Re: Does Debian = Ubuntu?

On Tue, Jul 07, 2009 at 06:59:36PM -0500, Chris wrote:
On Tue, 7 Jul 2009 16:55:01 -0700
Daniel Spisak <dspisak@xxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

This is not a flippant question, but one I'm curious to hear an
answer to.

Is Ubuntu just Debian but with a prettier look to it?


Ubuntu is a Debian-based distro.

Lots of differences: some big, some small but all may be significant. I
am _NOT_speaking in an official capacity for the Debian project or,
indeed, for Ubuntu to whom I'm also a contributor.

When Ubuntu first started, one of their developers said to me "If we
could have called it Debian for desktops, we would have done". That was
their focus then: it has widened significantly now. But the core focus
for Ubuntu remains the user experience and a small core of applications.

Largely subjectively, from as far to the outside as I can get :)

Rationale/design goals

Packages in Ubuntu main are very highly polished, very well maintained
and Canonical/Ubuntu go the extra mile to make the experience easy for
the user. That comes at one or more of several costs:


Lack of choice - you get one mail client rather than a choice of
several "out of the box", for example. Choices are made for you - its an
issue of supportability. Debian offers you more flexibility at the price
of complexity or being willing to support your choices.


Lack of architectures: if you're not on Intel/AMD64 or, possibly,
ARM/Sparc/PPC (depending on release) - you can't run Ubuntu. Debian
running on 11 or so architectures does mean that a) the process is
sometimes slow b) the code gets debugged c) is made portable/fixes are
contributed upstream.

Developer/user ratio

Canonical has relatively few paid developers, a highly motivated
volunteeer developer community, a much larger community advocacy and
marketing budget and a vast number of new users. This does
mean that their developers are massively outnumbered by their users and
priorities have to be set. Packages in universe/multiverse may therefore
receive less attention than those in main in Ubuntu.

At least in theory, every package in Debian is equal and has a known named
maintainer who takes an interest :) It does mean that Debian does much of
the heavy lifting of packaging and initial support for out of the way
packages - it also means that, if I want support for R and CRAN, for example,
I'd go straight to Debian because the maintainer has a personal and
professional interest for seeing it work well as an integrated system.

Release cycles

"We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty" - Canonical
has those because it releases once every six months. This consistency
comes at a price: users expect new whizzy features with each release and
the development cycle is very short indeed. Long term support releases
happen every 18 months and are supported for three years on the
desktop/five years on the server. That's hard. It's _very_ hard to
support new hardware with long term releases. "Normal" releases may mix
packages from Debian stable with testing, unstable or even experimental
(whizzy features) but get only a short testing time.

Debian "releases when ready" but then supports that release until about
a year after the _next_ release. 22 months to release Etch, 22 months to
release Lenny + 12 months = 56 months. Slow moving progress through
testing to release, regular point updates with security fixes.

Freeness vs. pragmatism

Ubuntu may sometimes take a pragmatic attitude for "software that works"
for users. They also have the ability, which Debian does not, to enter
into commercial agreements for third party apps e.g. Oracle/VMWare.
[DFSG - not "licence just for Debian"]. Canonical benefits from Debian
idealism but it can't flow the other way :(

Upgrades between releases

You'll hear lots of views on this. SUBJECTIVE OPINION FOLLOWS:GUT
FEELING AND EXPERIENCE IN EQUAL PARTS. Ubuntu is harder to upgrade
cleanly between releases and it may actually be quicker to reinstall.
You certainly can't skip a release so you'd need to do 8.04, 8.10,
9.04, 9.10 (for example). This is partly a consequence of short release
cycles above. Debian is _far_ more polished here /SUBJECTIVE


All of this is very well explained by The Official Ubuntu Book and Mark
Shuttleworth's latest interview for ?? Linux Format ?? magazine.
Its also worth reading newsgroups/fora and / to get a better appreciation of the similarities and
differences in approach. Debian and Ubuntu each have strengths: its a
(sometimes uneasy) symbiosis - both distributions share many of the same
developers, for example, but not necessarily end goals - but Debian
gains as much as Ubuntu if they'll just fix their bloody bug #1 :)

Hope this helps,


Best regards,


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