnome desktop on Debian or a full Gnome desktop on Ubuntu. (If you want to see a noticeable difference, ditch the full-blown desktop in either.)

I'll echo the sentiment that, without knowing and caring about some specific difference, this isn't really worth doing (unless you just feel like doing it for its own sake.)

I'm an Ubuntu user, but it's by a thin margin -- most of what I like best in Ubuntu is what it inherits from Debian.
posted by Zed at 12:35 PM on February 17, 2009

« Older London Calling   |   Is it okay to sever a new lease within a certain... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.