New adventures in Debian land

After my return to Debian I thought I could let you know about some of the pitfalls for returning Ubuntu users.

This is in random order, but more or less how it occurred to me.

  • I used Debian testing (Codename “squeeze”) 64-bit. The installation came from a USB stick generated using Unetbootin. Unetbootin and booting the Netinstall installer worked just fine.
  • The netinstall installer is not graphical at all, it’s good old text menus. I didn’t mind much because I used to be able to navigate the goddamn Debian installer blindly back in my sysadmin days. I wouldn’t recommend this for new users, though. I hear there’s a graphical installer on the full Debian CD (instead of the netinstall disc), so you’re probably better off with that.
  • After installation, the machine wouldn’t boot. GRUB had fucked things up and wouldn’t even launch. This can happen sometimes if you install a new version of GRUB 2 over an old GRUB 1. I had to boot the unetbootin stick into rescue mode and do grub-install /dev/sda and update-grub to get it to work.
  • Once up, WLAN wasn’t working. This is due to the Realtek 8192SE chipset in my netbook, which isn’t part of the mainline kernel yet. I downloaded some driver source from Realtek, did apt-get install build-essential and got the kernel headers. Then I could compile the driver, load it and boom, I was on the wireless LAN. Does this in any way, shape or form work for the average user? No, it doesn’t. But on the upside, Ubuntu can’t handle this WLAN chipset either.
  • I didn’t have any 3D acceleration (NVIDIA) yet, and Debian is very much against non-free software so they don’t include a proprietary driver manager like Ubuntu does. On Ubuntu, NVIDIA drivers are a one click thing. On Debian, I instead downloaded the binary NVIDIA proprietary driver installer from NVIDIA, entered a text shell, killed GDM and X, installed the driver, wrote out a default xorg.conf file using Xorg –config, changed the driver to nvidia and restarted GDM. This gave me 3D acceleration. Since the NVIDIA proprietary driver detects my screen’s DPI wrong, my fonts were all too large at this point. I couldn’t find a graphical way to configure this, so I just added this to xorg.conf:
  • # NVIDIA proprietary options
    Option "UseEdidDpi" "FALSE"
    Option "DPI" "100 x 100"

  • Later I started on a quest to enable 3D window effects and all that Compiz eye candy. The official documentation says to install some compiz packages and then a simple compiz --replace would take care of things. This didn’t go down well on my system, no window manager comes up so I end up with X windows but without borders or decorations. I’ll have to investigate a bit more.
  • Mounting my Samba-based file server’s shares didn’t work with smbfs/cifs. I usually want my Samba shares to look more or less like normal UNIX directories on my GNU/Linux machine, that’s why I normally mount them in using cifs/smbfs. I don’t want to use GNOME’s server browser and style of mounting, it’s different and breaks in a lot of situations that I’d prefer would work transparently. So I tried mounting things, using the exact same /etc/fstab as on my Ubuntu box. But on Debian I get “Operation not permitted.” Apparently the authors decided that normal users should never, not under any circumstances be able to mount CIFS filesystems, and Debian is now following these instructions. It’s sort of inconvenient to mount these shares as root. I’ll see if I get used to it.

To be fair to Debian, this is still a testing release. But the nature of the problems I had doesn’t make me very optimistic that they can be fixed automatically in a final release. Maybe the graphical installer would have taken care of some of them, I don’t know. I might try out.

This is not to say that I’m unhappy with Debian. It is a stable, free (in all senses), universal operating system. It works really well. It keeps my conscience white as a flower. It’s just not for everyone, and I hope some of the examples above show why.

11 thoughts on “New adventures in Debian land”

  1. On Debian, I instead downloaded the binary NVIDIA proprietary driver installer from NVIDIA[…]

    Why not debian-way?

    apt-get update && apt-get install nvidia-kernel-source module-assistant nvidia-settings nvidia-xconfig
    m-a prepare && m-a a-i nvidia
    grep -q ^nvidia /etc/modules || echo nvidia >> /etc/modules
    apt-get install nvidia-glx
    rmmod nvidia
    modprobe nvidia

    I couldn’t find a graphical way to configure this, so I just added this to xorg.conf:

    Didn’t find it either and don’t think there’s any other solution (:

    This didn’t go down well on my system, no window manager comes up so I end up with X windows but without borders or decorations.

    It’s because of default settings — just go to CCSM and check if you’ve got window decorations enabled. If you haven’t got CCSM installed you can do it using gconf-editor too.


  2. My girlfriend is _not_ a techie. Yet, she installed her own laptop just fine.

    Sure, the installer may not be pretty, but it’s functional, fast and to the point.


  3. @Hadret: In squeeze there seems to be a circular dependency involving some of those packages, they wouldn’t install at all. Or there was no package for the current squeeze kernel? I can’t remember for sure, but the Debian way didn’t work for that particular thing. Thanks a lot for the CCSM hint, I finally found a sentence explaining JUST THAT in the Debian documentation and will try it tonight 🙂 It probably really is just a problem of default settings.

    I was under the impression that Debian’s wiki was less complete than e.g. Ubuntu’s, but I no longer think so. The digging I did in the last few days shows a much improved wiki! I used to admin Debian servers for nearly 10 years, so I have some history with Debian, but you can’t know everything by heart. Which is where wikis matter 😉


  4. @RichiH: She installed it using the text installer? Did you explain partitioning? I think that’s the part where a non-techie can really venture into dangerous country 😦

    I’m VERY happy with the text installer, maybe my article sounds too grumpy. I just don’t know if it’s a newbie-compatible thing.


  5. With Steve Jobs & co’s latest move to be the biggest bunch of cocks on the block, I’m quite seriously tempted to slap a bit of Linux on my half dead MBP (yes, yes, I know I’m a staunch *BSD fan, but hey, you gotta keep up with the kids, right? 😉 ), regardless of how much I love the OS X environment.



  6. Debian won’t be the worst choice then 🙂 You can almost compile most of the system yourself there, too, if you go the apt-src route.

    But then again, how about FreeBSD on that MBP? I think it might work okay?

    Personally I’m just not deep enough in the BSD stuff to really understand e.g. disklabels and how to rescue/mount a system from some bootable media if it pisses all over itself. I feel comfortable with that on GNU/Linux, that’s one of the strongest reasons why I haven’t explored BSD more yet.


  7. Oh sure, it’d probably work a dream, I mean it’s (OS X that is) mostly BSD as it is at the moment.. give or take a few lines of code, but I just need something that runs linux at home, so I can remember how the damn OS works without needing to boot into a VM all the time..

    FWIW, I don’t think FreeBSD ever piss over themselves.. though they might give you the odd surly look if you’re not careful! Plus: ZFS, need I say more? 😉


  8. Yeah, well, that’s a point. The only FBSD system I’ve maintained for any length of time (3 years?) never had any issues. But I still don’t feel comfortable if I don’t understand exactly how those filesystems and partitioning schemes work. It’s mostly the disklabel that creeps me out.

    Who knows, I may overcome this and go down that route myself 🙂


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