Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Distrohopping to Debian

Well, after about two months of waffling, I finally went ahead yesterday and installed Debian (short ‘e’ as in ‘bed’ if you're curious) on my desktop like I've been meaning to. And it wasn't even all that difficult, actually!

When I first decided to switch to using Linux as my main operating system over two years ago, I took a look at the dizzying number of distros out there, and…

…actually, let's back up and establish some terminology first. “Linux” isn't an operating system like Windows or Mac OS, per se. It's the name of a kernel—the central core of an operating system, that loads first and handles all the interactions between all of the programs and the hardware. Linux is often used however as a metonym (technically, a synecdoche) for the many different operating systems built on top of the Linux kernel. These usually go by the name distributions, or distros for short. Some popular ones are Linux Mint, Debian, Ubuntu, openSUSE, Fedora, and Manjaro (taken from http://distrowatch.com/). What distinguishes one distro from another could be anything—large things like what kind of packaging system they use (so that software packages created for one distro won't work on another) to cosmetic things like what desktop manager they use (many distros allow you a choice of several) to a million and one little variables that can be tweaked such as the default programs included. There are literally hundreds of distros out there, though the vast majority of them are based on just a handful of main distributions (since it's a lot easier [relatively speaking] to create a new distro by modifying an existing one than it is to create one from scratch). Anyway, back to what I was saying…

When I first decided to switch to using Linux as my main operating system over two years ago, I took a look at the dizzying number of distros out there, and decided to go with Linux Mint Debian Edition, or LMDE. Let's unpack that a bit:

  • Linux Mint (by itself) is a very popular distribution made to be easy-to-use out of the box and good for Linux newcomers. It's based on…
    • Ubuntu, long and widely considered the most popular distribution partly due to a similar reputation, which is itself based on…
      • Debian, one of the oldest distributions, dating all the way back to 1993 and the distribution with the largest number of distros based upon it.
Anyway, as you can see, Linux Mint is basically two steps removed from its original base. A few years ago a new distro called Linux Mint Debian Edition was introduced, based directly on Debian and cutting out the middleman of Ubuntu so to speak. I liked the idea of keeping things simple, and since I was still a relative newcomer to Linux I decided to stick with a distribution with a reputation for user-friendliness.

Fast forward to today, and with a few more years' experience with Linux under my belt I decided to once again ‘cut out the middle man’ and switch directly to Debian itself. I'm no power user, but I know my way around a command line interface well enough, and I feel there's a benefit to using a more widely-used distribution (LMDE was, unfortunately, always kind of a side project to the main Linux Mint version).

Debian apparently used to have a reputation for being difficult to install, but I found the whole installation process for Debian 8.4 “Jessie” pretty simple, even with my setup having root and home installed on different partitions. (Which allowed me to keep all my user data when switching; very convenient!) I had a few wrinkles along the way, to be sure; I've got a separate hard drive for storing all my big files that don't need to take up space on my SSD like photos and music, and had forgotten how my more Linux-experienced friend Graham had mounted and linked it when we first set up my computer (the drive was actually auto-mounted and I could access it, just not the way my shortcuts were set up to expect). Thankfully, Graham was able to swing by after work and get it sorted, and with my current level of experience I think I could duplicate it in the future if necessary. There've been a few more small issues but so far I've been able to solve them all, and it looks like everything is working.

Oh, and to explain the title, it's a tongue-in-cheek reference to “distrohopping,” the practice of trying out lots of different Linux distros, sometimes without any sort of “main” distribution. Obviously, trying a second distro in as many years doesn't exactly qualify. A hui hou!


  1. I can't say I understood a lot, but I found this fascinating! One question - where did "Jessie" come from?

    1. Toy Story, actually! Traditionally all the major releases have been named after characters from the various Toy Story movies. So far there's been Buzz, Rex, Bo, Hamm, Slink, Potato, Woody, Sarge, Etch, Lenny, Squeeze, Wheezy, and Jessie. The next release (version 9) will be Stretch. The “unstable” release, where new packages get uploaded constantly, is permanently named Sid after the toy-breaking kid from the first movie. :)
      Glad you found it interesting!


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