Debian Linux founder Ian Murdock would have been amazed at its legacy

Debian Linux is 30 years old. Today, it remains one of the most dominant Linux distributions. Here's how it started and where its impact is still felt today.
Ian Murdock Debian Linux Founder 2008
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Let's go back to 1993. Bill Clinton is president, Jurassic Park is selling out movie tickets, UB40's redo of Can't Help Falling in Love is number one on the Billboard charts, and Purdue college student Ian Murdock announces the creation of a new distribution called the Debian Linux Release on the comp.os.linux.development Usenet newsgroup.

Murdock wrote: "This is a release that I have put together basically from scratch; in other words, I didn't simply make some changes to SLS [Softlanding Linux System] and call it a new release. I was inspired to put together this release after running SLS and generally being dissatisfied with much of it, and after much altering of SLS, I decided that it would be easier to start from scratch." 

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The name Debian was a portmanteau of Murdock's then-girlfriend's name, Debra, and his own first name. And each release -- which, today, has reached Debian 12, Bookworm -- is named after a Toy Story character. 

It was a different time. There was no Git, Red Hat Linux didn't exist, and IBM didn't support Linux yet. Linux was still very much a hobbyist operating system. It was used by students and computer scientists more than anyone else. I'd been using the OS since Linux 0.11 in November 1991, but then I'd been a Unix user for over a decade by then. 

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Murdock knew not everyone could ftp, compile, build, and boot Linux from source code. He believed the first distros, especially SLS, weren't good enough. So he started building Debian as a sleeker Linux distro, which you could install without needing "to be babysat … and let the machine install the release while you do more interesting things." In short, he said: "Debian will make Linux easier for users who don't have access to the Internet."

Debian was the first Linux distro that made easy installation and deployment a priority. At the same time, when it began, Debian was the only distribution that was open for every developer and user to contribute their work. Today, it's still easily the most important community Linux distribution. All the other distros, such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), Ubuntu, and SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE), and their community branches, such as Fedora and openSUSE, are either directly or indirectly tied to commercial companies. 

As tech-savvy blogger Cory Doctorow wrote after Murdock's much-too-early death in 2015: "The Debian project fundamentally shifted the way free/open code got made by fusing an insistence on engineering excellence with a public declaration of the ethical nature of doing free software development."

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People who knew Murdock well agreed. Bruce Perens, creator of the Debian Social Contract and the Debian Free Software Guidelines, which laid out Debian's ground rules, pointed out in an email conversation that Debian is more than just a Linux distribution: "The impact of Debian on the world isn't just Debian. It's the very many projects it spawned. For example, the modern Linux distribution, both the paradigm and the architecture, come from Debian."

Perens added: "Murdock produced the entire 'base system' of Debian, the part necessary to boot up a system capable of installing more packages. While I was the Debian project leader, I distributed each of the packages making up the base system to different developers. Nobody had ever done anything like that before, and nobody back then knew that the result -- built by dozens of people who had never met and only corresponded through textual email -- that was all we had -- would work when all of the pieces were put together."

Debian, Perens said, was the foundation of the first embedded Linux system: "I created Busybox (The Swiss army knife of embedded Linux) to install Debian from floppy disks. At the time, it took one 1.44MB floppy to load the kernel, and then you had to put in another floppy for the root filesystem. Busybox was built to fit all of the necessary command-line tools on that second floppy. It is now in innumerable routers, phones, TVs, and other embedded devices."

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In addition, Debian pioneered the dependency-based dpkg package system. With it, you could stitch together programs and libraries into an easy-to-install software package, even when they'd been developed separately. Of course, now they're commonplace.

Bdale Garbee, one of the first Debian developers, added in an e-mail conversation: "Modern languages and their associated development communities just don't always want to be saddled with versioned dependency management. This source of tension has led to a focus on things like Flatpaks, Docker, etc. But even today, most Debian users still want the value proposition a fully policy-compliant binary package delivery model presents."

In addition, Garbee noted that Ian Jackson, an early Debian programmer and creator of dpkg, explored the idea of, "Debian package versions as a crude revision control system. The idea that you can download (check out) the latest version of a package, modify it, then upload (check in) a new version to the archive is kind of a neat conceptual model. In a way, that could be taken to mean Debian was one of the first grand experiments in distributed version control."

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At the time, Linux itself hadn't even moved to its first version control system, Concurrent Version System (CVS), never mind BitKeeper. What's more, Linus Torvalds' invention of Git was still years away. 

Garbee continued: "The roles and responsibilities [of developers and maintainers] are much more structured now than they were in the beginning. Even the concept of packages having defined maintainers is something I can remember as 'a time before.'"

Garbee added: "There is a healthy tension between everyone working on whatever they want all the time and the sort of 'gating functions' that come from having defined package maintainers."

Looking back to the start of Debian, Garbee said: "Ian Murdock told me several times how he never had any idea that what he was starting would last so long or go so far. My take on that is that he picked a set of fundamental tenets that resonated well with the right kind of passionate people."

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Murdock would have been amazed at Debian's legacy. Besides being a major Linux operating system in its own right, it's become the parent distribution for other popular Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and MX Linux.

Debian's influence is still with us today. And it will continue well into the future, as Garbee concluded: "Lots of work is still getting done, and the enthusiasm with which many in the community get involved in hosting and attending the annual Debian Developer's Conference (DebConf) assures me that the core Debian community remains strong." 

That's a good thing because we need Debian. We need a strong Linux community that reflects the needs of users and developers, and not corporations. There's a place for business-first Linux. But as Murdock knew in those early days, there's also a need for a version of Linux that's by and for the people. 

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