Choosing the right flavor of Debian (Simple)

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by Jose Miguel Parrella | October 2013 | Networking & Telephony Open Source

In this article written by Jose Miguel Parrella, the author of the book Instant Debian – Build a Web Server explains how Debian organizes software, the architectures, and installation methods, and indicates a set of criteria for system administrators to choose and get the right media.

The Debian Project prides itself on producing the Universal Operating System. This means that the software the project puts together runs on a broad set of hardware (architectures) for several types of purposes, and even for different kernels such as Linux, Hurd, or FreeBSD.

Choosing the right flavor of Debian for your setup might seem intimidating at first, but this recipe will provide you with decision elements to help you reduce your time to market with Debian and choose the right architecture and installation method, particularly for a web server.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Getting ready

At any point in time, Debian has three different branches available for use: stable, testing, and unstable. Think of unstable as the cutting edge of free software; it has reasonably modern software packages, and sometimes those packages introduce changes or features that may break the user experience. After an amount of time has passed (usually 10 days, but it depends on the package's upload priority), the new software is considered to be relatively safe to use and is moved to testing. Testing can provide a good balance between modern software and relatively reliable software. Testing goes through several iterations during the course of several years, and eventually it's frozen for a new stable release. This stable release is supported by the Debian Project for a number of years, including feature and security updates.

Chances are you are building something that has an interesting team of people to back it up. In such scenarios, web development teams have chosen to go with testing, or even unstable, in order to get the latest software available. In other cases, conservative teams or groups with less savvy staff have resorted to stable because it's consistent for years.

It is up to you to choose between any, but this book will get you started with stable. You can change your Advanced Packaging Tool (APT ) configuration later and upgrade to testing and unstable, but the initial installation media that we will use will be stable. Also, it is important that developers target the production environment as closely as possible. If you use stable for production, using stable for development will save a lot of time debugging mismatches.

You should know which versions of programming languages, modules, libraries, frameworks, and databases your application will be targeting, as this will influence the selection of your branch. You can go to packages.debian.org to check the versions available for a specific package across different branches. Choosing testing (outside a freeze period) and unstable will also mean that you'll need to have an upgrade strategy where you continuously check for new updates (with tools such as cron-apt) and install them if you want to take advantage of new bug fixes and so on.

How to do it…

Debian offers a plethora of installation methods for the operating system. From standard CDs and DVDs, Debian also offers reduced-size installation media, bootable USB images, network boot, and other methods. The complexity of installation is a relative factor that usually is of no concern for DevOps since installation only happens once, while configuration and administration are continuously happening.

Before you start considering replication methods (such as precooked images, network distribution, configuration management, and software delivery), you and your team can choose from the following installation methods:

  • If you are installing Debian on a third-party provider (such as a cloud vendor), they will either provide a Debian image for you, or you can prepare your own in virtualization software and upload the disk later.
  • If you are installing on your own hardware (including virtualized environments), it's advisable to get either the netinst ISO or the full first DVD ISO. It all depends on whether you are installing several servers over the course of several months (thus making the DVD obsolete as new updates come out) or have a good Internet connection (or proxies and caching facilities, nearby CDNs, and so on) for downloading any additional packages that the netinst disk might not contain.

In general, if you are only deploying a handful of servers and have a good Internet connection at hand, I'd suggest you choose the amd64 netinst ISO, which we will use in this book.

There's more…

There are several other points that you need to consider while choosing the right flavor of Debian. One of them is the architecture you're using and targeting for development.

Architectures

There are tens of computer architectures available in the market. ARM, Intel, AMD, SPARC, and Alpha are all different types of architectures.

Debian uses the architecture codenames i386 and amd64 for historical reasons. i386 actually means an Intel or Intel-compatible, 32-bit processor (x86), while amd64 means an Intel or Intel-compatible, 64-bit processor (x86_64). The brand of the processor is irrelevant.

A few years ago, choosing between the two was tricky as some binary-only, non-free libraries and software were not always available for 64-bit processors, and architecture mismatches happened. While there were workarounds (such as running a 32-bit-only software using special libraries), it was basically a matter of time until popular software such as Flash caught up with 64-bit versions—thus, the concern was mainly about laptops and desktops.

Nowadays, if your CPU (and/or your hypervisor) has 64-bit capabilities (most Intel do), it's considered a good practice to use the amd64 architecture. We will use amd64 in this book. And since Debian 7.0, the multiarch feature has been included, allowing more than one architecture to be installed and be active on the same hardware.

While the market seems to settle around 64-bit Intel processors, the choice of an architecture is still important because it determines the future availability of software that you can choose from Debian. There might be some software that is not compiled for or not compatible with your specific architecture, but there is software that is independent of the architecture.

DevOps are usually pragmatic when it comes to choosing architectures, so the following two questions aim to help you understand what to expect when it comes to it:

  1. Will you run your web applications on your own hardware? If so, do you already have this hardware or will you procure it?
    • If you need to procure hardware, take a look at the existing server hardware in your datacenter. Factors such as a preferred vendor, hardware standardization, and so on are all important when choosing the right architecture. From the most popular 32- or 64-bit Intel and AMD processors, the growing ARM ecosystem, and also the more venerable but declining SPARC or Itanium, Debian is available for lots of architectures.
    • If you are out in the market for new hardware, your options are most likely based on an Intel- or AMD-compatible, 32- or 64-bit, server-grade processor. Your decisions will be influenced by factors such as the I/O capacity (throughput and speed), memory, disk, and so on, and the architecture will most likely be covered by Debian.
  2. Will you run your web applications on third-party hardware, such as a Virtual Private Server (VPS ) provider or a cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS ) provider?
    • Most providers will provide you with prebuilt images for Debian. They are either 32- or 64-bit, x86 images that have some sort of community support—but, be aware they might have no vendor support, or in some cases waive warranties and/or other factors such as the SLA.
    • You should be able to prepare your own Debian installation using virtualization software (such as KVM, VirtualBox, or Hyper-V) and then upload the virtual disk (VHD, VDI, and so on) to your provider.

Summary

In this article, we learned about selecting the right flavor of Debian for our system. We also learned about the different architectures available in the market that we can use for Debian.

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Instant Debian – Build a Web Server [Instant] Build strong foundations for your future-ready web application using the universal operating system, Debian with this book and ebook
Published: September 2013
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About the Author :


Jose Miguel Parrella

Jose Miguel Parrella has been involved in the world of open source since he was 14, during his freshman year at college. In Venezuela, he's worked for the Intellectual Property Office, the National Electric Corporation, and other government entities, leading several Linuxbased projects.

He was the CTO of an open source consulting firm in Venezuela and Ecuador, helping to grow the business and developing a strong team that delivered dozens of successful Linux projects, including the architecture, development, and release of Canaima National GNU/Linux 2.0 distribution of Venezuela used in over two million netbooks. He is currently on an assignment as an open source Specialist for a large IT company in the United States.

Since 2005, Jose Miguel has been involved in the Debian Project, speaking at several DebConfs, and became a Debian Developer in 2007. He uploaded Nginx 0.4 on the Debian archive in 2006.

In addition to workshops and keynotes delivered across the globe and publications, such as the Rapid Distribution Deployment whitepaper, Jose Miguel has been a technical reviewer for two Packt Publishing books on Nginx and is currently working on other titles related to open source software.

His opinions in this book or elsewhere don't necessarily represent the views of his past or present employers and/or the Debian Project.

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