Friday, December 3, 2010

Notes On Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Linux Mint Debian Edition

If you follow Linux Mint, or goings on in the the Debian GNU/Linux extended family you know there are two big stories regarding Mint in the last six months. They are the releases of Mint 10 and Mint Debian Edition.

Mint 10 contains the sorts of improvements one would expect from a distribution that tracks Ubuntu Linux's twice yearly release cycle. I've only used it a little but it looks great and I had no trouble installing it. Debian Edition (LMDE) is another matter. It is a significant conceptual departure for Mint and thus, ultimately more interesting.

If you look at one of the more recent Linux family tree illustrations out there you will see Debian, Ubuntu and Mint are already closely related. To make a long story short, Linux Mint is an Ubuntu Linux derivative and Ubuntu Linux is a Debian GNU/Linux derivative. In this sense making a version of Mint based directly on Debian rather than Ubuntu doesn't sound like a big deal. It's all in the family, right?

I would argue that it being a family affair is what allows it to work. It doesn't make it less of big deal. Although Ubuntu is a Debian derivative it very much has a life of its own and differs from Debian considerably.

Along with Slackware, Debian GNU/Linux dates back to the summer of 1993. They are two of the oldest (if not the two oldest) continuously developed Linux distributions. Debian GNU/Linux continues to show the roots of Linux as a coder/hacker/developer/CS student platform. Although "normal" people may be able to use a Debian system the way one gets, installs and configures Debian assumes considerable computer knowledge. Debian is more closely tied to the GNU Project and software freedom in general than Ubuntu, although some purists still feel Debian fall short.

Until recently Debian was upgraded and updated piece by piece, when the new pieces were ready, whenever that was. Although there were always version numbers on installation media, all updates were provided on a "rolling" or "feature" basis, independent of any calendar or schedule. Recently this has changed somewhat with major versions scheduled every two years with continuous rolling updates in between.

Ubuntu releases new versions every six months. In fact, the unpredictable and sometimes slow nature of Debian updates/upgrades are part of what spurred the creation of Ubuntu[1][2]. Ubuntu's creators were focused on getting their version of Linux into as many hands as possible. Along with minimizing the mystery surrounding updates and upgrades they sought to provide a version of Linux that was easy for non-technical people to install and use. When Debian is called the "universal operating system" it refers to extremely broad hardware support and breadth of application. Ubuntu talks about extending the benefits of free software to communities and individuals world wide. Note the repeated use of words like "everyone," "world wide" and "global" all over ubuntu.com. Also note that Ubuntu web pages and promotional materials often include graphics of multi-racial groups of people. On many Linux web sites you will find illustrated mascots but few, if any, photos of people.

Of course, it worked. Since its inception in 2004 Ubuntu has become by far the most popular Linux distribution, world wide. For one measure of how popular Ubuntu is today (as opposed to this writing) visit http://distrowatch.com/ and look at the page hit rankings.

Linux Mint set out to take part of what worked for Ubuntu and extend it. You could say that Linux Mint's seminal goal was to out-Ubuntu Ubuntu. Specifically, Mint seeks to be easier to install and use than Ubuntu. Mint uses a customized version of Ubuntu's Ubiquity installer and has it's own package manager, default software set, approach to updates and patches and various customizations to the GNOME desktop (among others). For example, it installs Abode Flash Player by default. Pre-installing non-free software has not won Mint any fans among free software purists but it is very convenient for people who want to use web sites that rely on Flash. The same goes for users who benefit from the non-free drivers bundled with Mint. According to Mint's FAQ the project prefers free and open software but they will use closed software to provide a better product in the absence of a free software option.

Mint is about two years younger than Ubuntu[1]. Like Ubuntu they seem to have succeeded at what they set out to do. In a little over four years they have moved into the top tier of GNU/Linux distributions (see distrowatch.com, again).

Among the top distributions (Fedora/Red Hat, SuSE/OpenSuSE, Ubuntu, Mint, Debian) they are the youngest (after Ubuntu) and only Mint and Debian are "community distributions." In this case "community" means they are not a free software product of a profit making company. The other top distributions have huge developer communities and the controlling interest of a substantial for-profit company. Mint and Debian are wholly supported by their community of developers and users.

Mint is the only distribution in the top tier to so exclusively target the desktop. There is no dedicated server edition of Linux Mint as their is with Ubuntu, nor is there a strong heritage of server application as there is with Debian. There isn't anything stopping you from running Mint as a server but it clearly isn't the distribution's focus.

With things going so well for them why would Mint's developers want to do something weird like release a version built from a different base? Answers are provided in the LMDE announcement. They include the move, for LMDE only (not for any other version of Linux Mint), to Debian-style rolling updates. Thus, an LMDE user would never need to reinstall the OS on their system (apart from catastrophic failure). As updates to LMDE are released the user installs them, or doesn't. The need to ever upgrade to a discretely new version of the OS is eliminated.

If you read the announcement you saw that the developers are careful to say LMDE is not as stable or elegant ("elegant" is a favorite word among the Minty) as the main release, although they expect rapid progress in these areas. Also unlike every other supported version of Mint, LMDE is not compatible with Ubuntu and its software repositories. Stability and compatibility are going to be deal breakers for a lot of people, even if they need to reinstall to get every major upgrade.

These are the least interesting facets of LMDE, in my opinion. They certainly are significant, but what I found most interesting in the LMDE announcement was this phrase, and those that echoed it, "...promises to be faster, more responsive and on which we’re less reliant on upstream components."

In other words, LMDE is an experiment in shedding the baggage that comes with being an Ubuntu derivative. I'm not talking about the social baggage, although Ubuntu's success has certainly generated some haters. I'm talking about the technical baggage. The Mint team has proven they can tune, prune, polish and package with the world's best, besides writing good original code. Why should they continue to work with Ubuntu's revisions of Debian code when they can go a whole step back, upstream, closer to the source? By using Debian code in stead of Ubuntu code as the basis for a distribution Mint can cut out a whole generation of modifications (including, some would argue, some significant bloat) that may or may not be helpful to them.

If you are going to customize a hot-rod coupe for yourself should you buy a hot-rod coupe and make further changes to it or should you buy a standard coupe and make all of the modifications yourself?

There is no global right answer to that question but if you can do all of the fab and mod yourself there are any number of reasons you may want to. I think Linux Mint is in the process of outgrowing being an Ubuntu derivative. Sometime soon they may find they don't need Ubuntu compatibility at all.

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