How to Have a Pleasant Installation (for Debian Newbies)

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How to Have a Pleasant Installation (for Debian Newbies)

Postby rickh » 2007-03-27 00:38

Disclaimer: Some of the techniques and suggestions made in this essay are not the Debian purist method. Rather they describe the easiest way to get a Debian installation up and running for a person unfamiliar with it. It "just works!" In one way, though, it is strongly purist. It describes a minimal installation. Before you even think about installing Debian, you should understand that general concept.

There are a lot of new people who want to check out Debian. Most are people with some Linux experience who hear that Debian is stable, free (libre), and has a large and dedicated user base. That sounds good, and people think that it's a kind of community in which they'd like to participate. This is true, but there are some pitfalls that can present hazards for the unwary.

Debian users, by and large started out with another distro and came to Debian having a basic grasp of Linux and its idiosyncrasies. That is a good plan. Refugees from Windows, and other new Linux users who have never gotten any distro to work properly are probably going to be in deeper water than they can imagine very quickly. Debian users are more likely to assume that you have a basic working knowledge of Linux, and you are more likely to get RTFM and, "Try an easier distro," responses to questions than you would from one of the more newbie friendly Linux communities.

That's not to say Debian is too difficult for new users. It's not. But you should realize that we expect you to do your own homework, and persevere under sometimes difficult circumstances. If you can live with that, you will find the Debian experience to be as positive as we all do. Debian is approachable by Linux newbies, but they had best approach it respectfully. Bottom line is this ... Debian is a distro for people who love it, and if you don't, you're better off elsewhere.

**************

If you think you're ready, the rest of this dissertation is aimed at providing you with some basic information that will provide you with enough background to do it right. "Right," in this case, being the way I think it should be done.

Intro to the Debian OS

The first step is to understand how Debian is organized. There are three branches you will see discussed; Stable, Testing, and Unstable. Each of these has a code-name, currently; Etch, Lenny, and Sid. Periodically, Testing will reach a point at which it is ready to become the new Stable. When that happens, Testing will get a new code-name, but Unstable always remains Sid. Each has it's own repositories which are identified on your system in a file named /etc/apt/sources.list, and depending on your personal needs, you will choose which of those branches you want to use.

Stable is intended for servers and production working environments. It gets no official upgrades, except those which are security related. There is an organization named backports.org which provides some updated applications specifically designed for the Stable release. This ensures that Stable will be as absolutely rock solid as an OS can be, but it also means that by the latter half of it's life span, many of the programs will be out of date. If you run Stable, that means you have made a decision that for the next year or two, you will not add new programs (except from the Stable repos or backports), or hardware to your computer. If you do, the odds of breaking something critical are excellent, and you will get very little sympathy.

Testing is the best branch for the average home/hobbyist user. Programs and applications here have had a period of testing, and have been found to have no serious bugs that will absolutely break your system. There will be the occasional glitch, but your system will stay at a release level equivalent to other distributions, and it will generally be superior to them in it's overall stability. The Testing installer is here.

(Insertion related to Testing installation media: I think it is worthwhile to note here that after a Testing release has moved to Stable, there will not be an official beta Testing installer for quite some time; probably not until a few months before the targeted release date. Once that official beta is in place, there will actually be three separate installation media sets available; the official beta, a weekly build, and a daily build. If one gives you problems, try a different one. One of the three will almost certainly work. Until there is an official beta installer in Testing, the installers at that link may or may not be reliable. During that period, new users should probably install the Stable version, then set up their sources.list file as shown below, and use # aptitude update && aptitude dist-upgrade to achieve a successful Testing installation. /insertion)

Unstable is nothing to really be afraid of, but things will break. Probably not badly enough to force a re-installation, but even that is possible. Many people use it all the time with minimal problems, but it's probably not a good idea for inexperienced users for the simple reason that when you don't really know what you're doing, it's difficult to tell if your problem is related to operator error or bugs in the software. That said, Debian Unstable is about as stable as a new release of Ubuntu, Fedora, Suse, or any of the other distributions which release on a calendar-based schedule.

There is one other repository that you will see references to, Experimental. Experimental is not a complete release branch like the others, but rather a holding-tank for programs under intense development. When a developer feels that his project is nearing release quality he will move it to the central Experimental repository, and ask other developers (or adventuresome users), to install it to help identify pieces that are still broken. Installing a program from Experimental is more likely to end up in a complete OS reinstall, but that's not the end of the world either. Re-installing is an excellent learning experience.

This is what a conservative /etc/apt/sources.list file looks like:
Code: Select all
deb http://ftp.us.debian.org/debian/ testing main contrib non-free
deb-src http://ftp.us.debian.org/debian/ testing main

deb http://www.debian-multimedia.org testing main

deb http://security.debian.org/ testing/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src http://security.debian.org/ testing/updates main

Debian-multimedia.org is an unofficial site, operated at, or very near, the level of Debian's exacting standards for official repositories. It includes multimedia programs which can not be included in official repositories for legal reasons. Almost all Debian users include it in their sources.list file. You can also get .deb files from other sources. There are even many unofficial sources which are set up as Apt repositories, but ... caveat emptor.

Using "testing" in the sources.list rather than "lenny" ensures that when Lenny becomes Stable, I'll move right into the new Testing.

Installation Media:
The installation CD #1 comes in several versions depending on your preferred desktop environment. The default is Gnome, but there are alternatives for KDE and Xfce.

Assuming that you have a broadband internet connection available, the best option is the Netinstall .iso (about 150 MB, and it's all you need). The base system will be installed from the CD, and graphical interfaces and other desired packages are installed through the internet. Most wireless LAN card connections will not work here. It is by far the best plan to do the initial installation via a wired connection, and work on wireless support after you have a basic system running.

Choosing the best installation media is quite a difficult hurdle for many new Debian users. For a more complete description of your options, see the blog post from Debian Developer Joey Hess, Tour of the Debian 4.0 CDs. That post was written specifically about the Etch release, but the same principles apply for Testing.

Installation Tips

These tips assume you are using the netinstall process and that your goal is the Testing branch. It is the best way to go, but if for valid reasons or otherwise, you have chosen a different installation media or OS branch, try to follow along making common sense adjustments.

Partitioning:
During the installation dialog, set up your disk space in three partitions:
/ (root), 5 - 10 GB,
swap, max. 1GB,
/home, the rest of what you have available.
When I first started, I did it like this: / - 1GB, swap - 1GB, /tmp 1 GB, /var - 3GB, /usr - 4GB, /home - the rest. That helped me get a feel for where things were going and how much space they required, but it's not necessary. /home on a separate partition is a very good idea. One key advantage is that when you re-install (and newbies do it fairly often), you can leave the /home partition in place and just install the OS around it.

Base System:
When the base installation is finished, you will be presented with a list of optional "tasks" which can also be installed. Select only "Standard System," unless you are installing on a laptop, in which case you should also select "Laptop." You will probably have to deselect "Desktop." My theory is that it's better to install Xorg and your desktop separately. When that's finished, the installation process will reboot the system, and you'll be presented with a "login" prompt.

Finishing up:
Log in as root, and edit your sources.list file to look like the one I've included above. (I'm not going to get into which editor you should use, but manly men use vim.) Comment out the CDRom line, add contrib and non-free to the appropriate line(s), and add debian-multimedia.org.

Aptitude is the preferred application installer. You can also use apt-get, but, until you understand the ramifications involved, use one or the other exclusively. Entering # aptitude ... without any parameters will present you with an ncurses interface which is too complicated for me. I simply substitute aptitude for apt-get on the command line and use the same parameters.

(A minor detour: If you have installed the Stable release with the intention upgrading immediately to Testing, this would be a good time to do that. Before moving to the installation of the X system and Desktop environment, ... # aptitude update && aptitude dist-upgrade)

# aptitude install xserver-xorg-core xserver-xorg xorg gdm gnome-core
then...
# startx (or reboot), and you should be happy, happy, happy.
Note: (If you want KDE instead, replace gdm and gnome-core with kdm and kde-core.)

This will install a very stripped down version of the desktop environment. You will have to find the additional pieces for the functionality you require, but that's better than just absorbing all the junk that installs automatically with the gnome or kde metapackages.

A good way to look for additional desirable pieces of Gnome is:
$ aptitude search gnome-

I assume that kde components could be located similarly.

Kernel Modules

Debian is free (libre). Part of what that means is that no proprietary drivers are included. If you have hardware that requires such drivers, or could be improved by them, you'll have to add them yourself. Many other distributions include such components so the hardware works out-of-the-box. If you strongly prefer such convenience get another distro. No amount of grumbling by disenchanted newbies is going to change Debian in that way. The good news is that if another distro can use your hardware, so can Debian. You'll just have to set it up yourself.

Normally it should not be difficult. Many of the most common drivers are included in Debian's, contrib or non-free repositories. These include rt2500, madwifi, nvidia, fglrx, and others. Assuming you find the needed source code in Debian repos, the rest is easy. Using the rt2500 wireless lan driver as an example:

# aptitude install module-assistant build-essential rt2500-source
# module-assistant prepare
# m-a a-i rt2500
# modprobe -v rt2500

That should fix you up, and similar procedures should get other proprietary drivers working as well. If the needed driver is only available from other sources, there are lots of howtos available, but don't just depend on any set of instructions you find. Ask around for recommendations from people who have recently successfully installed similar hardware.

***********

That should get you off to a good start. If you have additional questions or problems, these forums are an excellent place to get answers
Last edited by rickh on 2008-08-24 22:46, edited 36 times in total.
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Postby garrincha » 2007-03-27 11:54

There is one exceedingly good tip for newbie who wish to go straight into distro like Debian, providing that he/she is committed to doing a little bit of hard work: grab an iso image of LiveCD such as Knoppix and burn it to a CD or DVD, boot it from the CD/DVD drive. You could play around with a linux system without ever touching your HDD.

List of LiveCD:
http://www.frozentech.com/content/livecd.php


This is how I started out, with a debian based distro Knoppix and once I got the hang of it I went straight to Etch/Testing debian distro.
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Re: How to Have a Pleasant Installation (for Debian Newbies)

Postby chealer » 2007-04-05 21:29

rickh wrote:If you run Stable, that means you have made a decision that for the next year or two, you will not add new programs (except from backports), or hardware to your computer. If you do, the odds of breaking something critical are excellent, and you will get very little sympathy.

Wrong.

rickh wrote:That said, Debian Unstable is about as stable as a new release of Ubuntu, Fedora, Suse, or any of the other distributions which release on a calendar-based schedule.

Wrong.

rickh wrote:Debian-multimedia.org is an unofficial site, operated at the level of Debian's exacting standards, which includes multimedia programs which can not be included in official repositories for legal reasons. Almost all Debian users include it in their sources.list file.

Only with a very flexible definition of "almost".

rickh wrote:This procedure assumes you are using the netinstall process and the Testing branch. It is the best way to go [...]

Not necessarily. Testing can be broken, uninstallable, largely uninstallable, etc. There's a reason why it's called testing.

rickh wrote:Aptitude is the preferred application installer.

By whom?

rickh wrote:Many of the most common drivers are included in Debian's, contrib or non-free repositories. These include rt2500 [...]

No, rt2500 is in main.

rickh wrote:# aptitude install module-assistant build-essentials rt2500-source

s/build-essential/build-essentials/
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Postby rickh » 2007-04-06 04:09

I stand by everything I wrote in the the piece. It is aimed at hobbyist/home desktop users, and if they follow the advice, their initial exposure to Debian will be smooth, indeed.

Wrong.
I read threads every day by people complaining that Stable does not work on their new PC; that trying to install some program is filled with dependencies that can't be filled; or that the UI is just dated. These experiences do more damage to Debian's reputation than the fact that people can't deal with the fresh install not working ou-of-the-box. When people can't get their hardware working, they tend to say, "Debian is too difficult." When they realize they are using year old versions of software, they say, "Debian is too old and inflexible." Which is worse?

Wrong.
A large percentage of the people here who report moving from Ubuntu family distros report doing so because of major problems upgrading their systems when a new release comes out. Before I used Debian, I used Fedora ... I know from personal experience how shaky their new releases are; not to mention the fact that the compatibility of applications in their repositories lag far behind the new release.

Only with a very flexible definition of "almost".
My guess would be 90+% of hobbyist and home desktop users. What constitutes "almost" to you.

Not necessarily. Testing can be broken, uninstallable, largely uninstallable, etc. There's a reason why it's called testing.
I have been using Testing mixed with selected Unstable apps since before Sarge went Stable. The only time I have seen significant problems in Testing was during the conversion from Xorg6 to Xorg7. That was a very difficult conversion for everyone. I remember that Ubuntu had a major fiasco during that time in which they released a broken version of Xorg in their "Stable" release.

Testing should more definitively be called the Release Candidate because that's exactly what it is. Granted, the Release Candidate may not be "ready" by Debian's exalted standards, but it's generally better than most current distro releases.

By whom?
By me! I wrote it, right? I think it's also the method most suggested in newer documentation, and it's definitely an improvement over apt-get ... especially when you wish to remove a package and it's no longer needed dependencies.

No, rt2500 is in main.
Oh! Excuse me! Makes absolutely no difference in the example being used, and for many drivers, you do need contrib, and/or non-free.

s/build-essential/build-essentials/
Thank you. Fixed above.
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Postby chealer » 2007-04-06 06:20

rickh wrote:
Wrong.
I read threads every day by people complaining that Stable does not work on their new PC; that trying to install some program is filled with dependencies that can't be filled; or that the UI is just dated. These experiences do more damage to Debian's reputation than the fact that people can't deal with the fresh install not working ou-of-the-box. When people can't get their hardware working, they tend to say, "Debian is too difficult." When they realize they are using year old versions of software, they say, "Debian is too old and inflexible." Which is worse?

You choose, but either choice won't explain why people shouldn't add new hardware to a machine running machine. Sorry for being so vague.

rickh wrote:
Wrong.
A large percentage of the people here who report moving from Ubuntu family distros report doing so because of major problems upgrading their systems when a new release comes out. Before I used Debian, I used Fedora ... I know from personal experience how shaky their new releases are; not to mention the fact that the compatibility of applications in their repositories lag far behind the new release.

I was under the impression that you compared the stability of unstable to stable releases of other distros, not upgrades of unstable machines to upgrades of machines on other distros from a stable release to a newer stable release...

rickh wrote:
Only with a very flexible definition of "almost".
My guess would be 90+% of hobbyist and home desktop users. What constitutes "almost" to you.

Pretty much the same, but I don't share your guess at all.

rickh wrote:
Not necessarily. Testing can be broken, uninstallable, largely uninstallable, etc. There's a reason why it's called testing.
I have been using Testing mixed with selected Unstable apps since before Sarge went Stable. The only time I have seen significant problems in Testing was during the conversion from Xorg6 to Xorg7. That was a very difficult conversion for everyone. I remember that Ubuntu had a major fiasco during that time in which they released a broken version of Xorg in their "Stable" release.

Have a look at this or this. Remember these 2 C++ ABI transitions?

rickh wrote:Testing should more definitively be called the Release Candidate because that's exactly what it is.

No. A release candidate has chances to be releasable as-is. testing could only be released as-is in the end of freezes. We don't have frozen anymore, so we certainly won't have "release-candidate".

rickh wrote:
By whom?
By me! I wrote it, right?

Right, but there's a difference between "the" and "my".

rickh wrote:
No, rt2500 is in main.
Oh! Excuse me! Makes absolutely no difference in the example being used, and for many drivers, you do need contrib, and/or non-free.

Sure, since you tell people to add contrib and non-free whether they want it or not..but that's just your way to do it, so I won't comment.
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Postby DeanLinkous » 2007-04-06 14:01

(puts on flame suit and strolls in for some fun)

rickh - i think some of your post needs clarification/explanation and a few less assumptions

chealer - i think some of your post needs clarification/explanation and a few less one-word answers

Now entertain me with a REAL discussion. ;)
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Postby thamarok » 2007-04-06 14:09

DeanLinkous wrote:Now entertain me with a REAL discussion. ;)
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Postby Lux » 2007-04-06 14:43

There's an interesting (IMO) ongoing effort to make Testing more usable for ordinary Debian users and more attractive for Debian-derived distros. The same effort includes improving the security support in Debian Testing.
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Postby Pobega » 2007-04-06 14:46

DeanLinkous wrote:(puts on flame suit and strolls in for some fun)

rickh - i think some of your post needs clarification/explanation and a few less assumptions


I agree. You're better off not telling new users to add contrib and non-free to their sources so that they have to learn themselves, it makes for a better experience in my opinion and gives the user an understanding of how repositories work.

Otherwise, it's a good guide.

Note: I don't use Debian Multimedia, I don't believe in infringing on copyrights/patents. I use 100% main
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Postby Lavene » 2007-04-06 16:55

Pobega wrote:I agree. You're better off not telling new users to add contrib and non-free to their sources so that they have to learn themselves, it makes for a better experience in my opinion and gives the user an understanding of how repositories work.


I have a better idea. Explain the difference. Because, if the newbie need for example the nvidia stuff to get his graphics going he will need the non-free. I think it's bad form to set out 'traps' in a howto.

I also would suggest to emphasize what is your own opinion and what is the 'convential' way (you know, the apt howto, install guide etc).

Just some ideas...

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Postby sinical » 2007-04-07 05:41

richk, good article, it does what it says and give s a new avg. user what they want, a working desktop that plays music / vids and get them on the net etc.

[Flame suit on, walks into bunker]
To the people ripping at him for what he say was wrong or doesnt agree with your "free/libre" views.. take a step outside the tower for a minute. This a forum post is a howto. Its meant ot be quick and too the point. "use apt instead of aptitude" whatever.. IT WORKS... and reading howtos on apt is a book on itself.

He even quotes in the article that their are more newbie versions avaabile.

The asinine nitpicks people make to an acutally helpful article is well.. amazing.
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Postby DeanLinkous » 2007-04-07 06:04

amarok....err I mean sinical - how many usernames do you have :D

I didn't nitpick, I suggested clarification. I think a newbie intro is a GREAT idea. But suggesting people install 32" tires off-road tires when all they want to do is cruise on main street may not be the best thing to suggest. Let the person decide what is really needed.

As far as the non-free/multimedia stuff, well I also do not suggest people use drugs without having a idea what they are all about first. Why not try to see what free software provides first.

We are offering suggestions about how to make the article more neutral. Thats all. We can work together to make a great newbie into or work against each other with everyone doing their own version....

btw - I do not use multimedia repo, nor contrib/non-free. I also do not use aptitiude. I also stuck with woody stable even when it became old-stable. I have a system with nvidia video card, a system with a via video chip, and a laptop with ati video and I only use the free drivers and they are just fine.
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Postby sinical » 2007-04-07 06:31

DeanLinkous wrote:amarok....err I mean sinical - how many usernames do you have :D


Just the one :D

And you werent the offender(s) that I was speaking about so no stress :P

It really does irk me though to see someone like rickh put some time into a short forum howto and then people say stuff like

"Wrong- Package X is in repo Y" in a way that its like a space shuttle wont launch because of it.

Your car analogy chuckles though :) I know I will get tourched for this but, adding contrib non-free to your apt sources lst and even non-official apt lists to the fille will not download and install programs from those repos UNLESS its requested. So whats the harm? It blows your sources.list out a few bytes .. oh no :)
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Postby Lavene » 2007-04-07 06:32

DeanLinkous wrote:amarok....err I mean sinical - how many usernames do you have :D


Just to kill this one off right away: Mods and admins can see every posters IP. And unless someone is beamed half way across the world several times a day this is two different persons.

And in general: If someone suspects abuse (including multiple accounts) please contact the moderators on team@forums.debian.net

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Postby sinical » 2007-04-07 06:37

Ooo yeah where am I coming form now? :D
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