There are quite a few accolades heaped on the Debian GNU/Linux
distribution, but "it has a great installer" is rarely one of them.
While the current installer has its defenders, many users find it to be
arcane and difficult -- particularly those who are new to Linux. The
point that one only need install Debian once is well-taken, but the
first attempt often befuddles new users to the point of abandoning
Debian GNU/Linux before they can fully appreciate the strengths of the
Now users have not one, but two new installers to look forward to in the
near future. The Debian Project has been working on a new installation
system for the "Sarge" release for some time. Joey Hess announced the first beta
release of the installer on November 9 and called for users to help test
the beta. Ian Murdock had also announced in October that
Progeny has ported Red Hat's Anaconda to Debian. Progeny has also ceased
work on several projects, PGI, autoinstall, gnome-tasksel and
python-parted, in favor of Anaconda for Debian.
We decided we would take a look at the new installation methods to see
what the Debian community would be using in the future. We downloaded
the Beta 1 installer ISO with Debian base and put it to the test by
installing Sarge. The new installer still doesn't come with all the
bells and whistles, or fancy GUI, but it does include a welcome feature
in the form of hardware detection. This will be a relief for users who
are eager to try out Debian but lack any idea about which kernel module
is required for their network card, and so on.
The first stage of the installer detects hardware and attempts to configure
the network settings via DHCP. Users without a DHCP server handy can manually configure
their network after DHCP fails. (Assuming they have a supported Ethernet
card, of course.) The user is also able to complete the first-stage
install without a network connection if necessary. Next the user is
prompted to use cfdisk to partition their hard disk, then the installer
allows the user to configure and mount partitions. After this, the base
system will be installed and the system is rebooted. Upon system boot,
the user works through base-config to configure their system.
According to the HOWTO, base-config is not considered part of the installer. However, we went ahead and looked at the entire procedure required to install Debian Sarge, which includes running through base-config.
Overall, we feel that the new installation procedure promises to be an
improvement. However, the user is still expected to know much more about
the distribution and hardware when installing Debian Sarge than if they
install Fedora, SUSE, Mandrake or even Slackware. Users are asked to
make a lot of decisions during the installation, and if unfamiliar with
the terminology, they will undoubtedly be intimidated.
The base-config procedure does provide detailed help text for most
options, but if they are not familiar with the concepts being presented
they will likely have a difficult time making the necessary decisions.
Even worse, it does not provide a way to go back and change options
during configuration. For example, if a user forgets the distinction
between the various Exim configuration options, they cannot cycle back
to re-read the descriptions of Exim's default configurations.
Though Progeny's installer has not been publicly released yet, we
contacted Ian Murdock of Progeny and received a current snapshot of
their work with Anaconda as a Debian installer.
It is, to say the least, not quite ready for prime-time. Some of the
features have not yet been implemented or do not work, including
Ethernet card configuration and adding regular users. However, the
pre-release we were given was enough to get the general feel for the
installer. While the graphics have been changed, using Progeny's
Anaconda for Debian is very much like installing Red Hat Linux 9 or
Fedora. The GUI procedure is very simple and straightforward, and
doesn't require much knowledge on the part of the user doing the
As exciting as Anaconda for Debian may be to some, Murdock's
announcement of Progeny's port of Anaconda produced some friction on the
debian-devel mailing list. Many on the list were
concerned that Anaconda would detract from debian-installer work and
delay the release of Sarge, or serve as a waste of resources when Progeny
could have been working on debian-installer.
Murdock replied that it was not Progeny's intent to detract from work being done by the Debian Project:
...this work doesn't aim to compete with/replace d-i. I strongly suspect
it would be non-trivial to make Anaconda work on all 11 architectures.
Could bits of Anaconda eventually be combined with d-i to give Debian an
install process that millions of people are familiar with? Sure, but
certainly not in the sarge timeframe. Could people use it in an
unofficial capacity in the meantime to get up and running on IA-32 and
IA-64? Sure. That's why we're putting it out there.
Debian-installer is definitely an improvement, and it looks to be very
stable. The entire Debian installation routine, including base-config,
needs some work before it will be ready for less experienced Linux
users. Progeny's Anaconda, once it is finished, looks as if it will be
an attractive alternative for those who would like to run Debian on x86
systems, but lack the chops to get past a non-GUI installation that
requires a great deal of knowledge about their system and Linux.
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