The Debian Project


Debian :: The Universal Operating System


$Id: debian.xml,v 1.1 2002/11/05 13:22:12 joe Exp $

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Table of Contents

The Debian Project
Project History
Project Leadership
The Debian Social Contract
The Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG)
Debian Developers
Debian GNU/Linux
Why Run Debian ?
Why do I run Debian ?
Installing Debian GNU/Linux
Mirrors in South Africa
Distribution Names


This document is part of a presentation for the Cape GNU/Linux User Group (CLUG). Since there has been a talk about the technical side an the installation of the Debian GNU/Linux operating system i chose to focus more on the Debian project, its goals, backround and less on the technical side of things.

Most of the content comes from the Debian projects homepage and a document written by Christoph Lameter called "Debian GNU/Linux: The Past, the Present and the Future". The rest and the presentation itself comes from my experience running Debian GNU/Linux for the last 5 years and being a Debian developer for about a year.

This document is not meant to be read as a book, it is mostly a set of notes for the presentation and a guide for the audience to start finding out more about Debian after the talk.

The Debian Project

The Debian Project is an association of individuals who have made common cause to create a free operating system.

Debian is pronounced 'deb ee n'. It comes from the names of the creator of Debian, Ian Murdock, and his wife, Debra.

Project History

Debian was begun in August 1993 by Ian Murdock, as a new distribution which would be made openly, in the spirit of Linux and GNU. Debian was meant to be carefully and conscientiously put together, and to be maintained and supported with similar care. It started as a small, tightly-knit group of Free Software hackers, and gradually grew to become a large, well-organized community of developers and users.

Ian Murdock wrote the Debian Manifesto in June 1994.

Ian Murdock knew that GNU/Linux would be much more accessible in the form of a Distribution and he was concerned about the quality of distributions. Sections from the Manifesto:

Debian is being developed openly in the spirit of Linux and GNU. The primary purpose of the Debian project is to finally create a distribution that lives up to the Linux name.

Why is Debian being constructed? Distributions are essential to the future of Linux. Essentially, they eliminate the need for the user to locate, download, compile, install and integrate a fairly large number of essential tools to assemble a working Linux system. Instead, the burden of system construction is placed on the distribution creator, whose work can be shared with thousands of other users. Almost all users of Linux will get their first taste of it through a distribution, and most users will continue to use a distribution for the sake of convenience even after they are familiar with the operating system. Thus, distributions play a very important role indeed.

Many distributions have started out as fairly good systems, but as time passes attention to maintaining the distribution becomes a secondary concern. A case-in-point is the Softlanding Linux System (better known as SLS). It is quite possibly the most bug-ridden and badly maintained Linux distribution available; unfortunately, it is also quite possibly the most popular. It is, without question, the distribution that attracts the most attention from the many commercial "distributors" of Linux that have surfaced to capitalize on the growing popularity of the operating system. This is a bad combination indeed, as most people who obtain Linux from these "distributors" receive a bug-ridden and badly maintained Linux distribution. As if this wasn't bad enough, these "distributors" have a disturbing tendency to misleadingly advertise non-functional or extremely unstable "features" of their product. Combine this with the fact that the buyers will, of course, expect the product to live up to its advertisement and the fact that many may believe it to be a commercial operating system (there is also a tendency not to mention that Linux is free nor that it is distributed under the GNU General Public License). To top it all off, these "distributors" are actually making enough money from their effort to justify buying larger advertisements in more magazines; it is the classic example of unacceptable behavior being rewarded by those who simply do not know any better. Clearly something needs to be done to remedy the situation.

The creation of Debian was sponsored by the FSF's GNU project for one year (November 1994 to November 1995).

Project Leadership

  • Debian has had several leaders since its beginnings in 1993.
  • Ian Murdock founded Debian in August 1993 and led it until March 1996.
  • Bruce Perens led Debian from April 1996 until December 1997.
  • Ian Jackson led Debian from January 1998 until December 1998.
  • Wichert Akkerman led Debian from January 1999 until March 2001.
  • Ben Collins led Debian from April 2001 until April 2002.
  • Bdale Garbee was elected in April 2002 and is our current leader.

The Debian Social Contract

The Debian Social Contract is a set of values and principles that each Debian developer agrees to commit to and abide by.

  • 1. Debian Will Remain 100% Free Software

    We promise to keep the Debian GNU/Linux Distribution entirely free software. As there are many definitions of free software, we include the guidelines we use to determine if software is "free" below. We will support our users who develop and run non-free software on Debian, but we will never make the system depend on an item of non-free software.

  • 2. We Will Give Back to the Free Software Community

    When we write new components of the Debian system, we will license them as free software. We will make the best system we can, so that free software will be widely distributed and used. We will feed back bug-fixes, improvements, user requests, etc. to the "upstream" authors of software included in our system.

  • 3. We Won't Hide Problems

    We will keep our entire bug-report database open for public view at all times. Reports that users file on-line will immediately become visible to others.

  • 4. Our Priorities are Our Users and Free Software

    We will be guided by the needs of our users and the free-software community. We will place their interests first in our priorities. We will support the needs of our users for operation in many different kinds of computing environment. We won't object to commercial software that is intended to run on Debian systems, and we'll allow others to create value-added distributions containing both Debian and commercial software, without any fee from us. To support these goals, we will provide an integrated system of high-quality, 100% free software, with no legal restrictions that would prevent these kinds of use.

  • 5. Programs That Don't Meet Our Free-Software Standards

    We acknowledge that some of our users require the use of programs that don't conform to the Debian Free Software Guidelines. We have created "contrib" and "non-free" areas in our FTP archive for this software. The software in these directories is not part of the Debian system, although it has been configured for use with Debian. We encourage CD manufacturers to read the licenses of software packages in these directories and determine if they can distribute that software on their CDs. Thus, although non-free software isn't a part of Debian, we support its use, and we provide infrastructure (such as our bug-tracking system and mailing lists) for non-free software packages.

The Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG)

The DFSG is Debian's definition of what is Free Software. For software to be a part of the Main section of Debian it needs to comply to the following criteria. If the software does not comply it can not be part of Debian, but it may be found in the Non-Free section. If the software is Free but it depends on software that is in the Non-Free section it can be found in the Contrib section.

  • 1. Free Redistribution

    The license of a Debian component may not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license may not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.

  • 2. Source Code

    The program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled form.

  • 3. Derived Works

    The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.

  • 4. Integrity of The Author's Source Code

    The license may restrict source-code from being distributed in modified form _only_ if the license allows the distribution of "patch files" with the source code for the purpose of modifying the program at build time. The license must explicitly permit distribution of software built from modified source code. The license may require derived works to carry a different name or version number from the original software. (This is a compromise. The Debian group encourages all authors not to restrict any files, source or binary, from being modified.)

  • 5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups

    The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

  • 6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor

    The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

  • 7. Distribution of License

    The rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed without the need for execution of an additional license by those parties.

  • 8. License Must Not Be Specific to Debian

    The rights attached to the program must not depend on the program's being part of a Debian system. If the program is extracted from Debian and used or distributed without Debian but otherwise within the terms of the program's license, all parties to whom the program is redistributed should have the same rights as those that are granted in conjunction with the Debian system.

  • 9. License Must Not Contaminate Other Software

    The license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the licensed software. For example, the license must not insist that all other programs distributed on the same medium must be free software.

  • 10. Example Licenses

    The "GPL", "BSD", and "Artistic" licenses are examples of licenses that we consider "free".

Debian Developers

There are about 1000 Debian Developers, all listed in an LDAP server at

There are 7 Debian Developers in South Africa, 3/7 are CLUG members, 5/7 live in the Western Cape.

Debian GNU/Linux

Debian is a free operating system. Debian GNU/Linux uses the Linux kernel, but most of the basic OS tools come from the GNU project; hence the name GNU/Linux.

Debian/GNU Linux is the largest Linux distribution that exists. Frequently little is known about Debian though because Debian is not a commercial entity but rather a non-commercial organization run by volunteers. There is basically no commercial advertising for Debian. Debian has a budget of 10-30k/year which is managed by SPI Inc. No one has a benefit from the sale of Debian.

Currently Debian contains over 9000 open source packages. Debian 3.0 aka "woody" is available on 11 different architectures.

Debian is the most flexible Linux distribution that there is. The power of Debian originates in its aim to be a "Free" software distribution. We understand that to mean "Free" as in "Freedom" and not in "Free" as in free beer. The freedom is the ability to modify, enhance and change the software at will to fit our needs. That in turn has led to a large number of contributors. Debian has around 1000 developers on file and numerous volunteers contributing in other ways to Debian.

The package management (dpkg and apt) is known to be the most sophisticated in the open source world and the upgradability and stability of Debian/GNU Linux is legendary.

Why Run Debian ?

  • It is maintained by its users.

    Someting i like to translate into: "By the Geeks for the Geeks"

  • Unparalleled support, many other users

    Big user base and about 140 mailing lists

  • Package management System

    Dpkg and APT are really cool and very useful especially for routine upgrades and security updates.

  • Large amounts of ready to use Software packages

    About 9000 packages, nicely sorted, easy and fast to get up and running.

  • Clean Upgrade Path

    Frogfoot (ISP) runs Debian on most of our servers and all our workstations. The thing we like best about Debian in this environment is the clean upgrade path. We have machines that have been upgraded from the Hamm days, without a re-install, currently running the latest software versions. ..1998, thats 5 years without a re-install

  • Very good Security Team

    Debian has a very good way of handling security issues and a group of dedicated people who provide fixes to secturity exploits.

Why do I run Debian ?

I admire Debian's pragmatic idealism, the scale of the project and its success in producing high quality software. Debian is IMHO the most successful collaboration network and an example to the rest of the world of what can be achieved by people who share the same ideals.. in Debian's case I would say the ideals of logic, efficiency and freedom.

Installing Debian GNU/Linux

Mirrors in South Africa

  • UCT
  • Stellenbosch
  • Frogfoot Networks, private mirror

Distribution Names

Most people run a mix of stable and testing.

root@blue[/os/debian/dists]# ls -la
total 28
drwxr-xr-x    6 root     root         4096 Oct  7 09:10 ./
drwxr-xr-x    6 root     root         4096 Nov  5 01:11 ../
lrwxrwxrwx    1 root     root            6 Aug 30 19:56 Debian2.2r7 -> potato/
lrwxrwxrwx    1 root     root            5 Aug 30 19:56 Debian3.0r0 -> woody/
-r--r--r--    1 root     root          400 Dec 18  2000 README
lrwxrwxrwx    1 root     root            6 Aug 30 19:56 oldstable -> potato/
drwxr-xr-x    5 root     root         4096 Aug 30 01:57 potato/
drwxr-xr-x    5 root     root         4096 Oct 30 01:34 sarge/
drwxr-xr-x    5 root     root         4096 Nov  3 02:13 sid/
lrwxrwxrwx    1 root     root            5 Aug 30 19:56 stable -> woody/
lrwxrwxrwx    1 root     root            5 Aug 30 19:56 testing -> sarge/
lrwxrwxrwx    1 root     root            3 Mar 28  2001 unstable -> sid/
drwxr-xr-x    5 root     root         4096 Aug 30 02:40 woody/

The current release, (Woody), CDs are available if you know some people who run Debian or you should be able to get a copy by asking around on the CLUG, SULUG mailing lists.