Debian: Yesterday's Distribution?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 20, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The latest Debian Project News recently announced a code freeze in preparation for a new release by the end of 2010. It's a sign of the times that the news went mostly unreported. Which makes me wonder: What is Debian's role today?

There's no doubt that, in most people's minds, Debian no longer occupies the place it once had in free and open source software (FOSS). Five or six years ago, upcoming Debian releases, or elections for Debian Project Leader were major news in the community (I know, because I covered them). Now, few of the news sites gives much attention to either event.

Partly, this change is due to shifting priorities. The emphasis in FOSS today is on usability, and Debian remains burdened with a reputation of being hard to install and use. Under these circumstances, Debian seems to be yesterday's distribution -- good for its day, but superseded by others, especially the desktop-focused Ubuntu, its own child.

However, this view is at least partly an illusion. To start with, Debian has had a very workable installer for several years now. In fact, it is the basis for the Ubuntu alternative installer, the one you use when you are having hardware problems or want more input into installation. You can customize just about every aspect of the installation, or, if you choose, go with the defaults, allowing you to control the degree of customization in the installation more thoroughly than just about any other installer.

For another thing, while some distributions are more concerned than others about ease of use, today what increasingly determines that factor is not distributions themselves so much as the desktop that is in use. Using GNOME or KDE on Debian is not so different than using GNOME or KDE on Ubuntu, despite Ubuntu's recent usability efforts.

If Debian is failing, then any other distribution might wish to succeed as well as Debian in its decline. The latest figures show that Debian has 1410 developers, about two-thirds of which (873) are active. If you assume three community developers for each of the approximately 300 developers at Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, then even today, Debian still compares favorably with Ubuntu. It probably helps that many of those who develop for Ubuntu also have roles in Debian.

Another sign of Debian's continue importance is the sheer number of distributions that are based upon it. (http://www.debian.org/misc/children-distros). The Debian site currently lists 23 active distributions that are directly based on it, including Damn Small Linux, KNOPPIX, Mepis, Xandros, and Ubuntu itself, which has spawned its own child distros, such as Mint.

At a conservative estimate, nearly 60% of current distributions must be based directly or indirectly on Debian -- and most of them depend on Debian's reputation for stability. If this is failure, it looks surprisingly like success.

The old arguments

Still, the question remains: Why use Debian itself today? The answers have changed so little that trotting them out again seems be redundant, but they are either technical or social and philosophical.

On the technical side, Debian's main advantage is stability. In the past, Debian has had some long intervals between releases, and the content of its Stable repositories have sometimes become sadly out of date as a result. In the last few years, Debian has tried with limited success to improve this record, but, as a distribution that is strictly non-commercial and remains untied to any corporation, Debian has few temptations to push a release out the door before it is ready. This seems to me one of the unarguable advantages that a community distribution has; it can concern itself with quality rather than arbitrary concerns like timeliness.

At any rate, because of Debian's three repository system, official releases matter much less than they do in other distributions. Under this system, you can balance stability and current software the way that you choose. If your priority is stability, then install from the Stable repository and make use of its regular security updates. If you want the latest software, then install from Unstable, and risk the occasional system problem. If you want a balance, then use Testing. These terms are relative (it says a lot that Ubuntu releases are generally based on Unstable, and its periodic Long Term Support releases on Testing), but they allow you to set up exactly the kind of system that you want. In practice, most home users seem to mix the three repositories, with only those for whom stability is an absolute priority -- such as network administrators -- opting for the security of the Stable repository.

Debian also has its attractions on the social and philosophical side. What other distribution has its own constitution, or elects officials according to an arcane -- and strictly fair system of vote counting? Or elects a leader who can influence, but not command?

Even more importantly, Debian is biased towards free software, but leaves the choice up to you. By default, the package sources point only towards free software. But, if you know about the option, you can enable sources for software that is free but depends on non-free, or for proprietary software.

This is a view of free software that you will not find at the Free Software Foundation, but it is one that I respect all the same. Personally, I enable only the sources for completely free software, but I appreciate that Debian gives me a choice, even though it does not present the choices equally.

The best of the community

Debian is not perfect. I, for one, would appreciate it offering a Linux kernel without proprietary firmware blobs. It wouldn't have to stop carrying kernels with the blobs -- just give a choice, as it does in everything else, to cover the complete range of options. [Update --Apparently, Debian now does allow you to run a completely free kernel. It does so by putting the proprietary blobs into a separate package. This solution strikes me as a typically Debian solution: offering you freedom, but leaving the choice up to you].]

But, in general, the reasons for using Debian remain as strong today as they were a decade ago. If Debian is less well-regarded than it once was, the main reason is not that its advantages and attitudes are in anyway obsolete or irrelevant.

I suspect that the main reason for the change in attitude is that attention in FOSS is shifting increasingly towards the commercialization of the software. A project like Debian that sticks to the old values of the community, emphasizing quality over punctuality and user control over commercial slickness is simply not one that is going to get much notice today.

However, in the face of the prevailing attitudes, these values are worth celebrating and preserving. That is why, despite a reservation or two, I remain a Debian user and -- despite the virtual copy of Ubuntu permanently installed on my system -- that I feel no need to switch permanently to any other distro.

Comments

  • Hard to install?

    As a complete linux n00b who just spent a day trying unsuccessfully to install YDL on a G4 (checksums all ok) only to get debian installed once without problem, then have a poke around and reinstall to my own specification (no GUI, all server) I can't honestly think that anyone would have a problem with lenny. It's not quite as easy as OS X mind you, but it was pretty simple and the support pages from debian are top notch. just my 2c.
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  • Tried a few, returned to Debian

    Bruce,

    Every distribution does something that sets it apart from the rest. What Debian does is stability and variety at the same time because of the huge repositories. Want a lean-and-mean server? Or everything and the kitchen sink workstation? Debian will do it using exactly the same tools so that there is no need to "change gears" when logging into a different machine.

    I ran Debian Unstable on the desktop for 9 years, and found it plenty stable compared to other distributions. And Debian Stable, well, as the name implies. The only reason I stopped my present "desktop" at Lenny is KDE3. Not all progress is forward.

    Debian Stable is perfect for a server. After all, a server is supposed to be "stable". Once installed and working, nothing but security fixes. Once it works, leaving it alone is exactly the right thing to do, until the software for which the server is built is updated, at which time I rebuild the server with Stable again.

  • Great Comments, Great Distro

    Howdy,

    I just got done reading through the article and all the comments and I enjoyed pretty much them all. I love Debian, and I love Sidux, but I'm currently using Ubuntu 10.04 LTS on all my systems. There are definitely some annoyances, on my HTCP I have to gut Pulse audio and reinstall a complete ALSA setup if I want digital audio sent to my receiver in all it's glory (which is a real pain), and I don't use most of the "gee wiz" social apps, but I still stick with it because:

    1) More people/companies support Ubuntu. Example, all the professionally maintained PPA's for Ubuntu really make my life much simpler. Example, Nvidia's, XBMC's, Firefox's, Icecat's, SABnzbd+'s, Pidgin's, and so on.

    2) Generally more up-to-date packages often equals better support and less hassles for more hardware. Example, when I last ran Debian (right after Lenny went stable) I had to install the wifi firmware on my fiancées laptop. Also thanks to the PPA's again and the integrated proprietary driver manager I can keep my HTPC up-to-date with the latest Nvidia drivers without any added hassle. Maybe the PPA's will all work with Debian Squeeze? Which would be a huge boon if so, however there would still be the hassle of deciding to run with Stable, Testing, Sid or some messy combination of them (all which I've tried in the past).

    3) As someone who's worked as tech support and as an IT guy supporting end users I can confidently recommend Ubuntu 10.04 LTS to novice computer users and/or people who might be hesitant about switching from their tried and true Windows world. Debian stable is definitely stable, but it's less up to date and is slower and less regular to release than Ubuntu. I would have to backport or something to get the latest version of Firefox or start apt pinning which in my experience causes more problems than fixes. There is Debian Testing, but that's not something I can give to my mom or sister and not immediately dread the onslaught of tech calls within the hour and continuing on until I remove Debian testing it favor of something more manageable.

    Again, I love Debian and I understand it's relationship to Ubuntu and all Ubuntu depends on Debian for, but Ubuntu originally came about as a real need that Mark Shuttleworth, as a Debian dev, saw. A regularly released, stable enough Debian testing/sid based distro.

    Yeah, it's popular now, easy to poke fun at, or be afraid of, and it's not to everyone's liking but it still seems to fill that original niche nicely.

    Though, with that said, the comments here have definitely made me itch to do an install of Debian testing and see how things go. If the PPA's will work, or I can find similarly easy methods for keeping my key stuff up-to-date I could definitely enjoy running a Debian system in place of Ubuntu. And I'm definitely more comfortable with GNU/Linux since my last run, but I'm still not keen on adding more work to my daily life for something that's essentially a tool for me to use for work and play.

    However, if that's not the case, and Debian testing doesn't fit my needs, then maybe the upcoming Linux Mint Debian build might become a true competitor of Ubuntu's current niche.

    Anyway, my little take on the Debian / Ubuntu thing.

    Cheers,
    daemox

    http://www.ainer.org
  • Debian is the one for me

    Hi Bruce:

    I normally enjoy your articles a lot, but in this case I think you were
    a bit obvious about how you set up a strawman argument. On the other hand, this old technique still works very well because you have provoked quite a bit of interesting comment. happy

    I started using Linux in the 90's with slackware, and then moved to RedHat, but I have been using Debian since 2000. I also tried Ubuntu on one of my computers for a year or so, but it had some drawbacks relative to Debian as far as I was concerned. (1) The install was actually harder because my hardware (at that time) had a combination of floppy + non-bootable CD that fell outside the narrow mainstream that Ubuntu gave fullest support to. (2) I disliked the two-tiered package support system where most of the support is given only to the core subset of packages. (3) I disliked Ubuntu's rebranding of upstream software and far prefer Debian's approach which is basically to present upstream software in as unmodified form as possible. (4) Ubuntu is two removes from upstream which makes reporting bugs more difficult.

    The last point is especially important to me because I like to pay for my chance to use software in freedom by reporting bugs in such software. However, a given Ubuntu bug could be due to Ubuntu, Debian, or upstream issues which adds 50 per cent more uncertainty about the source of the bug than when I am reporting bugs directly for my Debian distribution.

    There is a lot that is positive about Ubuntu. They have obviously won a lot of new recruits to the Debian GNU/Linux cause, and they also spend a lot of time and effort supporting/educating those new recruits
    using a well-regarded code of conduct. Like others here I believe the best of those recruits will eventually give pure Debian a try and love it.

    So more power to Ubuntu since their success goes a long way toward assuring Debian success!
  • Debian is still the best for me

    No matter which distro I tried in the past, I always came back to Debian quite fast. In my eyes, the biggest advantage is Debians flexibility. It is not as low-level as Gentoo, but Debian has the advantage that it is easy and fast to maintain.
    I use it for for servers, desktops, laptops, netbooks, HTPCs and I think I could use it just fine for about anything else.

    If you compare it to Ubuntu: Yes, Ubuntu may be easy to install, but when you use it you have to use the standard desktop with all the default features, otherwise it gets messy. I mean, there was a big discussion, and tons of news everywhere about the window button placement in the default Gnome installation of Ubuntu... As a long time Debian user this seems more than just a little strange...
    In Debian I just do a default install without Desktop and add all the stuff I need. Configuration is made transparent and easy.
  • Re: Freeze != BSOD

    "Dear Bruce,

    "Freeze" in Debian doesn't mean that it doesn't work anymore ..."

    Huh?

    Where do you get the idea that I believe that?
  • bleh

    I really just wish that all of the debian/dpkg/apt based systems would die. I dislike all of them. Slackware, Sorcerer, Gobo, SliTaz, and Blag are great. Slackware for mission critical. Sorcerer for mission specific. Gobo for my desktop. SliTaz for mobile. Blag for when I am feeling all "free software"-ish.
  • Re: Proprietary Firmware Blobs

    "You obviously don't know enough about Debian to speak about it's ethics. There are two packages in the Testing repository, one being "firmware-linux-free" which contains all free firmware normally found directly in the Linux kernel, and the other package being "firmware-linux-nonfree" which contains all the proprietary firmware normally found directly in the Linux kernel."

    While I could do without your unnecessary rudeness, I'm delighted to hear this news. It had slipped by me entirely, In self-defense, I can only note that this is a relatively recent development.
  • Freeze != BSOD

    Dear Bruce,

    "Freeze" in Debian doesn't mean that it doesn't work anymore ...

    PS: Contrary to what my "name" suggests, I run (non-freezing) flavors of Debian Stable and Sid, depending on what each of these actual computers need.
  • Give me Debian any day

    I recently tested Ubuntu 10.04 LTS; supposedly stable. It failed to run on my test machine because the great guys at Ubuntu had not removed bugs related to the (Intel) video chip in my test machine. This is strike 3 as far as I'm concerned. Ubuntu LTS should be better.

    I also recently installed Mint LXDE edition on two machines. One has worked fine while the other has given me quite a bit of grief.

    On the same machines Debian Lenny has worked with very few issues. Enough said.
  • Proprietary Firmware Blobs

    You obviously don't know enough about Debian to speak about it's ethics. There are two packages in the Testing repository, one being "firmware-linux-free" which contains all free firmware normally found directly in the Linux kernel, and the other package being "firmware-linux-nonfree" which contains all the proprietary firmware normally found directly in the Linux kernel.

    "Debian packages of Linux 2.6.32 should now be DFSG-free." - http://is.gd/ebfAY
    This is the kernel used in Squeeze.

    And many blobs were removed from Lenny's kernel as well, just not all of them http://is.gd/euhHr
  • Wanna know a secret?

    Why is Ubuntu one of the greatest desktop distros ever? Yep -- it's because it's based on Debian. Debian is for those who have tried out Ubuntu, got all enthusiastic, but then, at a certain point, asked themselves: why should anybody settle for a derivative when they can just as well go for the real thing?

    Read more at http://bufferoverflow.tiddlyspot.com/#[[Why%20Debian]]

    Oh, and -- happy birthday, Debian!
  • Debian is viable as a distribution for tomorrow

    I've been using Debian since Woody.
    Somewhere around Sarge, I started pulling from the testing/unstable branches, and I've been consistently running from testing/unstable ever since.

    It seems to me that there are a significant number of Debian users who run the testing/unstable branches. Now, while I can only speak with any degree of certainty for myself, running Debian testing/unstable, in my perspective, gives it the feel of a distribution with rolling updates, with the minor annoyance of pre-stable-release freezes to act like a roadblock to the rolling updates. So, if a significant number of Debian users are running the testing/unstable branch, then we really couldn't care less about a new stable release.

    So, I look at the announcement of an upcoming stable release with dread and annoyance. The annoyance comes from the regular testing/unstable updates stalling while everything gets ready for the upcoming stable release.

    The dread comes from a weird coincidence:

    I have been in the hospital during every stable Debian release, for anywhere from 3 week to 8 weeks, starting with the Sarge release. I wish Debian would just go to a rolling version model so I can stay out of the damn hospital.

    But that's just my opinion....
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  • Debian: rock solid WIR policy makes it perfect for servers

    Hi,

    I mainly agree with your reasoning but there's one thing that makes me prefer Debian for my servers over other non commercial distro such as CentOS: it's rock solid and I can sleep well at night.

    At work I deal with RHEL and SLES but for my servers Debian stable is the choice. (note: If I had my own company I'd probably go for Ubuntu/Canonical in order to have rpm free environment that has a support and tools made with commercial enterprise in mind).

    It's true that Debian policy tend to have a stable with obsolete packages, ie: I'm setting up a mail server in these very days and ClamAV is EOL. But there's a solution for this and other cases alike: debian volatile repos or, as you almost said in your post, apt pinning.

    I found this a great solution with a good balance of stablility and "newness" which is perfect for a server.

    As for my desktop / laptop system I prefer more "modern" systems considering the specific cases:

    multimedia studio pc: Kubuntu and I'll try Studio64 one day. Both Debian based, rock solid and easy. Great deal of pacakges.

    laptop and desktop: Arch Linux. Modern and always up to date, great deal of configurability and total liberty of choice.

    desktop and laptop for newbies that I care for: Kubuntu.

    specific task computers: (ie: old laptop used by our network admin to go to the server room and connect to switches and firewall for emergency situations): very minimal Debian install with LXDE. I tried many of those "small footprint" distro (Puppy, DeLi et others) but NONE of them could run properly. Only a very minimal Debian install then personalized with LXDE and few specific tools did it.

    All in all, Debian is "demodé" , not fashionable anymore but still is a *great* distro that gives me peace of mind.

    --
    cga
  • Hardware support

    I tried lenny on my laptop and i had to compile the sound drivers,the sound works on Ubuntu or Arch.
    I know the hardware is the problem but how can i know what laptops/desktop are 100% Linux friendly
  • Without Debian...

    ...there won't be Ubuntu. There are two really important Linux-distros on earth - Debian and Fedora. What's purpose of Ubuntu? Pull newbies to Linux. But after they really have made friends with Linux, they won't stay just in Ubuntu. That's the evolution of Linux today. If i get a server i propably install Debian (or Cent OS) in it.
  • The Ultimate in Quality and Stability for Linux Distributions

    I've been running Debian (stable) servers on the same hardware for 10 years now. I've dist-upgraded my way through all the major releases since then and haven't had to re-install anything. The only re-boots have been to upgrade the kernel or when the power went out longer than the UPS was able to cope with. By the way, the stable release is far from irrelevant - it's the release that works for servers and those admins who just want it to work without any fuss or muss.
  • Debian

    One argument for using Debian and Debian-based distributions is the consistency of the .deb packaging and apt-based package managers. Consider: if you find an rpm file, there's nothing about it that says it was produced for a Redhat/Fedora environment, or SuSE or Mandriva, etc. These distributions have different naming conventions (from each other) for their packages, as well differing directory structures.

    When I was running rpm distributions, I'd much rather have the .spec file and patches, and build the RPM file myself. I knew what to look for in spec files that differ between Fedora and SuSE, for example.

    But with Debian, the packages have the same naming conventions, they install to the same place. I can pick up a Debian package and install it on Ubuntu and expect it to work.

    And then, the sheer number of packages available in their repository is staggering, compared to what you'll find for Fedora or SuSE. They focus their time on a core set of 300 packages, and you can go out and search for packages that are a little too esoteric for them to offer.

    I used to have PA-Risc, Sparc, and Alpha boxes. The distribution is the same across the board.
  • Debian Stable...

    Why? Even for us "old-school" Linux users/admins, few have time anymore to mess around with repetitive software issues in todays world. But it also works GREAT on even the oldest of the Pentium class desktops. I've used Debian for 10 years now, and although I have experimented with many other distros.. I always shift my network back to Debian Stable.
    I run Debian PIIs', PIIIs', and P4s' on the LAN, and it really is a Stable run all the way. Just keep up with the security updates and your good until the next release. Debian Stable is great for desktops and servers. Easy to install, easy to use and customize. blunk big-smile
  • Debian is still going strong

    Debian was my very first Linux distro ("Potato", circa 2000). It was definitely not considered "newbie-friendly" back then. In fact newbies such as myself were actively warned off from it. RedHat (the Ubuntu of its day) was supposedly a newbie-friendly" distro, but Mandrake and SuSE were were establishing reputations as "really" newbie-friendly.

    I wasn't a "techie", but rather a used-books seller, who's main previous experience was "admin-ing" 2 or 3 Win'9x computers at the bookstore, and my own Win'98 computer at home. Of course, you might say that I cheated; I actually read the Debian Installation Guide and the Debian Manual first. Maybe that excludes my experience from pertaining to issues of "newbie-friendly" Linux, Debian or otherwise? Anyways, as you mentioned, the development of a friendlier installer, among other improvements, has made Debian almost as "easy" and "newbie-friendly" as Ubuntu.

    In my personal experience, installing and tweaking Ubuntu or Debian are both, nowadays, easier and more "newbie-friendly" than doing so with Windows. If you have any doubts about this, just watch an actual "newbie" work his/her way through the "first boot" rigmarole and configuration of even a brand-new, store-bought, pre-installed Windows computer, setting-up internet and e-mail, peripherals, learning to use unfamiliar software, etc.

    I agree that Debian's "shortcomings" are mostly illusory. Perhaps the best indication that this is in fact so, is the trend for some Ubuntu users to switch to Debian, once familiarity with Ubuntu has dispelled the anxieties involved in leaving the Microsoft plantation. Ubuntu has its strengths, but Debian has its own advantages, too -- it's not going away anytime soon. The fact that it forms the basis of so many other excellent distros is a concrete indicator that it's not one of "yesterday's distros", but rather one of tomorrow's.
  • Debian is still the best

    When I first tried GNU/Linux, it was from a Red Hat 6.0 CD in a book. From there I tried later Red Hats, Mandrake, Slackware & so on. Then I tried Debian, because of what I'd read about apt. I was in love from my first net install. After using rpm-based systems, apt was a big breath of fresh air.I've used Testing since 'woody' & I'm as happy now with it as I was then. I also appreciate their attention to quality & stability over arbitrary deadlines & bending the knee to corporate lobbyists & marketing droids. Plus who else supports so many hardware platforms?
    To anyone thinking of switching distros - give Debian a go.
  • Debian to go

    Without Debian I believe Linux could be lost, and even though there isn't much fuss about new stable releases or freezes, I think lots of us know where the true and stable base for *buntu and others is placed. Debian will always be the base OS to me - even though Kubuntu/Mint KDE have been the base for my daily work for the past years - and what I return to when modules etc. are fucked up in *buntu (like their backport of .33 GPU/DRM modules to kernel 2.6.32 in latest LTS, which leaved lots of slightly old GPUs not working - still not solved). Also Mint are of cource hunted by theese mistakes, and I really hope that they take their rumored change to Debian as base serious.

    Even though Debian isn't as easy to install compared to some other dists., I would say that things have changed remarkable with the Lenny release. And with a little work after the installation, you get your self a really user friendly environment, which provide mostly what you got in other popular dists. - but with perfect stability and and the real open source code behind it.

    Long live Debian and all the Debian developers out there.
  • Because it just works

    I have used so many computers since 1967 I just don't tolerate anything that needs rocket science to set up, I have lost the will to learn more. Most distros have some special toy they shove in your face, and some special bad they hide away. Learning curve for the toy, then dump the distro for the bad.

    The Debian installer didn't ask for a learning curve, and my near-default desktop still doesn't. It just works: it's stable, secure and functional. And on the rare occasions when I need to, tinkering is made easy. I don't lose stuff, I don't get told Nanny knows best, I don't have to learn new tricks.

    "Debian is hard"? Not any more. Debian iz the biz.
  • Debian is the Rock

    Debian is the rock on which many distros build on, paint on, attach stuff, carve their steps and add graffiti. The rock appears to do nothing, in fact it's quite uninteresting by itself.

    Debian Rocks!!!
  • Debian Rocks!

    Debian's freeze was reported on a number of sites.
    People are just getting getting too rapped up in Ubuntumania and they forget where it came from.
    Some will go to Debian after they get tired of Ubuntu's bugginess. That is what I did.
  • Not Debian but releases

    Not Debian, but it's stable releases are irrelevant. Because most of its derivatives use unstable/testing versions, no one cares about stable releases.
  • Running Squeeze

    I use both Debian Squeeze and Ubuntu. Debian is more predictable on updates. Also fewer library problems.
  • dist-upgrade

    I have ran Debian sid on my crappy dell for 6 years. Still haven't had to reinstall. I tend to run apt-get dist-upgrade daily. Not once have I ran into any major problems.
  • Dist-upgrade

    @CMD - I use a mixed unstable/testing Debian, and do an aptitude dist-upgrade twice a day every day. I've had no problems - ever. YMMV of course.
  • Debian

    Debian's great as long as you don't try dist-upgrade it, or have they fixed that bug now?
  • Because of Debian

    We have Ubuntu, no debian, no Ubuntu, no package manager which just works without any fuss, brings in all dependencies, even for x32 programs under x64 environment.
  • Not reported?

    You musta been preoccupied by all your spring cleaning cuz that freeze was reported by just about every site that has anything to do with Linux. ...and even by some who don't usually.
  • Why Debian?

    Why Debian?

    because it is stable (even when I am using Testing)
    because I can get it to run the entire desktop with all the bells and whistles by just adding the "non-free" "contrib" and Christian Marillat's "multimedia" repo.
    because when I ask for help in the forums (specifically Linuxquestions - Debian forum), useful information is shared by people who knows what they are talking about

    and I am a just a user who do not have any former computer training.
    imagine what true computer users can do with Debian happy

    Happy 17th birthday to Debian !
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