Beginner's Guide

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Beginner's Guide

#1 Post by beginners-guide »

Last edited by beginners-guide on 2010-12-20 20:19, edited 14 times in total.

Posts: 38
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#2 Post by beginners-guide »

1) A Beginners guide to Debian:


This is an effort to give a basic overview of the Debian system, frequently asked questions, and how people new to Debian can help themselves as much as possible.

I will explain what is expected of new users in terms of forum etiquette and effort. People here are friendly and helpful, but due to the very nature of Debian you are expected to put effort into solving any problems you encounter. This will help get you underway toward becoming a good community member and able to help others!

If after studying and trying a few things you do get stuck, or you're worried you may do damage or lose data, please post in the forum. No one here would want you to wipe out your wedding photos for fear of asking.

I will try to make this guide as sequential as possible, so new users get a basic grasp of things, in order, in a few sentences, and with more detailed answers in the links. Basically, “bite sized chunks” linking to FAQ or good how-to's that already exist. Some small how-to's will be incorporated. I shall refer to the Debian “stable branch" mostly.

Be aware that some information gets old very quickly while some can stay the same for years. Be as sure as you can it's still up to date before applying.

Something to be aware of: Debian is a core or source distribution. This means there are many Debian-based distributions. THEY ARE NOT DEBIAN. Their information may or may not be useful or safely applied to Debian. Debian has no way of knowing what has been changed on these systems. Do not add their repositories or install their programs. You will break your system eventually.

Distributions built from Debian? There are too many to list!

Distrowatch ( wrote:"The success of Debian GNU/Linux can be illustrated by the following numbers. It is developed by over 1,000 volunteer developers, its software repositories contain more than 20,000 packages (compiled for 11 processor architectures), and it is responsible for inspiring over 120 Debian-based distributions and live CDs. These figures are unmatched by any other Linux-based operating system. The actual development of Debian takes place in three main branches (or four if one includes the bleeding-edge "experimental" branch) of increasing levels of stability: "unstable" (also known as "sid"), "testing" and "stable". This progressive integration and stabilisation of packages and features, together with the project's well-established quality control mechanisms, has earned Debian its reputation of being one of the best-tested and most bug-free distributions available today."

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basic built-in commands and documentation

#3 Post by beginners-guide »

2) Finding information:

2.1) Basic built-in commands and documentation: Built in to the system and available via a console, terminal window or help menu:

If all is going well you have a nice graphical desktop with all the familiar controls and menus available. If for any reason that is not the case and you're seeing only the white text on a black screen of a default console, it's essential you know how to navigate the user interface: ... interface) quote ref:

Usually in Linux, the first six virtual consoles provide a text terminal with a login prompt to a Unix shell. The graphical X Window System starts in the seventh virtual console. In Linux, the switching is performed with a key combination of Alt plus a function key – for example Alt+F1 to access the virtual console number 1. Alt+Left arrow changes to the previous virtual console and Alt+Right arrow to the next virtual console. To switch from the X Window System, Ctrl+Alt+function key works. (Note that users can redefine these default key combinations.)

Some further information can be found in section B3 and B4: different terminal-emulators are explained in B3.1; followed by the command-line editors in B3.2 The basic commands for the command line are introduced in section B4.

If you have the graphical X Window System up and running and need to do something at the command line, you will normally just start your favourite or desktop default "terminal window" program. Xterm is always there. The general term "terminal" can refer to either.

man pages:
Every time you install an application it installs its user manual on your machine. These are called “man pages” for short. The quality and style depends on the author. It may be new-user friendly, very technical, very short, or just poor. Some are excellent. To access the man page you open a terminal window and type the man command and the name of the program or command you're interested in, for example:
Code: Select allman mplayer
This will open the mplayer man page. You can use up/down and page up/page down keys to navigate through the document. Typing the letter 'q' will quit the man page browser and return you to the prompt.

You will also find the man pages online in many places. Try “man mplayer” in your favorite search engine.

--help: Many commands have a help file. It uses the normal standard of command name followed by a space followed by --help or -h with some programs. To view the copy command help e.g.
cp --help
mv --help
ls --help
If a help page is very large you can use the pipe "|"command (The pipe command uses the output of one command as the input of the next command) This together with the "less" command (The less command displays output one screen size at a time) You can use up/down and page up/page down keys to navigate through the document. Typing the letter 'q' will quit and return you to the prompt.
cp --help | less
mv --help | less
ls --help | less

whatis: The "whatis" command will give you a very short description of any installed application. e.g. whatis (space) name_of_application.

$ whatis xterm
xterm (1) - terminal emulator for X
$ whatis iceweasel
iceweasel (1) - a Web browser for X11 derived from the Mozilla browser
$ whatis man
man (7) - macros to format man pages
man (1) - an interface to the on-line reference manuals
$ whatis whatis
whatis (1) - display manual page descriptions

More documentation is found in /usr/share/doc. Open your favorite file browser and navigate to that directory. Most installed applications will have a subdirectory of the same name that contains various text or archive files that you can click on to see more information. The package maintainers will often include a read me file that describes what they did to configure the package for the Debian system. This information tends to the technical, but often gives some useful clues.

Most GUI (graphical) applications access files here via their help menus.

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#4 Post by beginners-guide »

2.2) Terminology:

You will likely come across some strange terminology. Many a new users has asked why the foo and bar commands failed!

Abbreviations: gui = graphical user interface,
cli = command line interface,
irc = internet relay chat ,
De = Desktop environment,
Wm = Window manager,
rms = Richard M Stallman,
Toc = Table of contents,
fsf = Free Software Foundation,
foss and floss = free (libre) open source software,
DFSG = Debian Free Software Guidelines,
OS = Operating system.

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the Debian wiki

#6 Post by beginners-guide »

2.4) The Debian-wiki:
Debian has a wiki, very similar to Wikipedia. This information can be edited by anyone that's registered.
There is lots and lots of information there.

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the Debian mailing-lists

#7 Post by beginners-guide »

2.5) The Debian mailing-lists:

Debian lists are archives of email correspondence. They contain may Q&A's. You can search the different archives and subscribe to the lists that interest you. Once you've subscribed you can post questions and receive updates via email and rss feeds.

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how-to search

#9 Post by beginners-guide »

2.7) How to search:

Obvious places:
Beginners Questions
Docs, Howtos, Tips & Tricks

The built-in search could be better. You can use the Google site search facility to get better results. Paste these examples into a Google search to see how they work.

wifi lenny solved

Note that site:domain restricts the search to just the site you want to look at.

ppc OR imac OR ibook AND Bro.Tiag AND oswaldkelso

This one made me laugh, but offers very good advice on searching via subject and user name using the AND and OR options.

Use quotes to group words; "wifi lenny" is not the same as wifi lenny. Google will look for the phrase exactly as quoted, rather than the individual words anywhere in the document. Remember quotation marks can help and hinder your search. Be smart. You can refine your search even more by adding a users name to narrow down your search. You can also help your self and others by asking clear questions and posting with titles that contain information that can be logically found. "Blank screen on imac PPC" is much better than "blank screen" or "broken mac" If you ask for help and get a fix, mark it "solved" works wonders.

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#10 Post by beginners-guide »

2.8 ) IRC:(internet relay chat):

Quote: ref:

"Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a form of real-time Internet text messaging (chat) or synchronous conferencing. It is mainly designed for group communication in discussion forums, called channels, but also allows one-to-one communication via private message as well as chat and data transfers"

1. install an irc application. There are lots: barnowl-ircii-sirc-tinyirc-barnowl-iceape-chatzilla-ii-irssi-konversation-pidgin-scrollz-sic-talksoup-weechat-xchat

A very easy to use but light GUI one is lostirc. Here's how to get it set up

As root install it with
# apt-get install lostirc

Start it from a menu, or a run dialog or terminal by typing its name.

2. Add the server
Under "hostname" Thats the Server put:
Under "port" put: 6667
Under "password" leave that blank until you've registered your "nick"
Under "nickname" your-desired-nick

3. Join the channel : #debian-forums

4. Register Your Nick
In order to register your nick (nickname) for use on debian-forums irc channel you must notify the NicServ. You do this by typing

/msg nickserv REGISTER your-password your-email

NOTICE NickServ: Nickname "your-desired-nick" has been registered successfully and is now yours to use.

Now go and add your password to the "password" section and you can also tick the "connect automatically" box. And automatically join the forum chat by placing

/join #debian-forums

In the "commands to perform when connected" section. ... quickstart

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The Debian project

#11 Post by beginners-guide »

3) The Debian Project:

What is Debian? A little background:
Debian is an operating system, performing the same job as Microsoft Windows and Mac OSX do: running your computer. It has several major differences. It's Free in terms of both liberty and cost, and you are free to contribute to it. Due to the number of different architectures it runs on, it's flexibility and power, it is referred to as “The Universal Operating System.” ... 01s03.html

Debian gives you the choice of several kernels, or core operating programs, the most popular being the Linux kernel. The kernel is the software that interacts with your physical hardware and passes information to your application software. Debian tweaks the vanilla kernel for you, but you can get make your own modifications with tools Debian provides or use a vanilla kernel, too.

Many of the programs used to write applications were created using the GNU tools. These include compilers, editors, linkers, debuggers, as well as most of the system-level commands:

All the software in the Debian system is free software that complies with the Debian Free Software Guidelines.(DFSG)

The Debian project recognizes the valuable input of both the GNU system and Linux kernel in the full name of the Debian OS, “Debian GNU/Linux.”

Who owns Debian?
You could say “No one” or “You do.” Unlike most other distributions, there is no company or magnanimous dictator behind it. It's users create it and share it. This is why you are encouraged to give back by what ever means you can, be it programming, graphic design, documentation, translating, or sharing your knowledge in the forum. If you can only contribute money, that's fine too.

To find out more about Debian finances see here:

Applications that are deemed secure, stable, and free enough to be part of the Debian system are stored on servers, in “repositories” that are mirrored (duplicated) many times around the world. Here is a list of official Debian mirrors:

Along with the mirrors, many additional systems are used by the developers and maintainers to support the development process. Altogether, hundreds of dedicated machines and donated space on hundreds more support the creation and distribution of Debian GNU/Linux.

There are unofficial mirrors also. These may hold, for example, software that has possible patent issues in the USA where Debian is based. These issues may not apply in your country. Some DVD and mp3 software are examples that are not in the official repository but readily available:

The three main Debian branches:
Debian's distribution is divided into three primary branches; stable, testing, and unstable. So far in project history, they have always been named after characters from the Disney "Toy Story" movies.

Stable is currently Lenny.
Testing is currently Squeeze.
Unstable is always Sid.

You can use "stable" in your sources.list and when the current version of testing becomes stable your system will upgrade. If you want to run newer versions of certain applications on a stable system you can, via the unofficial but respected "backports" repository. This combination, stable plus backports, is a good recommendation for new users.

That said "squeeze," the testing branch, is more stable than many other distributions' full releases, but you will occasionally have breakages or bugs that take time to be fixed. With care and a little understanding, it can be a solid, up-to-date desktop system.

To update biotube's great post:

Biotube wrote: Unstable (permanently Sid): When a new version of a package(or a new package all together) gets uploaded, it usually goes here. Sid machines can be highly volatile, (giving birth to the saying "If it breaks, you get to keep both halves"), although it's calmed down in recent years thanks to experimental.

Testing (currently "Squeeze"): After a while, a package in Sid with no really bad bugs gets moved here(the exact time depends on the urgency of the update). For this reason, it's much more stable than Sid. Since packages are updately fairly quickly, it's recommended for desktop users(don't let the name fool you - testing can be more stable than some distros' (especially the-one-that-cannot-be-named) releases).

Stable, (currently "Lenny", soon to be "Squeeze"): Every once in a blue moon, the Debian release team puts testing in what's know as "The Big Freeze". During this time, nothing but bugfixes may be moved to testing. Once all release-critical(RC) bugs are gone, testing becomes stable and a new testing branch is opened. Since only bugfixes are allowed in stable, the packages tend to get dated rapidly.

A new and really nice overview ... ng-system/

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#12 Post by beginners-guide »

4)Getting Started

4.1) Preliminaries:

As a new user your first task is to make sure you gather as much detail as you can about your system. If you are still using another OS, use that to learn as much as you can.

You'll want to know information like processor type, graphics card, motherboard or laptop make and model, hard disk type (ide, SCSI, etc.), network card, and wifi. Identify your monitor and find out what screen resolutions and refresh rates it supports. In short gather as much info as you can on your hardware and write it down or print it out.

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Debian Live-CD's

#13 Post by beginners-guide »

4.2) Debian live-CD`s: trying Debian with a live CD.

One aid may be a "live CD". This is a version of Debian running off a CD without installing onto your computer. This can be a great aid in gathering information about your computer hardware, prior to any "real" installation. They can be used to look at, run tests on and repair a broken system. Running a live CD is much slower and changes are not retained. ... 86/iso-cd/

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Debian installation media

#14 Post by beginners-guide »

4.3) Debian installation media: Getting Debian.

You will usually be downloading a Debian image, burning it to CD or DVD, and using that to install Debian on your hardware. Select a mirror site to download from that is closest to your geographical area. You only need the first CD with the desktop of your choice to get up and running, The other disks provide additional programs, chosen by popularity, from disk 2 onwards, partly through data collected from users that opt in to the "popularity contest" when installing Debian.

Start here:

You will need to choose which architecture you need. Many people will have i386 computers, but not all! Debian supports all the common architectures and processor chips, plus a number of older, more specialized, or uncommon systems.

If you want to be able to install offline or have a slow internet connection, you'll need to download and burn (or buy from a vendor) a set of one or more CD's or DVD's that should have almost everything you need to install Debian with the features that you want.

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Installing Debian

#15 Post by beginners-guide »

4.4) Installing Debian:

There are many great “how-to's” on installing Debian, but you need to consider some questions before installation. Do I want or need to dual boot with another OS? Have I backed up my data in a suitable format? Will my hardware work with Debian? Can I revert if it all goes awry? Prepare first and ask for help if you need to.
The official installation manual:

Nadirs illustrated install:

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The command line

#16 Post by beginners-guide »

5) Running Debian:

5.1)The command line:

You may never want to use the command line interface (CLI). If that's the case, fine, but there will be times when you need to, and have to. It's a fundamental part of running a GNU/Linux system, so it's worth getting used to the basics at least...

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Last edited by beginners-guide on 2016-01-14 16:13, edited 1 time in total.

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Installing software

#17 Post by beginners-guide »

5.2) Installing software :

A default desktop installation will already be set up to let you update, install, and uninstall software from the internet.

Getting software from the Debian repositories or CD's and DVD's if you have no internet or a poor connection, can be done with the command line tools, dpkg, apt, and aptitude. You can also install a GUI (Graphical user interface) application manager like synaptic.

Synaptic The graphical package installer remover and updater

Adding repositories and CD's or DVD's to your system:
In order for your system to know where to get new applications, libraries, plugins, and security updates, it needs to know where to get them from. This is done by adding details of the repositories and CD's to your sources.list file. This is a text file that resides in


By editing this file you can completely change the software available to your system. On a normal desktop PC you can expect to have over 20,000 “packages,” depending on the exact version you installed, and if you chose to include the “contrib” and “non-free” sections of the repositories.

Debian is a Free system and as you saw from the “social contract” only includes, and depends upon free software in the core system. All software in the “main” section of the repositories in your sources.list is Free-software.

For the convenience of it users Debian also links to “contrib” and “non-free” repositories. The “contrib” section is free software that links to or depends on some non-free software. The “non-free” section is non-free software as in proprietary, rather than cost.

This is what my current squeeze/testing sources.list looks like with comments. You will notice a hash "#" sign in front of some lines. This "comments out" or disables it and is common practice when wanting to retain information but disable it's action, or to add comments to any configuration file.

#deb cdrom:[Debian GNU/Linux testing _Squeeze_ - Official Snapshot powerpc xfce+lxde-CD Binary-1 20091123-11:38]/ squeeze main

deb squeeze main
#A short explanation: the deb part refers to the native Debian pre-compiled binary file, a deb. It's similar to a Microsoft .exe file or Mac OSX .dmg. Cdrom can point to any cdrom(s) from the package list that you may have downloaded. Then we have the mirror URL address. I'm in the UK so that's my closest. Next we have "squeeze" the version of Debian I'm running, followed by main the official free repository. If you need or choose to add contrib or non-free these would be added after main. e.g. deb squeeze main contrib non-free

deb-src squeeze main
#comment: deb-src indicates that this is linking to a source file repository. You can download the source code for any program on the system, modify it, and even build and package your own software with other tools in the repository.

deb squeeze/updates main
deb-src squeeze/updates main
#comment: Security updates are automatic by default.

deb squeeze main
deb-src squeeze main
#comment: This is a third party repository. It contains possibly patent encumbered code that is not included in Debian by default. Even though if may be free-software. (Were talking patents here not copyright.) You will also note that like many third party repositories, it does not respect the main, contrib, non-free protocol (even though I've not included them above, I could have). With all third party repositories it is up to you to check their status as to free-software vs. non-free, (There is an application in the repositories called "vrms" that can aid you in this.) It's up to you to check the license, security, and quality etc., of third party packages. The "Backports" repository falls under third party repository also.

Backports now official ... 00007.html


Take care to only add Debian specific repositories. Never ones for Ubuntu or other Debian based distributions. Installing a .deb package from such sources or downloaded from the internet does not mean it will run on any Debian system. The deb may have been compiled with different setting not compatible with a real Debian system.

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Last edited by beginners-guide on 2011-08-17 17:37, edited 1 time in total.

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X: the graphical display

#18 Post by beginners-guide »

5.3) The graphical display: (referred to as "X" or as "X Windows")

The X Window System is a Free (Mit licensed), cross-platform system for managing a windowed GUI (graphical user interface). If you don't want to be looking at a blank screen with a flashing cursor you will need this. Sometimes, now rarely, “X” can fail to be configured correctly on installation. It may fail completely (blank screen and said cursor) or, for example, not use the highest resolution that your monitor supports. This is why it's so useful to gather information on your graphics card and monitor first. Debian has tools to help you configure X from the command line interface (CLI).

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The basic system file structure

#19 Post by beginners-guide »

5.4)The basic system file structure:

If you come from Microsoft Windows you may well be wondering where the C, D, or E drive is! It's gone. If you come from Mac OSX, being based on BSD, the file structure may be more familiar. In Debian there is a single / root directory (folder) with everything placed in it. You can see a general view of how the subsequent directories are organised in the links below. ... truct.html ... ilest.html

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Root and user

#20 Post by beginners-guide »

5.5) The concept of Root and user:

"root is the user name or account that by default has access to all commands and files on a Linux or other Unix-like operating system. It is also referred to as the root account, root user and the superuser. "
An ordinary user only has control over files in his/her own "home" directory, though they may be "allowed" access to other files and applications.

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