Debian at 30: Ian Murdock, its founder, would have been amazed at his legacy

Estimated read time 7 min read

Debian at 30: Ian Murdock, its founder, would have been amazed at his legacy

Let’s go back to 1993. Jurassic Park is a hit at the box office, UB40’s cover of Can’t Help Falling in Love is on all the airwaves, and Ian Murdock, a student at Purdue University, announces the creation of a new distribution called Debian Liniux on the Usenet discussion group comp.bones.linux.development.

Murdock then writes: “This is a version that I created from scratch; in other words, I didn’t just make some changes to SLS [Softlanding Linux System]. I created this version after using SLS and being dissatisfied with most of its elements. And after modifying SLS a lot, I decided that it would be easier to start from scratch”.

The name Debian is the result of mixing the first name of Murdock’s girlfriend at the time, Debra, and his own first name. And each version – which, today, has reached Debian 12, Bookworm – is named after a character from Toy Story.

Linux was still an operating system for amateurs

It was a different time. Git did not exist, Red Hat Linux did not exist and IBM did not yet manage the evolution of Linux. Linux was still an operating system for amateurs. It was mainly used by students and computer scientists. I had been using the operating system since Linux 0.11 in November 1991, but then I had been a Unix user for more than ten years.

Murdock knew that not everyone could download, compile, install and start Linux from source code. He thought that the first distributions, in particular SLS, were not good enough. So he started building Debian with the goal of making a more elegant Linux distribution, which you could install without needing to be monitored during its installation. In short, “Debian will make Linux easier for users who do not have access to the Internet” he said then.

And in fact, Debian was the first Linux distribution to make ease of installation and deployment a priority. And at the same time, from the very beginning, Debian was the only distribution open to all developers and users to contribute to the development. Today, it is still the most important community Linux distribution. All other distributions, such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), Ubuntu, and SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE), and their community branches, such as Fedora and openSUSE, are directly or indirectly linked to commercial companies.

“The modern Linux distribution, both the paradigm and the architecture, come from Debian”

As blogger Cory Doctorow wrote after Murdock’s far too early death in 2015: “The Debian project fundamentally changed the way open source was made by merging engineering excellence with the ethical nature of free software development.”

People who knew Murdock well agreed. Bruce Perens, creator of the Debian social contract and the Debian Free Software principles, which define the basic Debian rules, explains that Debian is more than just a Linux distribution: “Debian’s impact on the world is not limited to Debian. This is the large number of projects that it has generated. For example, the modern Linux distribution, both the paradigm and the architecture, come from Debian.”

Bruce Perens adds “Murdock produced the entire Debian “base system”, the part necessary to start a system capable of installing other packages. When I was Debian project manager, I distributed each of the packages that made up the base system to different developers. No one had ever done anything like this before. And no one at the time knew that the result – built by dozens of people who had never met and corresponded only by e-mail – that was all we had – would work when all the pieces were put together.”

At the origin of the first embedded Linux system

According to Mr. Perens, Debian was at the origin of the first embedded Linux system: “I created Busybox (the Swiss army knife of embedded Linux) to install Debian from diskettes. At the time, we needed a 1.44 MB floppy disk to load the kernel, then another for the root file system. Busybox was designed to fit all the necessary command line tools on this second floppy disk. It is now present in countless routers, smartphones, televisions and other embedded devices”.

In addition, Debian pioneered the dependency-based dpkg package system. Thanks to it, you can assemble programs and libraries into an easy-to-install package, even if they were developed separately. Of course, they are now commonplace.

Bdale Garbee, one of the first Debian developers, adds: “Modern languages and the development communities associated with them do not always want to be confronted with version dependency management. This source of tension has led to a focus on things like Flatpaks, Docker, etc. But even today, most Debian users want the value proposition of a fully rule-compliant binary package delivery model.”

At the origin of modern versioning

In addition, Garbee notes that Ian Jackson, one of the first Debian programmers and creator of dpkg, explored the idea of “Debian package releases as a rudimentary revision control system”. The idea that you can download (check out) the latest version of a package, modify it, and then download (check in) a new version in the archive is a kind of conceptual model. In a way, this could mean that Debian was one of the first great distributed version control experiments”.

At the time, Linux itself had not yet adopted its first version control system, the Version System (CVS), let alone BitKeeper. And Linus Torvalds hadn’t invented Git yet.

Garbee continues: “The roles and responsibilities [des développeurs et des responsables de la maintenance] are much more structured today than they were at the beginning. Even the concept of packages having defined maintainers is something that I remember as a “time before”.

“He chose a set of fundamental principles that found a
favorable echo with the right type of passionate people”

Garbee adds: “There is a healthy tension between the fact that everyone works on what they want all the time and the “control functions” that arise from the definition of package maintainers.”

Reflecting on the beginnings of Debian, Garbee explains: “Ian Murdock told me several times that he never had the slightest idea that what he was starting would last so long or go so far. In my opinion, he chose a set of fundamental principles that resonated favorably with the right type of passionate people.”

Murdock would have been amazed at the legacy of Debian. In addition to being a major Linux operating system, it has become the mother distribution of other very popular Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and MX Linux.

The influence of Debian is still present today. And it will continue in the future, notes Bdale Garbee: “There is still a lot of work to be done, and the enthusiasm with which many community members are involved in organizing and participating in the annual Debian Developer Conference (DebConf) assures me that the heart of the Debian community remains strong.”

This is a good thing because we need Debian. We need a strong Linux community that reflects the needs of users and developers, not companies. There is a place for a business-centric Linux. But as Murdock wanted, there is also a need for a version of Linux by and for people.

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