The rise of Debian technology

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 25, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Out of 285 active distributions on Distrowatch, 132 are based on Debian and 67 on Ubuntu. This predominance is not only unrivalled in a field as diverse as Linux distros, but has been true now for several years. I've cited it several times, but until now, I haven't addressed the question this observation also raises: how did this state of affairs come about?

It wasn't always true. When I first dipped into free software in the late 1990s, Red Hat was the dominant distribution, largely because it was more polished and better documented than any of its rivals. When projects bothered with packaging development builds, they made .rpms -- to the intense annoyance of Debian novices like myself.

Somewhere in the last fifteen years, though, the situation changed. As Red Hat focused on its professional version, its community version lost much of its dominance.

At the same time, Ubuntu, the most famous Debian derivative, set up shop with an emphasis on user-friendliness. For a while -- and possibly still -- Ubuntu became the distro most often recommended to new users.

By 2005, many Debian loyalists worried that Ubuntu would replace Debian in the not-too-distant future. Since Ubuntu was hiring the cream of Debian developers, this worry seemed to have some foundation, even though many of those hired continued to maintain Debian packages as well.

Yet obviously, that never happened. Eclipsed by Ubuntu and its eccentric millionaire founder, Debian did slip in popularity by all indications, but nowhere near as much as anyone expected. Instead, Debian reinvented itself as an upstream supplier for other distributions, adding the Debian Derivatives Census to the project site to keep track of the dependent distros and showing an unexpected ability to adapt.

The result was a combination that neither Ubuntu nor Debian was ever likely to achieve on its own. On the one hand, when Ubuntu described itself as "Linux for Human Beings," it was making a claim that, had Debian made it, would have publicly ridiculed, thanks to the reputation that Debian had built for itself as a distribution for experts.

On the other hand, contrary to its claims, Ubuntu never sounded altogether convincing when claiming technical excellence. Examples to the contrary were regular enough to rob such claims of credibility. Concerned about deadlines and eventual profitability, Ubuntu simply has never had the time for technical matters that Debian with its flexibility about deadlines has always had. Users might find problems in Debian's Unstable and Testing repositories, but the names alone were a warning.

By 2007, if not earlier, Debian's and Ubuntu's reputations were complementary. Each did well what the other did not, and the same technology underlay both. In the end, it is impossible to say that one pulled the other along. Instead, entirely by accident, each encouraged the popularity of the other, even while the relationship between the two distributions went through ups and downs.

The technical appeal
Debian in particular was well-suited for the new role it has assumed. To start with, although Debian has an often-deserved reputation for rudeness, it also has a reputation for democracy within the project, and a loyalty to free software. Although Debian listened to the Free Software Foundation, the project has not always accepted the Foundation's declarations -- at least not without considerable discussion first. In fact, at times, Debian has almost seemed like an alternative authority to the FSF on matters concerning free software, coming, for example, to  conclusions about the GNU Free Documentation License that were stricter than the FSF's.

However, the technical structure is even more important to Debian's current position. With close to fifty thousand packages, Debian may be the largest distribution ever. You may not find every possible application in Debian, but on the whole the odds are better than in another distribution. If you are doing a derivative, it only makes sense to draw upon the largest set of repositories. This chain of logic, I suspect, has been followed again and again as new distros have been created.

Yet probably the largest reason for relying on Debian or Ubuntu is its package management system.

From a user's perspective, nothing is wrong with Red Hat's Yum or Mandriva's Urpmi; in fact both have features that Debian's apt-get and dpkg do not. However, Debian's package management system is older, more thoroughly tested, and noticeably quicker than Yum in its default behavior. It also has a rich ecosystem of utilities to supplement it.

Moreover, unlike Yum, Debian's APIs do not require programmers to read the source code to understand what they are doing -- a fault that is one of the main reasons for plans to replace Yum with DNF in the near future. Debian's package management may be unorganized, and could even stand for some rewriting, but the point not that it works flawlessly -- just that inmany ways it is easier to work with than Yum.

How long Debian technology will continue to dominate is anyone's guess. Near monopolies in technology have vanished quickly before now, and there is no reason to think that Debian technology is immune to eventual obsolescence. Yet for now, all of us who use Linux are living in a Debian-dominated world, and any change is probably still a few years away. For now, Debian and Ubuntu presented a united front that is becoming increasingly harder to ignore.

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