Debian 4.0 Tiptoes to Leading Edge

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 04-17-2007

Debian GNU/Linx is a popular Linux-based operating system with excellent software management tools and a development pace that is, depending on your perspective, saner or more plodding than those of its Linux distribution rivals.

eWEEK Labs tested Debian 4.0, which recently hit FTP servers, and we were impressed to find that while the Debian project has not abandoned its overall conservatism, the team's latest release sports leading-edge credentials in some key areas. We're particularly impressed with Debian 4.0's support for full volume encryption as a basic installation option, and we're glad to see that Debian has expanded its embrace of Security-Enhanced Linux for tightening system permissions.

Debian is great fit for server deployments and is particularly well-suited for hosting applications that draw on popular open-source components, such as Apache or MySQL. Up-to-date versions of these popular Web and database servers, along with multiple alternatives for each and thousands of other applications, are available for Debian and ready for installation over one of the project's many repository mirror sites.

We've found that Debian works well in a virtualized setting, where the OS's very good text-based installer makes it easy to spin Debian into whatever arbitrary sort of Linux server we choose, often with the aid of configuration applets that come bundled with the packages.

Debian 4.0 can also work well in a desktop role. This latest release is certainly the handsomest yet, and it includes creature comforts that we've come to enjoy on other Linux distributions, such as the NetworkManager application, which makes it very easy to configure and switch among the various wired, wireless and VPN network connections on your machine.

Debian 4.0 defaults to GNOME 2.14.3 as its desktop environment but offers KDE and Xfce, among other, lesser known options, as desktop alternatives.

With Version 4.0, Debian adds the x86-64 processor platform to the 10 other processor architectures that the distribution supports. In Version 3.1, Debian's previous version, x86-64 support was considered experimental.

We tested both the x86 and x86-64 versions of Debian 4.0 running on virtual machines atop VMware's ESX Server. The only snag we encountered with the x86-64 version was with the Beagle search and Tomboy note-taking applications, both of which are based on Mono, the open-source implementation of Microsoft's .Net Framework. We expect to see this issue fixed soon, as these same applications do run in the 64-bit version of Debian's kin distribution, Ubuntu.

Debian is freely available for download from the Debian project or from one of its mirrors via www.us.debian.org. As a noncommercial entity, the Debian project doesn't offer support beyond community resources, although the project maintains a directory of companies offering support services at www.us.debian.org/consultants/#US.

The entire Debian distribution spans 21 CDs or three DVDs. We typically download the distribution's 159MB netinst, or network install, image and pull down the packages we need from a friendly neighborhood mirror site.

One of the areas in which Debian 4.0 really shines, especially for notebook machines, is its support for installing on encrypted partitions. There's an option in the installer to do this—it creates an unencrpyted boot partition and then creates the rest of your partitions in LVM (logical volume manager) in encrypted logical volumes. This includes swap.

You can configure any Linux distribution in this way with some amount of tweaking, but Debian 4.0 is the first distribution we've tested that supports full volume encryption right from the installer.

When we booted up the system we'd installed with encrypted partitions, the OS asked us for the encryption pass phrase we'd selected during setup and then booted up normally.

We were pleased to find that Debian's suspend-to-disk function, in which the system's state is saved to the swap partition, worked for us, as we'd feared that the encrypted swap partition might pose a problem.

We found that Debian's support for SELinux doesn't reach the same level of integration polish as does Red Hat's SELinux implementations. We missed, for instance, the SELinux troubleshooting and policy-setting tools with which Red Hat's distributions ship. However, SELinux was not difficult to enable on our Debian 4.0 test machines, and we found good documentation at http://wiki.debian.org/SELinux.

Debian 4.0 also ships with support for Xen virtualization, as well as for Linux-VServer virtualization. Armed with Xen and Intel or Advanced Micro Devices processors of recent vintage, Debian 4.0 can host unmodified operating systems, much like the products of VMware.

The lesser-known Linux-VServer project takes a virtualization approach that's more akin to Sun' Microsystems' Solaris Containers feature: With Linux-VServer support enabled, Debian 4.0's hosting options are limited to Linux distributions, and guests operate under the kernel of their host.

As with many open-source virtualization implementations, the management tools that Debian provides are fairly Spartan, but Debian's excellent software management tools go a long way toward speeding the creation of guest Debian instances. We were able, for instance, to mint a new Debian VServer guest with a single command.