David Madore's WebLog: Debian is getting on my nerves

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Debian is getting on my nerves

My first Linux distribution (back in '97) was Red Hat. When Red Has was discontinued, I didn't trust Fedora to be a worthy successor (a judgment which I now believe, in retrospect, was probably wrong): so I switched, with some reluctance, to Debian. At first it was a nightmare, but, after a time, I accustomed myself to the Debian way of doing things and I came to see some merit to it: Debian has a number of goodies, such as make-kpkg or debmirror, which I really like and which provide for a very nice overall integration of customized elements in the overall distribution.

But now I am becoming increasingly irritated at some of Debian's major defects and I am seriously contemplating switching to another distribution.

The worst offender is probably Debian's slowness at producing stable distributions. Basically, when using Debian, you have the choice between three releases: stable, testing and unstable. Now stable is hopelessly out-of-date: it works (more or less) and it is regularly maintained as far as security problems go, but the libraries and utilities are so incredibly old that you can't install any recent program on it—you're stuck with the set of programs you start with. I use stable on my computers which absolutely must not break: a router in my parents' house and my Web server (regulus.⁂.net), and even then it causes some problem (I needed Git, for example, and it was nearly impossible to install). The unstable Debian distribution, on the other hand, is bleeding-edge and, consequently, always broken: packages are uploaded to unstable as soon as they are build, essentially without any testing. Not a good idea! So it might seem that testing, which (confusingly) is intermediate between stable and unstable, is a reasonable compromise. Not so! This is what I use on most of my computers, but Debian has a religious rule that packages for the testing distribution can never be build directly for it, they must come from unstable after a certain period of testing in the latter. Sounds reasonable? Actually it isn't: it means that even if there is a serious security vulnerability, the problem cannot be fixed in testing until it has been fixed in unstable, tested there, and all the dependencies for the new package migrated to testing—so testing is a security nightmare. Sometimes, also, packages unexplainably vanish; a week ago, for example, a very serious security problem was found in the (proprietary) nVidia graphics drivers for Unix—now nVidia reacted reasonably fast and corrected the problem within 72 hours, but Debian reacted in its usual stupid way: presently the package has simply disappeared from the testing distribution. This is worse than just bad management! Debian is supposed to have some security maintenance, but it's only for the stable distribution despite an announcement sometime ago that they would do something about testing. The FAQ confirms this massive stupidity.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, however. The basic problem about Debian developers is that they are like religious fanatics: they have incredibly strict rules about everything and they refuse to ignore the rules even when it has utterly stupid consequences (such as removing vital parts of the distribution or of the documentation on the account that it is not free software for some rigid definition of the term which no sensible person gives a shit about). Strict rules can be a good thing in a computer context when it means we can rely on certain invariants, but when taken at a too high level it only causes problems. The Debian legal team, furthermore, is a bunch of sick weirdos who confuse real-life law with a game of Nomic and therefore can't understand that sometimes the only valid solution to a (purely theoretical) legal problem is ignore it. Another consequence of how anal Debian is about legal problems is that there isn't a single multimedia package of any kind in the distribution: you need to get those from another source which, being maintained by a very small team, doesn't benefit from the general Debian infrastructure and has all sorts of problems.

So I wonder what other Linux distribution I could use instead. The best candidate so far seems to be Ubuntu, which seems to benefit from many of Debian's strengths withouth being driven by ayatollahs (in fact, its motto is: Linux for human beings). Gentoo or Fedora might also be worthy of consideration, however.

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