A Gentoo User Gives Debian a Go Around

Posted by hkwint on Dec 10, 2008 7:22 AM EST
LXer Linux News; By Hans Kwint - The Netherlands
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LXer Feature: 10-Dec-2008

A few weeks ago, I installed Debian for the first time on the desktop. Once, a friend and I installed a console-only version on another desktop and we connected remotely to his hosted game server which also ran Debian, so I hoped I should be a bit familiar with it. I have to note however, I have run Gentoo for the past four years, and most of the times it's hard to 'learn' something else. However, I still liked to try and find out for myself if Debian was an easy distribution to use. So, how did I fare?

New experience: legally download a BitTorrent file

First of all, I had to retrieve an image to install Debian. This was not hard, and I was glad Debian has really fast torrent uploading peers. "I don't want this to last an hour, so let's choose the mini-image of less than 50Mb called netinst" I thought; because that was the fastest way to start installing the real thing. I found the image by going to Debian.org, choosing "Getting Debian" in the tabs on the top of the site, and then choosing "BitTorrent" in the second paragraph.

Then I went for the 'Stable release' and chose i386; because most of the time I'm a bit afraid of the AMD64 versions. I didn't bother too much about versions; the version was pre-selected for me and I understood you can update your stable installation to a newer, more unstable version. In a few minutes my image was ready to burn; which went very fast because it was really small and Debian is the only distribution I know providing torrent-downloads which are faster than their FTP-servers. I tested the md5sum I easily found using a search engine and insisted K3B should check my CD after I burnt it to make sure every bit was correct; doing so could save you headaches later on.

The necessary configuration

Then, I experienced some minor frustrations. First of all I chose "English" as my language, after which Debian assumed I lived in an English speaking country. "Bad assumption" I thought. After I found out I could choose 'Another country' I was greeted with a non-alphabetical list ordered by continent. Not very convenient in my opinion; but views may differ. After I chose The Netherlands, the next problem emerged. Now I do have a QWERTY keyboard just like almost everyone, but because the Dvorak layout is more ergonomic that's what I use; normally Linux translates my QWERTY-input to Dvorak keys. I wasn't able to find the Dvorak keyboard layout in Debian's list however, meaning I had to do the rest of the installation using the clumsy QWERTY-layout. A missed opportunity, Gentoo supports Dvorak nowadays so I'm really used to it.

I thought of a way to trick Debian, so I pressed Ctrl+F2. I was glad this worked and I ended up in an old fashioned terminal. Nonetheless, once I found out it was 'sh' this terminal was running, probably busybox, and not Bash, I was slightly frustrated again; no bash means no history and tab completion. But after all, this was a mini-image, so I couldn't really complain; apart from thinking "Gentoo mini-images do provide bash". For some reason I didn't remember the 'loadkeys' command, and of course 'setxkbmap' didn't work; after which I decided to stay with QWERTY.

Blew it

Then, I ended up at the partitioning phase. First, I tested the auto-partitioning feature including LVM, but the choices made were not satisfactory to me. Probably that's because of me and not because of the choices made; because I reserve the first 10G of the disk for Windows most of the time. I tried changing this configuration using fdisk from the console because cfdisk wasn't available - another missed chance. I thought I succeeded, until the Debian installer gave errors and told me I had to reboot to apply these changes. "What the heck, this isn't Windows, is it?" I remember I thought. So I went to the terminal again and tried to find the 'blockdev' command, only to find out it was not there. A 'blockdev -rereadpt' command would probably have solved the issue without the need to reboot.

Again, Gentoo has it, Debian doesn't meaning I had to reboot. Rather sad in my opinion. Yet, after rebooting, my new partition configuration was OK, but Debian only wanted me to use swap. I had some RAM lying around here and there, so I foolishly didn't want to assign nor use swap. Apart from some warnings, I was glad Debian was OK with this. Only later on I would find out software suspend wouldn't work if I didn't use swap, but I was glad Debian told me I could include swap and swsusp later on after installation by means of using dpkg-reconfigure.

Some interesting thing I noted was the Debian installer menu is a 'sequential' menu, and not a nested one like I remember the FreeBSD installer to be. Normally, you don't see this sequential menu because you just go through the steps unless you use the 'back' choice in one of the menus. Looking at this sequential menu, you can figure out how much more steps the installer has to take before all is ready. The 'minor-improvement' part of my brains thouht "Quite nice, and it would be even more nice if there was some sort of counter how much steps were done and how much more were coming. But probably that's kind of hard using ncurses". On the other hand, Debian does deserve bonus-points for offering the option of encrypted LVM, though I didn't use this option.

Hush, what do I hear? Progress bars!

At some point Debian even showed some progress bars; something the Gentoo user is not used to. "Rather great, now at least I know how long I have to drink my tea" I contemplated while watching the bar. I'd say the core utilities and configuration files were installed at this moment; basic stuff every GNU/Linux operating system needs to function. Interesting to note is the system chose an URL to download from itself. As far as I could tell there was no option to select a mirror or find out which mirror was the fastest. Gentoo has this as an extra option while installing, by means of running the mirrorselect script. Again, another missed opportunity.

After that, Debian asked me if they were allowed to receive some anonimized statistics which packages I installed. Normally I'm not to keen to take part in this kind of surveys, but then I noted this was an opt-in system; turned off by default. "Ah, they respect not to bug people" I cheered, and I was so glad it was opt-in that I decided to join this survey. After that, even one more progress bar, this time with an ETA-counter!

I soon would found out that timer came in quite handy because whatever was happening now took a looong time. After that the installer told it was cleaning up. "Hmm, you would only do that if you made a mess' I sarcastically noted. Anyway, it is not a problem if someone makes a mess provided it is cleaned up. Finally the installer asked me if it had to install GRUB to the Master Boot Record, and I answered "Yes". Without any warning, Debian decided to eject my CD. That was quite a wrong decision, because there's some kind of door in front of my CDROM. I was quite glad it was open at that moment so no damage occurred; a warning would have been nice.


Now the good news. Everything worked! Soon, I found out I installed Gnome. "WTF, did I do that?" I asked myself. Normally, I'm not a fan of Gnome, and I completely forgot Debian comes with Gnome, if I ever knew that in fact. "So, where's the start menu?" I asked myself, soon after which the answer came, "Above, fool!". I browsed around a bit, not being used to a start menu in Linux, and noted "at least there's Freecell, so I will never be bored". That's when I wanted to start Firefox - or more correct: IceWeasel, but I couldn't find it. I used Epiphany for some time but I became a bit annoyed; so I decided to install IceWeasel.

I opened a terminal and tried to sudo but I was not in the sudoers file. Something that one has immediately to correct, but sadly I couldn't copy my Gentoo sudoers file, so I added to the sudoers file hoping to enter the right line, which later would prove to be the wrong line. After that, I found out I had to use apt-cache. Now, I'm rather confused by the whole apt-thing. You have apt-get, but by default it does nothing unless given an option, and there's apt-cache. "Why can't this just be one function like 'emerge' which defaults to installing something if invoked without options?" I blamed the apt-makers.

Then, a fine solution came to my mind: Go to HowToForge! Without much delays, I found the "Perfect Debian Desktop" article and started to follow the instructions, leaving away what I didn't want. This all went quite well, and soon I was using Synaptic to do package management; and I even found out IceWeasel was installed by default and was even in my start-menu! Nevertheless, soon I was surprised because Synaptic wanted me to install slapd. Now, I didn't even have any idea what the heck slapd was, so I figured out I made a mistake during package selection. It turned out I did nothing wrong and this was quite usual, and after trying to get rid of slapd as fast as possible I had to set up postfix and SSL certificates. Thinking really hard "Leave me alone, I didn't ask for this!" didn't resolve the issue, so I tried to hit 'Cancel' as much as possible.

Then came a new surprise, Synaptic wanted me to insert the CD again! "Why on earth would that be" I wondered, "I'm connected to Internet; downloading would be much faster. Stupid Windows ways of doing things!". At least it worked, and even GPM worked though I didn't configure it, so I was quite glad. However, soon after that, every time I started a root terminal I received a warning I was granted permissions without asking for authentication. The message box inured my anxious mind this was no error, but I thought it was because I made a fault in my sudoers-file. I took out the line I added, bringing the sudoers file back to its original state, but that didn't resolve the issue: I still could start root terminals without authentication. In normal language: Without giving a password. I couldn't figure out why.

Ignoring some stupid advise

Almost at the end, HowToForge advised me to install Automatix. I'm glad this failed, because I remembered some bad reviews about Automatix in the past. I read some more about it, saw some of its code, and the more I read and saw, the more happy I was I didn't use Automatix. Shortly thereafter, I was adding new installation sources to my /etc/apt/sources.list file to be able to add non-free packages. Now, I was quite happy that part worked, so I became a bit reckless and tried to update to the testing branch.

How far am I?

I found some resources on the Debian site how to update, and it didn't take long before I was copy-pasting commands to update to testing. However, these commands executed really quick, and I wondered if something happened at all. I couldn't find out. I tried to read the apt-output - which was quite new to me - but didn't know how far I was. After that, I became confused. "Which version of Debian am I running right now?" I asked myself. An uname -a revealed the kernel version, and by looking at some tables at Distrowatch I found out I was still running Etch*. After a while it seemed I couldn't reach Lenny, and resorting to trying to update to "unstable" didn't help either. Most of all, I was annoyed at myself not knowing how to find out why the update process failed.

One indication was, the Debian documentation does provide copy and paste console commands, without explaining what does what and most important why you need this certain commands. After all, Gentoo help is better because it does tell you these things. After this failure, I had enough of it and decided to switch my monitor to my Gentoo PC. It provided me with the 'Everything in its right place" feeling again; an indication how 'locked-in' my knowledge was to a single distribution. And worst: I gave up on Debian for a while.

*Please note this is a faulty approach, my kernel could have been updated without 'uname -a' reflecting this because a kernel update would only take effect after rebooting. However, if the kernel would have been updated apt-get would have probably asked me to reboot or if it should update GRUB, and it didn't.


So, what did I reach? I successfully installed Debian, I learned it features Gnome and after all I am able to work with Gnome and Synaptic more than I thought, I learned its quite easy to find documentation and help for Debian and I learned I heave problems understanding Debian versions in combination with the sources-list file and apt-output. I also learned Debian misses some small features which could be added with minor efforts, like Dvorak support, a blockdev-command, maybe bash and that kind of things. Also, I appreciate the ubiquitous Gentoo USE-flags again. Sometimes they are a real annoyance, most of all because their number grows faster than the population of developing countries, but at least they prevent 'stupid things I don't use nor want' like slapd and postfix from being installed. And, most important, I learned I don't need wine to play FreeCell. I'm not sure what's next: I may install Fedora 10 or I may continue using Debian.

Sadly not on this particular computer: It goes to my sister and I promised I would find a legal second-hand XP license and install Windows XP on it. XP has it quirks, but my sister knows them and how to circumvent or live with them. The same goes for Gentoo; and that's why my sister keeps using XP and I keep using Gentoo. The same goes for Debian: you have to know its quirks to work with it on a day to day basis. If you do, I'm sure it provides an equal or better working environment than Gentoo and XP do. But just like with XP and Gentoo, you need some time to become familiar with it. And that's the thing I lack right now, meaning I'm back to Gentoo again until 'adventure' calls again.

» Read more about: Story Type: LXer Features, Reviews; Groups: Debian, Gentoo, GNU, Linux

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