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19 August 2008, 07:55

Dr Oliver Diedrich

Debian is 15 years old

Ian Murdock founded the Debian project 15 years ago. Now, more than two thousand developers are working on Debian GNU/Linux, and the free distribution is a well established star in the Linux constellation.

When Ian Murdock created the Debian project on 16 August 1993, the Linux kernel itself was barely two years old. There were early distributions already, of course, Slackware being the only one of them to survive, but those were systems produced by firms or by individual developers. Murdock had a different vision; one principle of Debian is that it was intended from the start to be an open project that anyone could help work on – a Linux by the user for the user, growing in the same way as the free software it contains. A second principle behind the Debian platform is that the distribution is made up of exclusively of free software. The name is a combination of Murdock's first name and that of his wife, Debra.

Release 0.9R6 appeared in the autumn of 1995, when the development team numbered fifty people among them Bruce Perens who later led the team for many years, and was the first version suitable for everyone to use. New versions, each bearing the name of a character from the film Toy Story, have been appearing regularly since then. The current version is 4.0r4, the fourth update of Debian "Etch" Version 4.0 that appeared in April 2007, which thanks to an updated kernel to improve hardware support was named ""Etch-and-a-half". The next release, 5.0 ("Lenny"), is expected in September.

Versions of Debian GNU/Linux
Date Version Name
26/10/1995 0.93R6
17/6/1996 1.1 Buzz
12/12/1996 1.2 Rex
5/6/1997 1.3 Bo
24/7/1998 2.0 Hamm
9/3/1999 2.1 Slink
15/8/2000 2.2 Potato
19/7/2002 3.0 Woody
6/6/2005 3.1 Sarge
8/4/2007 4.0 Etch
26/7/2008 4.0r4 "Etch-and-a-half"

Around 2000 developers are now working on Debian GNU/Linux in their spare time, most of them concentrating on individual program packages from out of the many thousand making up the Debian distribution. The Debian Free Software Guidelines lay down how the work is done, define the free software that can be admitted into the distribution, and stipulate details of the development process, such as how to handle bugs or create new program packages.

Within the Debian community in recent years, there has been repeated criticism of the organization and the laborious process that has to be meticulously complied with, but this process is what ensures that developers can concentrate on the real work without having to discuss the same questions and problems over and over again. It also ensures that, within the Linux world, the Debian distribution continues to enjoy a good reputation as a stable and mature system, unaffected by squabbles with some free software developers such as Jörg Schilling who produces cdrtools (over licensing within cdrtools) and the Mozilla Foundation (over the use and ownership of branding in Mozilla's Firefox and Thunderbird).

The good image of Debian GNU/Linux is reflected not least in its popularity as a free and technically solid basis for other distributions, including Ubuntu ("Debian is the rock upon which Ubuntu is built"), Xandros and Freespire, the live system Knoppix and the c't Debian server.

This has made Debian GNU/Linux the record holder among Linux distributions for the computer architectures it supports. Etch runs on eleven different processor families, from x86 and x64 through IA64 to Alpha, SPARC, ARM, PowerPC and S/390. The distribution consists of almost 20,000 program packages. For years it has occupied a firm spot among the top ten most popular Linux systems as listed by Distrowatch. Debian has been a forerunner in many ways, such as its clear rejection of non-free software, and its package management, which for years now has enabled individual program packages or the entire distribution to be updated easily over the internet. The Red Hat and Novell commercial distributors have also discovered the advantages of a community approach, in their Fedora and OpenSuse projects.

On its fifteen birthday, Debian is a living project with the largest developer community in the world of free software, apart from the Linux kernel. The coming release 5.0 ("Lenny") is on the finishing straight and, if the Debian team can meet its planned release date in early September, Lenny will become the latest Debian distribution. The community is already working on the versions that will succeed it. So, here's to the next 15 years!


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