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13 May 2009, 09:28

Health Check: Ubuntu and Debian's special relationship

The H looks at the history of the popular Linux distro and the details of its relationship with Debian

by Richard Hillesley

Ubuntu is five years old. The release of Jaunty Jackalope coincided with the fifth anniversary of a meeting that Mark Shuttleworth called of a dozen or so Debian Developers in his London flat in April 2004 to map out his project to create a distribution that was capable of taking Linux to the masses. During the five years since that meeting Ubuntu has sprung from nothing to become the most popular Linux on the street.

There are good reasons for Ubuntu's success. Ubuntu is rooted in the GNU/Linux developer and user communities and is firmly based on Debian and the work of its world wide community of unpaid volunteers. The objective of the Ubuntu team was to create an uncomplicated entry level version of Linux that was easy to use, but didn't sacrifice the traditional virtues of flexibility and configurability.

Ubuntu logo Ubuntu is an ancient African word from the Zulu and Xhosa languages, which is not easily translatable, but means something like "humanity towards others." The name was well-chosen, both as a reflection of Shuttleworth's twin ambitions of promoting the ideas behind free software and of advancing education and opportunity in his native South Africa. It was incorporated into an instantly recognisable trademark, Ubuntu now claims over 10 million users, and is the most popular Linux distribution on the desktop.

The Joy of Sid

Mark Shuttleworth
Mark Shuttleworth
Shuttleworth was himself a Debian Developer and had been the maintainer of Debian's implementation of Apache. He had even considered standing for election as Debian leader as a means for pushing for more frequent releases of Debian. Not surprisingly the core development team of Ubuntu consisted of a number of Debian and ex-Debian Developers, and Ubuntu is based on a snapshot of the "unstable" tree of Debian, which is merged into Ubuntu's current code release every six months.

Ubuntu is Debian unstable with some of the rough edges smoothed over, some security features deprecated and some enhanced, the implementation of proprietary blobs made easier, a bit of polish, a different theme, and a lot less packages. Ubuntu is a clean and polished experience for those new to GNU/Linux, (although the 'release often release early' philosophy it has taken from other free software projects has created occasional stability issues). The success of Ubuntu is a testimony both to the marketing and packaging of Canonical, Ubuntu's holding company, and to the ongoing application and innovation of the Debian community whose work lies at the core of every release of Ubuntu.

Cannonical logo The achievements of Ubuntu, the Ubuntu developers and the Ubuntu community are easily measured by its success in fulfilling its self-imposed mandate as a Linux that is easy to install, easy to use, easy to update, and easy to manage. In contrast the Debian community, which is by far the largest developer community in the free software world, is too often characterised by the slow progress of its stable releases and its willingness to down tools in pursuance of its ethical remit as the bastion of free software development.

Stable releases of Debian are just that, much like the enterprise versions of Red Hat and SUSE, which are considered finished when they are deemed to be fit for the job. To sample Debian as it really is means dipping into the unstable and experimental branches from which Ubuntu is derived. One unscientific survey found that 76 per cent of Debian users run the unstable release (nicknamed Sid), of which Shuttleworth once wrote "the two things that Debian Developers absolutely agree on are – first, the uncompromising emphasis on free software, and second, the joy of Sid."

"Debian is the Tibetan Plateau of the free software landscape," Shuttleworth has eulogised, "elevated through the grinding efforts of conflicting passions to the point of forcing those who visit to get along in a somewhat rarefied atmosphere. It can be difficult to breathe up there, sometimes. It's a bit like the Linux kernel itself: show up, with code, and take your place at the table. And the results are spectacular - Debian as a community creates what I believe is one of the great digital artistic works of the era, and frankly comes as close as I can think possible to actually delivering something that does meet all those conflicting agendas and goals."

Next: Irritations and diversions

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