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Mon, 20 Dec 2010

5 Reasons why Debian Unstable is Not for End-Users

Debian unstable is not conceived as a product for end-users, and for very good reasons. There seems to be some misunderstanding and people trying to push end-users to use unstable. This blog post tries to address the claims raised and put them into proper light.

1. It contains mainly stable versions of the software

The critical part here is the term mainly. Yes, developers are advised to only upload packages to unstable that they deem to be suitable for the next stable release. This is no hard requirement though and no one actually playing a gate-keeper enforcing this recommendation. Also, there is a fine amount of packages that follow either VCS snapshots or development branches, and only time can tell how stable those releases actually are. That's actually why there is a delay of several days before a package can transition over to testing.

2. It doesn't break badly every other day

That's right—but if you look at it, it also means that it does break badly eventually. And if you don't know how to move on from there, including knowing the location of maintainer scripts and how to edit them in those cases, or even resort to a rescue system, you are in troubles.

3. It's the basis of other distributions

That's right in itself too, but it doesn't address the fact that those other distributions do put a lot of effort into quality assurance to work around the most nasty and annoying bugs that do affect unstable every other day.

4. It's not inherently less secure than Stable or Testing

It's not inherently more secure than stable or testing either. And this is also ignoring the fact that some security bugs don't even get into stable or testing, they only affect unstable and have to get addressed just there.

5. I use it on my main computer

This is the reason that you should ignore as most. People using unstable are often enough deeply involved into Debian maintenance, know how to write maintainer scripts, know where they are located in case of troubles, know how to use a rescue system in case of bootloader or kernel troubles. Just think about whether you would consider yourself to be at the same knowledge level than the person who wrote the blog article you read that used this as a convincing argument.

Conclusion: Stories always have several truths attached to them. If you feel adventurous, like to understand what's going on and have a tendency for digging into things that go wrong, you most probably are using unstable already anyway and are reporting bugs that you find along your way. If you on the other hand rather just want to use your computer and don't want to work around (smaller) bugs every other day, you rather should stick with the release that is actually provided as purpose to suit the needs of end-users: stable.

/debian | permanent link | Comments: 19

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Kumar Appaiah wrote at 2010-12-20 14:37:

6. Most Debian contributors/users/community will gladly step forward to help if you use stable, since it's "supposed" to work. If you use unstable in spite of being warned and something breaks, be prepared to face responses like "Haha, told you so" or "you asked for it" for queries of help (maybe not literally, but figuratively). :-)

Petteri wrote at 2010-12-20 15:02:

The "haha, told you so" attitude is disgusting. I agree that newbies should not use unstable, but also debian community has some growing to do, if it wants to get rid of the bad image: http://unmotivationalposters.com/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=96&g2_serialNumber=3

JavaBean wrote at 2010-12-20 15:12:

i have been using sid for about 6 months now and i don't have most of that knowledge.... i choose it because it can be considered a "rolling release" and i was tired of reinstalling ubuntu. Now i don't even have a working ubuntu or anything else but debian "sid" installed on my computer. I haven't really looked back(other members of family have latest LTS of ubuntu) and can't think of why i would. Although i will say i do want to learn alot more about building and maintaining debian/-based systems but that is purely as time allows.

Michael Goetze wrote at 2010-12-20 15:38:

JavaBean, you don't need to reinstall if you use Debian stable. Unlike Ubuntu, Debian cares about making upgrades from one stable version to the next work seamlessly.

If you really want a rolling release I would recommend testing rather than unstable.

Aaron Toponce wrote at 2010-12-20 15:44:

I've been running Sid now for the past 4 years straight, and the only things that have broken for me were X and CUPS. They were bad enough, that it caused some serious headache for about a week for X and well over a month for CUPS. Other than that, I have had less trouble with Sid than any other operating system, and it's the release that more closely resembles a Windows experience for end-users.

Luther Blisset wrote at 2010-12-20 16:13:

If this is motivated by Mr. Hertzog's post, then it's kind of missing the point, IMHO. Why? Because the article is about why "Unstable" is not a fitting name (whether one agrees with that or not is irrelevant, so I won't comment further), not about why end-users should use Unstable. Furthermore, the article contains the following quote near the beginning: "It's not conceived as a product for end-users".

Marcus wrote at 2010-12-20 16:15:

I am in no way involved in Debian development, but I'm using Debian sid. Think it's pretty much a bit more stable than Ubuntu was on the same machine (stable Ubuntu). In my opinion sid works very well for the end-user, just maybe not for newbies or mission-critical machines.

Kumar Appaiah wrote at 2010-12-20 19:27:

I think the attitude in my first comment seems to be mistaken. I think few in the project would disagree that it is not sustainable to support "unstable" as a release worthy platform in the current scheme of things. I have often met with users who try some things in unstable and end up not knowing how further to proceed…, and then they go back with a not-so-rosy picture of Debian, when they actually didn't use the recommended distribution. Is that what we want?

Personally, I have never expressed ire at anybody who has asked me any question about unstable or testing. I just feel that I have often observed that many of the quirks which "unstable" users seem to have are those which would never crop up if they had used stable. So, the name "unstable" serves as a good disincentive from encouraging them from using it. Naturally, you can feel free to disagree with me, this is just my opinion. :-)

JavaBean wrote at 2010-12-20 20:34:

@Michael Goetze....... don't ask me why i decided not to use Lenny anymore..... i honestly don't remember actually. But yes i do agree my computer crashes far less often now (running Sid) than it did running ubuntu(8.04-10.04) and i can leave it on all the time($uptime 12days, i think that is 22hr 10 min). My only problem i am having is that i can't have double sided printing on my print options anymore"i don't get either" but since i don't really care about that i just flip the paper and put it back in and problem solved. So yes i like using Sid and am trying to figure out how to go from my current state(sad) to a useful member of the Debian/-based community. So maybe using Sid will help with that...or not i don't know i just like how well it works for me.

Rodrigo Rosenfeld Rosas wrote at 2010-12-20 23:02:

I can't remember exactly when I changed to Debian unstable (probably when KDE 4 was in unstable and not in the others), but I've been very glad with it since then. I feel it is more stable than both Stable and Testing distribution and I've already said somewhere in the past that it should change its name from Unstable to Edge because it is better suited. Also, working on an Unstable desktop is much more pleasure than the other ones. And I never worked on Debian maintenance either (not that I'm proud of that). I guess most users would be happier with Unstable than Testing or Stable anyway, although I think it is great to have both variants. I also agree with Luther that the point is that Unstable is a name that doesn't fit.

Seung Soo, Ha wrote at 2010-12-20 23:11:

Although I really liked the original post by Raphaël Hertzog, I think I agree more with your post. Especially point number 5.

Velvet Elvis wrote at 2010-12-21 02:12:

I've been running a mix of sid and experimental since I got fed up with the Sarge freeze. I've been running linux since you had to install slackware off a stack of floppies so I know my way around a linux box in general.

I'm not much of a coder but I've submitted maybe 50 bugs, a few with patches over the years. I run sid as my desktop machine in part to help with testing though I'm nowhere near as advanced a user as you depict.

Debian's unstable suite is more stable that Federa or Ubuntu's stable releases for the most part. The only reason I wouldn't recomend it to the average user, assuming they are using apt-listbugs is broken dependencies that can be a pain to resolve.

Velvet Elvis wrote at 2010-12-21 02:58:


I think anyone who would consider running Arch, Gentoo, Slackware, or one of the BSDs as their main desktop machine would be perfectly OK running Sid.

I wouldn't recommend it to my grandmother but I don't see the point in telling the vast number of linux users who enjoy hacking around on their systems, who enjoy compiling their own kernels from upstream source to go away either.

Debian needs its geeks. Make them feel welcome.

Chris Hildebrandt wrote at 2010-12-21 07:55:

Re 1.) Not "only time can tell", but those who actively use Sid actually find & fix bugs in non-stable package versions.

Re 2.) If not abused (e.g. mixed with badly 3rd party repositories, proper usage of apt-get dist-upgrade), Sid does not "break badly", and there is never a need to edit maintainer scripts. Just do not continue with your dist-upgrade if you see problems, simply wait 1-2 days - or ask for help at Aptosid forums.

I have not seen the need for a "rescue system" in 7 years of Sid usage.

ad 3.) Yes, this is a very important and true argument. Just please see the difference between distros picking just a fraction of the Debian package pool and freezing them in their own repos (e.g. Ubuntu), and those directly using Debian repos as they flow, plus some additional packages (e.g. Aptosid).

Re 4.) While the Debian security team is doing a great job in keeping Stable secure, it still needs some time to do this work. Sid's security comes from the direct stream of already fixed newer upstream versions, which usually happens much faster. Yes, there is the point of security related bugs freshly introduced by new versions, but those are very, very rare (and usually fixed very fast).

Testing is the last in receiving security related stuff - if any.

Re 5.) Aptosid users do use Sid since years, and the mayority of those users are far from being experts, many of them just knew how to install and use Ubuntu before, and some even have been true Linux beginners before.

Conclusion: Sid is not "unstable", but very much usable in most use cases - specially when done together in a community where help and support is provided.

Discouraging people from using Sid does not only hurt Debian's image, but also it's technical base, because Sid needs to be used and tested in order to make Stable perfect.

john Gartside wrote at 2010-12-21 16:15:

I can see every reason why a techie with at least two CPUs would wish to use the aptly named sid but I can see very little reason for a normal user or a commercial site to use sid.

For Hertzog to suggest that Ubuntu uses sid is disingenuous since I have to assume that Ubuntu takes a snapshot and polishes that for release whence it is no more sid.

For people to say that sid is more stable than Ubuntu or Fedora, I say "and?". Who cares that Fedora users are Red Hat guinea pigs or whether Ubuntu is a flawed concept, the point is that Debian (stable) is first and formost about stability such that it can be used with confidence by normal users and commercial operations across a wide range of CPUs).

Obvioiusly, Debian as a GUI based system is somewhat obsolescent but since Debian as a GUI based system is still relatively juvenile, it would be reasonable to expect a tendency to catch up with useful Windows based facilities over time.

(For context, I am a normal Debian user but with a 30 year career in professional systems developement elsewhere so I know the expensive damage that can be wraught on users by unstable systems; I say no to bugs.)

RainCT wrote at 2010-12-21 16:36:

I've been using Sid for a year and other than some temporary printer breakage I haven't had a single problem with it.

The funny thing is I started with Lenny (testing) and it gave me problems continuously (dependencies not having migrated yet, etc.), which were all fixed when I switched to unstable.

However, I agree with your post; even though I haven't needed it so far, I know how to fix or reinstall my system, and when I hand CDs to someone (or even my secondary computers: netbook and work) it's always Ubuntu.

macfly wrote at 2010-12-21 21:55:

I've been using sid since the first debian installation potato. There were few troubles over the years but I always found the solution in the net. I do not understand why you bother so much with the stable release I'm never going to use it.

Pete wrote at 2010-12-22 14:38:

this is so boring. I agree Ubuntu is a flawed concept for end users, but they contribute lots to the open source code base (good and bad). Debian has always "been there for me", but Stable is too slow and boring for me. no bug fixes, you have to make/pull backports instead of mixing from testing/unstable if you dont want dependencies to break. it can be a pain in the ass. testing is ok but lots of dependency problems and the long freeze periods we have with this huuge codebase its no fun. yup, fun is a factor to me. with unstable we get all the new stuff as we go, and contribute more than stable users (stable is a niche tbh.), its been working good for me as desktop use (laptop) with kernels from Experimental for a good long time (there is always rolling back, though rarely needed). On servers I totally see why people would use Stable. on my production server I use CentOS (partly because of lazyness, I cant be expected to test out every new flow of packages if there is a constant flow). so just give people the knowledge that it *might break* , and probably will if you use it for a while. let people make the choice themselves

Chris Hildebrandt wrote at 2010-12-23 13:50:

Just an addition: I do use Sid/aptosid also on commercial web hosting servers since over 5 years. While I have to confess that the images I use are of course stripped and costumized snapshots, they are dist-upgraded monthly, at least. The result: A super stable, super recent, system clients enjoy a lot. And security can't be better, because usually web server components and applications do profit a lot from latest versions.

I do the same (costumized Aptosid images) since many years with business desktops with restricted user accounts, centrally administrated. Distributing the same to friends and family makes the support I have to provide much easier, as the code base is the same everywhere. Using Stable would not make my life easier, because I would have to deal with backports and ongoing demands for newer versions.

So, it's not just the private desktop/laptop/netbook/workstation. Correctly used, maintained and supported, Sid is a fine rolling distro you can use for many different use cases. But sure, I would not throw Debian Sid/Aptosid onto absolute beginners without support.

Yes, I do use Stable, too - mostly just on servers where expensive commercial closed source applications are still incompatible with Sid.

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