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Server Migration From Ubuntu 8.04 To Debian 5.0

Last night, I spent a few hours migrating this production server from Ubuntu 8.04 "Hardy Heron" to Debian 5.0 "Lenny". Many have asked me online and in person why I would make the switch, especially being a heavy Ubuntu advocate. I hope I can explain that in a clear manner in this post. But first, let me make it crystal clear that I've in no way abandoned Ubuntu or its ideals. I am running Ubuntu in VirtualBox on my work laptop, Ubuntu on my personal laptop and Ubuntu on the home desktop. I am only running Debian as servers.

So, why migrate from Ubuntu to Debian on the server? Surely, Ubuntu isn't that bad of a server platform. You're correct. It isn't. In fact, it's been "good enough" for me since installing it, which actually has an interesting history. This server came from a repossession when I used to work for a major home furnishings company in Utah. It was a home HP desktop computer that was old enough, my employer wasn't interested in reselling it, so I asked if I could have it, and brought it home for $20.

This was back in 2005, so I put Ubuntu 5.04 on it as a desktop with XFCE as the window manager, as it's only a Pentium 700 with at the time 128MB of RAM and a 10GB HDD. I've since beefed up the RAM and disk space. It was updated from 5.04 to 5.10, and it was at this time, I realised that I could ditch my then running Windows Server 2003 for Linux. So, Ubuntu 5.10 became a server, hosting my blog and a couple other web sites. When Ubuntu 6.06 LTS was released, it was running full time as my production server, and I became convinced of the LTS releases, determined to keep this server on LTS versions only. Also, I realised that it was running headless, so there was no reason to have X11 installed any longer, so I went through the pain of removing every last package that I didn't need for a headless server. This was done for security as well as resource management.

It stayed on 6.06 LTS until 8.04 LTS released, at which point I upgraded the server yet again. So, from roughly May of 2005 to Feb 2009, it had been a desktop and a server spanning four upgrades. Not a big deal really. Upgrading servers and desktops is getting easier and easier these days, with less headaches being encountered. I would keep it on 8.04 LTS waiting for the next LTS release, and upgrade again if I hadn't decided to change operating systems to Debian.

During the path of an Ubuntu server, it's had some rough spots, as some of my friends can attest to, none of which were Ubuntu's fault at all, but the system administrator hacking it (me). For example, when I wanted to host my web site on it, I needed to know how to make that happen. I found a HOWTO on howtoforge for installing Apache, as well as ISPConfig, and a number of other packages that I realise now were not necessary. In fact, I ended up removing ISPConnfig a couple years later, as it was causing problems with logs, consuming a large amount of RAM, and just getting in the way. Then I wanted to run my own email server. Not knowing how to set an email server up, I fiddled with Exim, Sendmail, Postfix and others, failing at every pass, and further causing havoc on the filesystem and DPKG database. Eventually, I found the help I needed from a friend, and was able to get a Postfix server up and running as an external MTA. There were many other services I messed with from time to time, testing this out or the other, slowly filling the filesystem with pointless stuff. In a nutshell, what I'm trying to say, is the Ubuntu 8.04 install, while functional, was no longer pretty. It was hackish at best.

This prompted me to do a reinstall of Ubuntu 8.04 LTS. I wanted a fresh, clean install, restoring the needed data from backup (yes, I actually run backups). However, as I began thinking about it, I realised that I didn't trust the build quality of the LTS releases as much as I trusted the build quality of Debian stable releases. Thinking about it further, I was having a hard time convincing myself to run an Ubuntu server. The reason being the way packages are tested in the Debian repositories. Consider for example a package that's uploaded to the unstable repository. Before that package can reach the testing repository, it much meet certain criteria:

  • After the package has been in unstable for a given length of time, it can qualify for migration to testing. This depends on each package, and the urgency of the migration.
  • The package can only enter testing if no new release critical bugs exist. This means, that the package must have fewer release critical bugs than the current package in testing.
  • All dependencies needed for the package must be satisfiable in the current testing repository. If not, those packages must be brought in at the time the current package is, and they must meet the same criteria related to time in unstable and the number of release critical bugs.
  • The package migrating to testing must not break any other packages currently in testing.
  • It must be compiled for all release architectures it claims to support, and all architecture specific packages must be brought in as well, meeting the same criteria as mentioned.

The above criteria for packages entering the testing repository ensure that packages are reaching a bug-free state for the next stable release. The goal is to have the number of release critical bugs drop and drop and drop approaching zero. Of course, bugs are only brought about by an active community reporting them, then decided on whether or not the bug is critical enough to be labelled a release critical bug. After the packages in testing have reached sufficient maturity and have few enough bugs to qualify a release, the testing repository is brought to stable. The current stable becomes "old stable", and the current testing is reprepared for the next stable release. So, in theory, the stable distribution is STABLE. Rock sold stable. Anyone who's anyone in the Linux world knows that Debian stable is just about as stable as you can get for an operating system.

Another nice thing with Debian stable, is it releases when it's ready. The Debian community has taken some flack for this, with 2-3 years at times between releases. However, Debian stable is the operating system that is high production quality. While most end users tend to run testing or unstable on their desktops or laptops, many prefer stable for their production server.

Now, I ask the Ubuntu community, what are we doing to ensure the same build quality for the LTS releases? I would think that each 6 month release would hold the some criteria as Debian, namely that packages can't enter that release unless it has fewer RC bugs than current. This way, as we approach the LTS release, we're slowly but consistently stabilising the operating system. Unfortunately, this would mean that Ubuntu wouldn't be as bleeding edge as it is currently. Many packages would stay rather old, due to having less RC bugs than the current release. But then, the LTS releases would be much more stable.

Now, with that said, I personally have never had any problems with my LTS server, either Dapper 6.06 or Hardy 8.04. But do I want to risk it? Should I chance it? While nothing may ever happen that causes critical concern for me with an LTS release, I feel more comfortable putting my trust in Debian stable than I do Ubuntu LTS. However, I want to see Ubuntu LTS succeed in the server arena. I was ecstatic to find that Wikimedia moved all their servers, or are moving, to Ubuntu LTS. I've heard other success stories of migrations to Ubuntu LTS. I think this is good, and the larger the community gets, hopefully, the more bugs will be reported, the more patches will be submitted, and more work will be done upstream to Debian. There's no reason why Ubuntu can't learn from Debian, and vice versa, creating a solid symbiotic relationship.

So, in a nutshell, I've put my faith behind Debian stable for any production servers personally, and Ubuntu for any desktops and laptops that can afford a little wiggle room in relation to stability. This is my opinion with my hardware, and your mileage will probably vary. That's what makes our community as a whole so great. I want to see Debian succeed on the desktop, laptop and netbook arena, and I want to see Ubuntu succeed in the server / Big Iron arena, and I'll do what I can to make that happen. But for now, I am where I am.

Any questions or comments of course, please populate the comment form below.

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