Debian Linux: First Step is a Doozy

My evaluation continues. My test bed is a dual-processor Pentium Pro with a 4G SCSI disk. So far the evaluation is positive except for one aspect: the installation. I've had a doozy of a time getting the system setup.

Confusion reigns from the outset. The installation has five different boot disks offering a choice of four different kernels. I suppose this would be fine if the default worked most of the time. I suspect it doesn't. It certainly didn't for me.

The default install uses the idepci kernel. It booted fine, but failed when it came time to setup the hard drive. It couldn't find any hard disks on my system. That's because this kernel does not support the SCSI controller.

Next I tried the compact version of the kernel, which is advertised to support SCSI. This time it found the disk and partitioned it fine. However, when I went to setup the filesystem it offered only the classic ext2 format and none of the newer journaling filesystems. I wanted to use reiserfs.

Third time was the charm. I restarted using the bf24 kernel. It found my SCSI controller. It offered me the choice of ext2, ext3, and reiserfs for my filesystems: all wonderful.

Sadly there was a catch. After all that effort finding a kernel that would work, I still had to manually replace the kernel after the install completed. The bf24 kernel wouldn't recognize my second processor. Besides, this kernel was a very big image, with lots of drivers compiled in rather than separate loadable modules.

You can replace the kernel, but it's a bit tricky. There are two dozen different kernel packages to choose from, and no tool to guide you to the right one. I ended up installing kernel-image-2.4.18-1-686-smp, because it seemed to be the latest version that offered Pentium Pro SMP support. That installed fine, other than the fact that it was smart enough to know I needed to make a change to the lilo.conf file, but too stupid to do it itself.

The problem now is that when the system boots it spews a stream of errors. They seem to be related to the contents of the initrd (initial ramdisk) image. I'm not sure how to fix them, but, fortunately, they don't seem critical. Still, it's disconcerting to see all the complaints at system startup.

Another sad problem is that installation with the bf24 kernel did not probe to find hardware. The other kernels automatically recognized my Ethernet card. With bf24 I needed to tell it explicitly to load the eepro100 driver along with any required parameters (which, fortunately in my case, was none). How quaint! I thought manual configuration of devices ended with the ISA bus. (Even then, many systems do a remarkable job of probing ISA devices.)

This is not acceptable. There should be a single boot set that works without intervention for all but the most obscure hardware. The install procedure should recognize and configure the system hardware. The install procedure should offer me a choice of modern filesystems, not just vintage formats. The installation should select and install a correct kernel. Every Unix/Linux installation I've encountered--except Debian--does these things.

Nonetheless, I'm on track for a Debian conversion. Sure, the install procedure is painful for all the reasons I've given. Still, there is so much else to recommend it. All I need to do is survive the installation. It should be smooth sailing after that.

I mentioned at the top of this article some of the things that appealed to me about Debian. My evaluation is confirming they are all true. In addition, I'm finding that the system setup is fairly sane, which should make it nice to administer.

On the current server running Red Hat, there are twenty packages that I needed to build and maintain from source. Most of them are offered as packaged binaries under Debian. This includes some oddball stuff, such as Postfix with the unofficial TLS patches and qpopper with DRAC support. This means a lot less work for me managing the system--particularly when it comes to deploying security patches.

It's a little sad that the Debian install is so difficult, because there is so much else to recommend it. The good news is there is an active list of volunteers working on the Debian install process. Maybe a future release will address some of the difficulties I encountered.


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re: Debian Linux: First Step is a Doozy

I've been using debian since version 1.0, it's unlikely that I would use anything else, and the install has never been terribly "user friendly." It has always seemed to me that the debian community has been much more interested in system stability and security than in the user friendliness aspect. And I am okay with that. My understanding is that they will be addressing the installation of debian in a more "user friendly" way in the next major release. As long as they keep stability and security as priorities, that's okay.

Debby sent me.

re: Debian Linux: First Step is a Doozy

Oddly enough, I've recently been shopping around for a Linux distro. I've got a 233 box with 128MB of RAM and a 4GB hard drive that recently got freed up and I decided that it's time to dive back into Linux after messing around with RedHat back in 1999/2000. Since they're effectively dumping their support for desktop systems, I wasn't sure what to go with.

I downloaded the Debian ISO image, burned it and attempted an install last night. I went for the desktop/developer install. As usual, my biggest problem is X Windows. Is it too much to ask to get a Linux install to detect your video card and configure this for you without having to go and research the video card yourself? I remember having problems like this with RedHat as well, although I think they largely had it solved in more recent versions.

Of course, it's my own fault for not getting as much info about the card as I could before wiping out WinXP. Sigh. Guess I'll be cracking open the case and yanking the card to examine it tonight and try to get it working. Perhaps others can suggest another distro that's a little more desktop friendly? I like that Debian is stable and secure, but perhaps it's geared for more of a server install? Clearly, I need to do more research.

re: Debian Linux: First Step is a Doozy

Don't know if you're still testing Debian, but I've been a Debian user for some years now.

I know that there's a Debian way of building a kernel, but back in 1993 I started compiling my own kernels and it's hard for me to change.

Just uninstall the Debian kernel packages and get the vanilla source from Build in the usual way, and it'll work. Everything else in the system won't know the difference.

re: Debian Linux: First Step is a Doozy

Two helpful hints to installing Debian:

1. Use a "netinst" CD image if you've got a net connection -- only one CD (fits on a mini-CD, no less!) and you're up-to-date out of the gate;

2. If you don't like pain, and you're not totally paranoid about security, use the Testing distribution instead of Stable. The installer is *much* easier and integrates a "discover" package that takes most of the pain out of hardware detection. Security releases aren't as timely for Testing as for Stable, though. Get the Testing Netinst CD here:

If you can't use Testing then download and boot Knoppix. Its autodetection is excellent and it's Debian-based. Print the XF86Config-4 (if you're using X) and the output of "lsmod" and you'll have most of what you need for a Stable install.

Whatever it takes, Debian is worth the effort.


re: Debian Linux: First Step is a Doozy

Forgot to add -- Netinst images for Stable are here:

I usually use Lord Sutch's (adding "bf24" at the boot prompt).