Debian and alternatives, what to keep and use and what to lose

This is just me and my thoughts about the distros I live with. It’s 3:30 am and I can’t sleep so I’m passing the time.

I got rid of Windows off all my personal computers in 2003, I had been using Linux since the turn of the millenium (certainly before SuSE was OpenSUSE). I remember RPM Hell as a real thing and my anti-RPM bias has never quite gone away. So, most of the time I’ve been a user of Debian based distros, probably Ubuntu for the longest. However, Ubuntu 17.10 trashed the BIOS of my newish i7 Thinkpad and I’ve wandered away from Ubuntu and Ubuntu based distros (again, probably an irrational bias).

I stuck with Debian based distros because, well, it was what I knew and was comfortable with. I will say Debian itself was getting better at the install process, but I was trying different distros when I stumbled over MX Linux - and I REALLY liked it. Partly because it shared a (maybe tenuous) history with my long ago favourite Simply Mepis, maybe not. But it really clicked for me.

When I compared MX-17 with Debian 9 (Jessie?), it was no contest, it was Debian polished and made for everyone to use. MX-19, based on Buster (Debian 10) is still my distro of choice.

While I was happy with MX-17 I decided to have a look at the then Testing branch of Debian (Buster) and liked what I was seeing and kept it about and was pleasantly surprised, despite what people said, that Debian Testing never gave problems, didn’t break and eagerly awaited for it’s release and MX adopting it. I haven’t been disappointed.

Moving on, when Buster became the new stable Debian I decided to monitor the new Debian Testing (Bullseye), I also found SparkyLinux 6 which is based on Bullseye (sort of the MX to to Debian Bullseye). I have to say Debian Bullseye is working very well for me and Sparky 6 is excellent, however it’s NOT really the MX to Bullseye for me.

I would take MX-19 over Debian 10 because of the extra effort and polish and utils that MX adds. Sparky does add a few extras and utils but not as many and not as much polish, it’s much closer to the stock Debian Bullseye, so that I prefer to stick with the Debian original. I’m not saying Sparky 6 is bad, it’s not, it just doesn’t add enough extra, for me personally, to be taking up partitions on my machines. To that end, when I need somewhere to install a new distro to try, it’s the Sparky 6 partitions that go, not the Debian Bullseye ones.

What has been replacing the Sparky 6s? Well, I’m enjoying the Arch based distros, not stock Arch, I can’t be bothered, but ArcoLinux, Manjaro and EndeavourOS have all found their way onto machines. I’m getting to grips with pacman (god awful systax for noobs) and pamac. The AUR and yay still make me a little nervous, and minor… interesting occurrences?.. are more frequent that I would expect from any .deb based distro, but hey, it’s just for fun.

I would not choose to install either Arco or Endeavour in an office setting, and Manjaro only is that office had a decent tech support, I’d personally br happy to use them on my machines if that was all that was available and I’m enjoying playing with all 3.

However, MX-19 is still tops for me. My hardware is NOT bleeding edge, the versions of the software packages available from the repos do what I want and need. If MX disappeared, I would switch to Debian Bullseye, a little newer, but so far, for me on my kit, stable and has what I need to do what I want to do. Your milage may vary.

Yes, I have tried other distros, OpenSuse (Tumbleweed - I still hate YAST), Fedora (29, 30, 31), OpenMandriva, Mageia(?), Bohdi, Peppermint, Mint, LinuxLite, SolydXK, Xubuntu, Devuan, Parrot and ever a couple of BSD. No, none of them stuck, none of them seemed to fit me, none seemed to offer any advantages ove what I know works for me.

I’m not stopping looking at other stuff, but it has some serious competition to beat for me.

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I just can’t seem to get on board with Debian on the desktop. I’ve used it for servers in the past and it was great in that setting. I find myself needing to do too many things to work around Debian’s nature. It’s totally a personal thing and it has no reflection on Debian itself.

I typically run Ubuntu (easy) and Arch (flexible) based distros. The AUR isn’t bad, I’ve had very few negative experiences and all of them because of things not being maintained. The blessing and curse of a rolling distro is needing to be up to date so dependencies don’t become an issue. If I use something from the AUR I always go and read the page to see if it is (reasonably) up to date and others are using it. If you use DuckDuckGo this is particularly easy with their !aur bang (type !aur [package name] and it takes you straight to the search results).

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I didn’t know about the ! (bang) option, I do use DuckDuckGo as my default search engine so I’ll give it a go.

I’ve never had problems with Debian, but I’ve always gone with the unofficial non-free and firmware .iso images. I also have recently stuck with the Xfce desktop, and my daily needs are relatively simple. Horses for courses I guess and Debian is one of my horses.

I am enjoying using the Arch based distros, but I have had those interesting occurrences, all fixable so far. I don’t dabble with the AUR very much, I haven’t needed to for my daily use.

I do keep promising myself to give Fedora another, longer, try. What I have tried worked well (pretty much all the big distros work well in use once installed), I think it’s those traumatic “RPH Hell” experiences and the lack of timely therapy that holds me back.

I apologise to Nate but I just can’t be doing with OpenSUSE, I understand it’s solid and reliable and all that but it just doesn’t work for me.

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That’s a good point about the non-standard Debian images. If only they were easier to find on the site maybe more people would use them. :thinking:

Where I tend to need the AUR is for things like Cinnamon for example. I want to have the same login screen and setting as Mint and those aren’t in the default repos. There really isn’t an alternative to getting them from the AUR like there would be with a more common desktop application that’s available as a flatpak or something else. The AUR is pretty fantastic but I think in some ways, certainly for more mainstream software, it’s less necessary than it used to be.

I too have had my issues with openSUSE, particularly on my laptop. It does run very well on my desktop however and it has some very interesting advantages in the way it handles snapshots for updates and the file system. Their Open Build System is in some ways analogous to the AUR in that lots of software that isn’t available in the standard repos is available there. I like to see different approaches to what a Linux distro should be.

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I ran Debian Stable exclusively for several years straight after getting burned out on Gentoo. I opted for Debian instead of Ubuntu because I preferred its less opinionated defaults, “uncrashable” reputation, and, if I’m honest, because I was an insecure kid who felt like returning to Ubuntu would signify that I was still a noob. :no_mouth: I didn’t hop again until I got into gaming and discovered that stable distros don’t always work so well for that.

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@TerryL thanks for bringing this topic up. Recently, I have been looking for a distro to build up a very basic desktop and learning server to learn server administration. I would like to have a basic desktop running a Window Manager like Fluxbox or perhaps even a tilling window manager since the box is an old laptop which has a screen and keyboard on it. I could just do my configuration and testing directly on the learning server instead of connecting to it by ssh from my desktop computer on the network.

On my home desktop I’m loving Fedora 32 Workstation, simply because it has a nice stable base with fresh app packages. Wine is close to the latest, so I can run my Win32 Bible software well on it. Also I get to see a lot of the newest features in some of my favorite software, and newer apps are often available as well.

So why not just install Fedora 32 server and a WM and call it done? Well, I have struggled with Fedora’s server tech, especially when I try to combine Docker Containers with SELinux. One of the primary uses of our home server is to be the main trunk for Syncthing against which all the other computers in the house or work sync to or from. Fedora uses Podman which makes some of the Docker Container documentation out of date, and there is not a ton of documentation out there that spells out getting SELinux to play well with Containers. So my adventure into containers on servers has not gone well on my testing Fedora server that I set up.

Another strike against Fedora for learning server admin is the fact that I would like to transfer the knowledge I learn to running servers and server apps on the multitude of Raspberry Pi’s that we have in the house, so that our “home lab” could be as low powered as possible. Fedora and Raspberry Pi’s don’t get along very well at the moment, especially some of the older Pi’s I have only 32bit Raspberry Pi OS works reliably on those or DietPi which is based on 32bit Raspberry Pi OS. On newer Pi’s Debian based distros or Ubuntu based seem to have the best support at the moment.

This led me to think perhaps the best “learning server” distro would be to do Debian based since the knowledge should transfer easily to Rasbian or Debian ARM or Ubuntu Server. Currently, our home server runs Freedombox (Debian Stable based) which is awesome if you want to run something from the Debian repos. It is not so great if you want to try running Next Cloud or Gitea or other server based projects that need the latest version of NodeJS or some other tool which brings me back to containers probably.

I thought about Sparky Rolling because that is pretty close to Debian, but might at least give wifi drivers needed for the laptop or easy ways to get other non-free stuff installed instead of having to work those things out in stock Debian. @TerryL I’m kind of curious to hear if you tried out Sparky’s tool to install WM Desktops, that seems to be a feature add that might simplify some things for my learning server install.

I do kind of wonder in the world of servers. I’m not an Arch user, but if you want to try some of these modern web apps in a homelab, self-hosted environment you seem to need to add extra layers of complexity in order to run these apps on a distro like Debian or Ubuntu. On Arch you would have all of the latest packages, so you wouldn’t need to run anything in a container and between the AUR and their standard repos you would probably have access to all of the dependencies you would need to run them. I guess on Ubuntu for some of them you would have the added complexity of using a Snap to install them, but that seems easier than running Docker Containers.

This thread really struck a cord with me, thanks for the thoughts.

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@mowest, your story is quite interesting to me. Thank you for sharing. Although I have many years experience as a sysadmin, I am actually going through a similar search and transition at the moment. Perhaps where I am (tentatively) landing might be somewhat helpful.

In a story almost identical to @TerryL 's above, I pretty much switched to Linux full time at the very beginning of the 2000s. I still keep up with Windows and Mac because I manage Windows machines at work and family/friend tech support on the Macs. :roll_eyes:

For many years, I pretty much stuck with straight Debian both on the server and on the desktop. As the disparity in hardware support got wider between Debian and Ubuntu I slowly gravitated more towards Ubuntu on the desktop (though frequently trying out a multitude of others, including going back to straight Debian again and again). On the server, I’ve mostly stayed with Debian. Since everything is virtualized the hardware support there tends to make little difference.

I really think I’ve found a home with Ubuntu 20.04 and I am slowly migrating everything I do onto that platform. It has completely changed my workflow and I am loving it. Let me attempt to make a case…

I know you mentioned not wanting to necessarily deal with the complexity of Docker containers and I agree. Take a look at LXD though. It is, hands down, the easiest containerized workflow I have ever learned. 20 minutes in the official Ubuntu Server documentation was all I needed to get some things working and start my journey. I am no expert yet but it’s just so easy to get started and get productive things working it is amazing.

Why LXD instead of just plain snaps? A few reasons.

  • It keeps your base system stable and pristine.
  • SO much easier to deal with software compatibility issues. For instance, my base system is on 20.04 but I might be testing out something that is still only supported on 18.04 or even 16.04. No problem! You just spin up an 18.04 container and you’re ready to go!
  • snaps are fully supported in LXD containers and they are a very simple way to install software and keep it updated.
  • You can even run other distros in LXDs system containers and they work great. Need to test something and the only instructions you can find are for Suse? CentOS? Fedora? No problem. Spin up a container with any of them (and many others) in seconds.
  • It’s really beautiful when you want to try spinning up the same software but try several different configs (or maybe it takes several tries to “get it right” ). Once you have the base image downloaded, even on my older core i5 laptop it takes a few seconds to spin up fully functional containers.
  • system containers are MUCH more familiar to the average linux user than Docker and the learning curve is so much shallower. They are real containers, with all of the hardware advantages that entails in terms of density, load, and how quickly you can set them up and tear them down. They function much more like VMs than containers. They “feel” like a very fast VM.
  • Ubuntu/LXD’s support for ZFS is game-changing and so easy to work with.

Lastly, you mention platforms. One of the other deciding factors for me is that I am really trying to simplify my setups. The fact that Ubuntu runs on everything (I need at least) now means I can essentially run one platform across the board for everything I do. AWS instances, my own servers at home and at work, my workstations, Raspberry Pi’s, whatever. They can all run it. I’m even planning to put it on an IBM Power I will be not-so-retiring from work soon.

Anyway, sorry this went a little long. I realize I am basically proselytizing Ubuntu here but I don’t care. I am pretty excited about it at the moment. No shade to the other distros out there. Ubuntu is just working well for me right now, better than anything I’ve used in my long history with Linux.

Good luck! I hope you find the perfect fit for you, whatever that may be!

-John

@John.Andersen you don’t have to feel bad proselytizing for Ubuntu. I love Ubuntu on the desktop, and I will definitely consider it for this learning project. Thanks for mentioning LXD. Since I know so little about server tech and containers, I didn’t know about this, but it sounds like a route where I would be able to find that available documentation to get things up and running.

Honestly, if I could find a way to make a meaningful contribution to Ubuntu or one of the Ubuntu flavors I would probably run Ubuntu on everything except the really old RPi’s that I have. Fedora uses some technologies that I enjoy for writing and contributing to their documentation (i.e. Asciidoc), so that is one of the main reasons that I’m running it at home. I would like to give back to one of the Linux communities that keeps me excited about using Linux and other open source technologies. Before the world got turned upside down back in March, I had been on that road to giving back, and I hope to get back to that soon.

Thank you for your story, and sharing your experience. Your post is another reason I have enjoyed the BDL community so much in the last couple of years.

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Here is the link I should have posted in my novel. :slight_smile:

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If I were managing mission-critical systems for an enterprise, I would absolutely consider something like Debian Stable or Red Hat. All the extra things I was referring to are things that you’d need for audio and video production, gaming and the like. Makes sense that you’d hop once you got to that point.