Initial Impressions (and Criticisms)
of Debian Lenny


To my shock, the next iteration of Debian was released and it hasn't been an eternity. For those who don't use Debian, releases in the past have taken very long amounts of time. It is usually the butt of jokes along with Windows (Vista) release cycle times.

I actually put off upgrading to Etch until only a little over a year ago expecting I would still have at least several more years before Lenny.

My experience I am about to convey is actually two separate experiences, a brand new computer and fresh install, and an upgrade on an old computer.

The Story of the New Computer (New install on Mac Pro)

I was entrusted with a new Mac Pro to do some development work on. The work was for a cross-platform project, so I needed Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux on the computer. We needed OpenGL acceleration so I needed to have native partitions. Since I heard Debian Lenny was out, I thought I would give it a try.

I have come across many stellar reviews about Debian's updated installer. My opinion is much more muted. While not bad, there are both serious bugs and  some design problems.

1) Silly me, I'm still not used to having a 64-bit (non-Mac) system, so I installed the x86 CD install version first instead of the amd64 version. (I've been spoiled by Universal Binaries.)

2) I picked the graphical installer and ignored the advanced options. The notion of 'advanced' in Linux usually is much more extreme than in Windows or OS X, so I tend to steer clear.

3) In setting up a triple-boot Mac, I needed to be very careful about which partition I needed to format and install to, in order to avoid destroying my other operating systems. The user interface while not terrific, was adequate enough to let me pick the correct partition with confidence. But... (see #5)

4) The package install took a very long time. There were some presets you could check...I believe I selected something like 'Desktop' and 'Standard', but I think I was really after a 'Developer' preset. I was annoyed that the preset I selected was installing tons of large applications I had no need of like Open Office. Since I only had Disk 1 of the CD install, it had to download all the packages on the fly. The UI really needs an option here to review the packages selected by the presets and change them.

5) UI Design Flaws and Serious Bugs: After the long process of installing packages, I get prompted to configure GRUB boot loader. I need to be very careful about this because the wrong option will break my triple-boot. I do not want to install it to the MBR, but instead to the Linux partition. Unfortunately, by this point, I no longer remembered my partition by device name/number. 

Unlike the initial formatting stage, I am not presented an interface listing my disk's layout. I am just expected to know. This is a UI design flaw for two separate reasons. First, the information I want should be available. Second, this selection should have been done during or right after the format/partition phase so everything is fresh in the user's head. Considering how long the install process is, it is very possible that a system might be left on over night to install.

Not willing to take a chance on guessing my partition device name, the UI layout gives the appearance that you can go back to a previous install step. So I decided I would go back to the initial format step and look at the disk layout. I went back and rediscovered which device I wanted. But when I tried moving forward again to the GRUB step, I got trapped. The interface kept reloading the format step every time I tried to move forward. So this is either a UI design flaw (you can't jump around) or a bug (going back doesn't work).

So being trapped, I repeated the necessary steps to move forward. But on some steps, I noticed that the installer did not behave or display the same information as before so I think my install was now completely screwed up.

6) The install claimed to finish, but I didn't really trust it due to the bugs, so I decided to do it again. This next time, I would get everything right including getting the AMD64 DVD Disk 1 instead of the CD.

7) The second time around, the install went smoothly.

8) I am still a little annoyed by the fact that if I try to update any packages, I am prompted/blocked to put in my DVD first. I usually lose my disks so I would like a way to continue on even if I don't have the disk. (Yes, I know I can change the /etc/apt/sources.list to remove the disk dependency entirely.)

9) The process for installing the proprietary Nvidia drivers has changed a little since Etch. To my great annoyance, the 'dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg' step no longer seems to help me generate video settings for my xorg.conf. Running this only got me keyboard settings and other minor stuff. Just to get things running, I manually hacked the xorg.conf which I know I'm supposed to do and put in the most basic values to get glx enabled. I'm actually still not sure what I'm really supposed to do to fix this.

10) I discovered that I could not get VMWare Fusion to boot my Lenny install (from within OS X). Ubuntu 8.10 just worked. I speculate that the problem is with the version of GRUB Lenny is using. The GRUBs seemed very different between Lenny and Ubuntu 8.10. Sadly, because of this problem, I had to abandon Lenny on this computer for something that would boot from VMWare. (See my coming triple boot article for more details.)

The Story of the Old Computer (dist-upgrade on Pentium 3)

This is the computer I used when I wrote about upgrading to Etch. I actually was planning to wait on upgrading to Lenny until a later revision so any bugs might get worked out. But things didn't play out as I expected.

I was just going to do a routine security update, but then I noticed that all my packages wanted to be updated, resulting in a massive list and download size. I interpreted this as Etch was going to try to automatically upgrade me without my explicit permission. 

This has never happened to me before. (I've been using Debian since Potato.) Never before has Debian tried to automatically upgrade me. Previously, I would always have to opt-in by performing an 'apt-get dist-upgrade'. Otherwise, I would stay on my current version and just get security updates.

I am rather irked at this new behavior.

Seeing as I would be forced to upgrade whether I like it or not, I didn't want to risk letting my system update itself without a formal dist-upgrade, so I canceled the process, and then performed the proper 'apt-get dist-upgrade'.

1) After the long install/download, things went mostly smoothly. I think there was 1 conflicted package (GTK2 related?).

2) I have a customized Samba configuration file. The old file didn't work with the new version. I had to add the following to get symlinks to work:

        follow symlinks = yes
        wide symlinks = yes
        unix extensions = no

I don't understand what the last two lines do and why they are needed, but the first line by itself was insufficient to get symlinks working again.

3) My Nvidia card is now old enough that I've fallen into the 'legacy' category so I had to install the (proprietary) legacy drivers. I'm not surprised by this though and was fully expecting it.

4) My sound card stopped working. I have a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz (PCI) sound card. It used to work in older versions of Debian. The chipset uses the Cirrus Logic Sound Fusion CS46xx driver. After a long search, I discovered that the driver was removed in Lenny due to licensing concerns

I sympathize with their reasons, but how annoying and disappointing for me, especially since I just bought a Behringer MiniMon Mon800 mixer so I could always hear the sound when played.

And I don't really feel like compiling and maintaining my own kernel anymore.

5) I changed my system to use KDE and kdm a long time ago. After updating to Lenny, the setting still persists there seems to be a bug if I log out of a KDE session. Instead of taking me back to a login screen, the manager seems to hang or die and I get a blank black screen. I have to restart kdm to get a login screen back.


All in all, while Lenny isn't that bad, I think it was actually a net loss for me. I can't use it for a new triple boot/virtualized system, and the loss of my sound card driver kind of stings.

Copyright © PlayControl Software, LLC / Eric Wing