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30 years on, Debian is at the heart of the most successful Linux distros

Debian is an island of stability and sanity in the constant swirling chaos of Linux and open source. Long may it continue to be.

Ian Murdock announced the new distro on August 16, 1993. Three decades later, Debian is arguably more important and more pivotal to the modern Linux world than ever before. The project calls the event Debian Day, and there are celebrations around the world this weekend. If you can get to one, you should – real-life FOSS parties are great fun.

It’s not the oldest extant distro, although it’s only a month behind Slackware, whose 30th birthday we covered last month. Slackware is still maintained by original project founder Patrick Volkderding, while, sadly, the founder of Debian is no longer with us.

Debian, though, has more remixes and respins and derivatives, and via them more users, than any other Linux distro – with the possible exception of ChromeOS, although of course a lot of people don’t consider ChromeOS to be a Linux distro. (Android dwarfs both but it’s not really in the same playing field.)

Free as in ‘free beer’

It’s important to remember that the word “free” in “free software” does have two meanings. No matter how many self-important thinkpieces say it, FOSS isn’t just about freedom. The simple fact that you don’t have to pay for it matters as much or more.

This is especially true in poorer parts of the world. FOSS OSes also work better on older, slower computers, which drives adoption among the billions who can’t afford the latest laptops. The innovative Endless OS distro doesn’t rely on always-on internet, but while it uses Red Hat-backed tools such as GNOME, OStree, and Flatpak, it’s built on Debian.

Without FOSS operating systems, there would be no “cloud.” It’s nothing technical: it would all work fine on paid-for OS instances, and they form part of it. What made AWS big was the machine-controlled deployment and control of VMs, but nobody sane would allow an auto-scaler to deploy thousands of instances if they cost a thousand bucks each in licence fees.

It’s free Linux distros that made Google possible, and Debian is the most important free distro. While Google puts out ChromeOS to the masses who don’t care what their laptop runs on, internally it runs on its own in-house distro called gLinux Rodete – based on Debian.

And, of course, there’s Ubuntu. Before it launched in October 2004, its sole web presence was no-name-yet.com, which said:

Response at the time was muted. For instance, the KDE blog said it was “supposed to be Debian made good (shorter release cycles being one of the main features).” As far as we can tell at Vulture Towers, the splash made by Ubuntu was small enough that The Reg didn’t cover it until 2006, when the first ever LTS release appeared – two months late.

Ubuntu was and is a direct offshoot of Debian. It’s Sid, the DebianUnstable release, integrated, tested, and repackaged.

Nobody really knows how many Linux users there are; there are only estimates. TrueList reckons that Ubuntu has 33.9 percent of the market, followed by Debian at 16 percent. That’s half the Linux market for Debian and its higher-profile offspring.

We also suspect that those figures may not adequately represent Chinese usage too. We’ve looked at the two leading distro families from the People’s Republic. Kylin is one, and it’s an Ubuntu remix. The other is the Uniontech UOS family, of which Linux Deepin is the international, end-user-facing member. It’s based on Debian.

The Chinese “3-5-2 programme” aimed to replace Windows with Linux by the end of last year. We don’t know if it’s succeeded, but what it’s replacing it with is Debian and Debian derivatives.

Red Hat makes the big bucks so gets the big headlines, but according to Truelist survey, Red Hat-based distros only constitute about 10 percent of the market, and of that share, some 95 percent are the free ones. That’s why everyone is so upset that Big Purple killed CentOS Linux then killed off the rebuilds too.

Red Hat sold for $34 billion, but that money represents about 1 percent of Linux usage. Debian and its offspring have 50 times as many users as RHEL. Even factoring in CentOS and Fedora, it’s just a fifth as many users as Debian.

Although some big businesses make much of the noise, what they’re squabbling about is the relatively small paid-for slice. In the meantime, Software in the Public Interest quietly gets on with funding the gentle giant. It’s the free stuff that really matters, and there Debian is the “rock in a swirling gyre of ‘move fast and break things’.” ®

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