Hands on with Debian GNU/Linux 8.3

I'm using this Debian release update as an opportunity to look at the available distribution formats and installation procedures.

The latest point-release update of Debian GNU/Linux (8.3) came out last week, so I decided to take this opportunity to review what distribution media are available, and how/where they can/can't be installed.

As a starting point, let me make clear that what I am going to be talking about here is the Debian stable distribution, currently '8' or 'jessie', not the testing distribution.

Also, this is a point release, which means that it is not a big deal, if you already have Debian GNU/Linux 8 (jessie) installed, there is no need to reinstall, just make sure that you get the latest updates from the Debian repositories. If you want to be sure, check the text file /etc/debian_version.

The primary purpose of this release is to update the ISO distribution images so that they include the latest updates, especially security updates. There are quite a few different distribution options, so making a Debian point release actually involves building a lot of different images.

The most obvious installation image is available directly from a button on the Debian home page:

debian.png

What this link actually downloads is the "Multi-Arch" amd64/i386 network installer ISO image. Whew, that's a mouthful! It is just under 600MB in size, so it will fit on a CD, if that matters to you. It is a hybrid image, which means that you can also dump it directly to a USB stick. The ISO file is about 500MB in size. It is UEFI firmware compatible, although not UEFI Secure Boot.

The only "drawback" to this image (as the name implies) is that it is a network installation image - you have to have a working internet connection to install it. If you want/need to make an offline installation, check the media list below.

All other Debian installation images are available from their Getting Debian page. Be prepared when you go there, because there are a lot of them!

  • DVD: This is the "Big Kahuna" of Debian installers, from this you can make a complete installation with the desktop of your choice without an Internet connection. In fact, it is not just one image, it is three full DVD images, although you only need the first to boot and install, the other two serve as offline repositories. This image is MBR and UEFI firmware compatible (but not UEFI Secure Boot).
  • Network: This is essentially the same as the multi-arch image on the home page banner, but there is a separate image here for every supported architecture - amd64, i386, ARM, PowerPC, MIPS and IBM s390x. The amd64 and i386 images are each about half the size of the multi-arch image (makes sense). These images are MBR and UEFI compatible (but not UEFI Secure Boot).
  • Tiny: This is an absolute minimum image, only about 30MB. All it will do is boot and load the Debian installer, everything after that has to be downloaded so you have to have an Internet connection to use it (preferably a pretty fast one). It is important to note that this image is not UEFI compatible.
  • Live: This is the only image which you can actually boot and run Debian GNU/Linux from the distribution media - the others will only run the installer. So you can use this one to see if you like Debian, to see if it supports your hardware, to try different desktops, and so on, without actually changing your disk drive at all. There are different images for each of the supported desktops - Gnome 3, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Cinnamon and MATE. Each of these images is a bit over 1GB, so unfortunately they will not fit on a CD. There is also a "standard" live image which has only a CLI interface (no GUI desktop), and is only a bit over 400MB, so it will fit on a CD if you are desperate for that. There are only Live images for the amd64 and i386 architectures. As with the tiny image, unfortunately, the Live images are not UEFI compatible.

The Debian installer comes in three versions: text-only, graphical and speech synthesis. The graphical version is slightly more visually pleasing, and you can use the mouse to make selections, but the content and function of the two versions are identical. I haven't tried the speech synthesis installation, but I would love to hear from someone who has tried it.

The "Multi-Arch" image has two sets of boot options, for 32-bit and 64-bit installation.

The following screen shots were made on an Acer Aspire V5, which has UEFI firmware. The BIOS configuration has been set to Secure Boot Disabled, in order to boot and install Debian 8.3

Language

The first step is to choose the language. The language selected here will be used for the installation dialog, and as the default language of the installed system.

Locale

The next screen selects the Locale for the installed system. The initial list of locales offered is based on the language selected in the previous screen - in this case, it is a list of locales which are likely to have English as their language. Note that Switzerland is not one of these... too bad for me.

Keyboard

Keyboard selection. At this point I have the installer rather confused, because I have told it to use English and that I am in Swtizerland. It makes what is probably the logical choice and offers a U.S. keyboard, so I have to change it to Swiss German.

Network Interface

Network Interface selection. The installer will list all of the interfaces that it has been able to find and support, and if one interface is connected and configured it will be highlighted as the default selection. As this is a net installer, the interface selected here will be used to download the packages needed for the installation, so it had better work - otherwise you aren't going to get much further.

Hostname

The next two screens set the hostname and network domain.

netcfggetdomain0.png

The default values will be nonsense, so if these are significant to you for your network setup, be sure to change them to the correct values.

passwdroot-password0.png

The root password has to be entered and verified. The Debian installer explains the importance of a good root password, and gives some suggestions about what constitutes a good password. Unlike some distributions, however, it does not attempt to enforce any minimum standards for passwords.

Also interesting to note here is that if you prefer the Ubuntu-style "no root login / use sudo" philosophy, all you have to do is leave the root password empty, and the installer will configure the system that way by disabling root login and adding the user account created below to the sudoers file.

Perhaps less well known is the other side of the deal. If you don't leave the root password empty, the Debian installer doesn't even install the sudo package.

passwduser-fullname0.png

The next three screens get the information to set up a user account, starting with the full name of the user.

passwdusername0.png

The default login name will be taken from the first word of the user's full name. The login name should start with a lower case letter, for historical reasons. A very long time ago we used to use teletype terminals, and the earliest of those did not have lower case characters. So when you logged in if the first character you typed was upper case, it was assumed that you were using such a terminal, and from then on everything you typed was converted to lower case.

passwduser-password0.png

The user account password gets the same suggestions about password quality as the root account did. It is also not quality-checked. If you feel an irresistible compulsion to make your password 123456, well, ok, go ahead.

partman-autoinitautomaticallypartition0.png

The next few screens are for disk partition management. The first screen gives you the opportunity to accept automatic or guided partitioning. If you are making a simple installation of either Debian GNU/Linux as the only operating system, or there is already another operating system installed and Debian should be installed to the largest available (sufficient) free space, this step can be very easy.

My installations are never that easy, because I always have a variety of other operating systems installed. So I have to choose Manual partitioning.

partmanchoosepartition0.png

This screen shows the current disk partitioning. Here you can see that the installer has identified the EFI Boot partition, the Linux Swap partition, and a few other Linux partitions. Note than on this system there is no Windows installed, so there are no NTFS or such partitions (hooray).

With this disk layout I could choose to create a new partition in the free space, but if I was going to do that it would probably have been better to just choose that option in the initial partitioning screen.

What I will actually do here is tell the installer to use an existing partition, because I already have an older Debian release there.

partmanconfirm0.png

Once you have sorted out the disk partitioning as you want it, there is a confirmation screen which will show you what is going to be done, before actually going off and doing it.

Here you can see that the installer is going to reformat partition number 5.

mirrorhttpcountries0.png

Once the disk partitioning is done, the installer will start on the dialog to set up the package repositories on the network. The first step is choosing the country, and then if there are multiple repository sites available in that country you will be asked to choose one.

popularity-contestparticipate0.png

This is followed by a rather trivial question about whether you want to have your package choices included in a "popularity survey". Well, at least they ask, rather than just using your data without telling you.

taskselfirst1.png

Finally, you get to choose your desktop manager(s). You can choose more than one here, if you want. I just made an installation where I chose them all, and it worked; when the login screen comes up, I can choose whichever desktop I want in the Session list. It's kind of cool to click the Session icon, and see a drop-down that lists Cinnamon, Gnome, KDE, LXDE, MATE, Openbox and Xfce.

If you choose lightdm as the session manager, the session icon at the top of the login screen will be shown as a cute little symbol when you have selected Gnome, KDE, LXDE or Xfce. If you have selected Cinnamon, MATE, Openbox or just "Default Xsession", the icon is just a wrench.

Disable the choices for web server, print server and SSH server, if you don't plan to use those. Believe me, it's a lot better to leave them off and be a bit safer, because you can always add the necessary packages later if you find that you need one of them.

The last question is about setting the system clock. Unless you have some special circumstances, the decision here is fairly easy. Linux prefers to keep the system clock on UTC - but Windows keeps the system clock on local time. (Bonus question: why is this a dumb idea?). So if you are installing only Linux, say Yes to UTS, but if you are dual-booting Linux and Windows, say No.

As soon as you answer the system clock question, the installation will start. There is no "final overview / confirmation" screen, which seems a bit odd to me since we have slogged through so many other screens to get here. Oh well, just make sure you are really ready to install before you hit Continue on this screen.

The installation will take somewhere between 15 minutes and an hour, depending on the speed of your Internet connection (and how many desktops you chose to install).

Finish

When it has finished, you will get an information window, and a prompt to reboot. At this point everything should be good to go! When you hit Continue the system should reboot, and Debian should come up.

OK, for those who have had the fortitude to stick with me this far, here are a few additional notes that I have made during the multiple test installations I made while writing this post.

  • Installing from a USB 3.0 memory stick, plugged into a USB 3.0 port works, and it is noticeably faster than USB 2.0. Duh, yeah, I know, but this is not always true, and does not even always work. I have found out the hard way that openSuSE will not install from a USB 3.0 stick/port, for example.
  • The Live installation media has Install options in the boot menu, in addition to the Live Boot options. Of course, you can also install from a running Live system.
  • The DVD installer will also use the network repositories, the same as the network installer, if you want it to. The advantage of doing this would be that you get the latest version of everything installed, rather than having to update immediately after installing.
  • If you use the DVD installer and do not tell it to use network repositories, it will not configure any software sources (repositories) in the installed system. This makes sense, because it doesn't know what repositories you would want to use (you didn't tell it during installation), but I was still surprised the first time I ran into this.
  • Unfortunately, the i3 Window Manager is not one of the desktop selections. Even more unfortunately, if you only install Debian stable (8.3/jessie), the version of i3 that is included in the repositories is 4.8, which is rather old (now I suppose that I understand why Raspbian had this older version in its repositories). To get the current version of i3, you have to upgrade to Debian testing (stretch/sid)

I will wrap this up by expanding on that last point. As I said at the beginning, what I have described here is installing the Debian stable release, which is currently 8.3/jessie. If you want the latest packages, you need to run the Debian testing release, which is currently "stretch", and will be called Debian 9 when it becomes the stable release. There is a risk of instability in the testing release, but in my experience over the past year or two it is a much lower risk now than it used to be.

If you decide that you want to run the testing release, there are two ways to install it. The one people tend to think is most obvious and perhaps easiest is to download the installer for that release, rather than the stable installer. This is not always the best idea, though, because the "testing installer" is actually used to "test the installer". Think about that for a minute to make sure you are parsing it correctly. What this means is that while development is going on, there could be problems or bugs with the testing installer itself which have nothing to do with the final installed system.

The alternative is to first install the stable release, as described above, then to upgrade that installation to the testing distribution. To do this, all you have to do is change the software sources (repositories) listed in /etc/apt/sources.list. If you are big enough boys and girls to run the testing release, then editing the sources.list file should not be a big deal... just change every occurrence of "jessie" to "testing".

After updating the repositories, the safest way to actually perform the upgrade is using the command line, so you don't risk either synaptic or the X display server getting its knickers in a twist in the middle of the upgrade. So the commands are:

apt-get update

apt-get dist-upgrade

This distribution upgrade took about an hour on my Aspire V5, and did not run into any problems. The Linux kernel was updated from 3.16.0 to 4.3.0, and all of the desktops that I have installed were updated as well. After the upgrade finishes, there will be a lot of outdated packages left on the system because newer versions have been installed. To get rid of these, and reclaim the space, you can run:

apt autoremove

This is not absolutely necessary, the old packages won't hurt anything or interfere with anything, but I generally do it just in the name of good housekeeping.

Best of all, after the upgrade has finished when I check the i3 window manager, I see that it will install version 4.11. Nice. I have done that now as well, and it shows up in the login Session list along with all of the others!

So there you have it. What the new Debian release is, how to get it, how to install it (including lots of pretty screen shots), and what the alternatives are with the testing release. I hope all of this is useful... if anyone is still reading at this point.

P.S. One more thing. No, really, I promise, this will be the last. There is another subtle point to be aware of about using the Debian testing distribution. The current testing distribution is called stretch. If you put this name in the sources.list file instead of testing as I described above, you will be running the testing distribution now, but when Debian makes the next major release, and stretch becomes Debian 9.0, you will stay with stretch, so you will then be running the Debian stable distribution - without actually making any change at all. In my experience, this is not what most people want, because if they are running the testing distribution they want to stay with it. But in case that is not what you want, now you know what to do.

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