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The Debian Installer - The Most Flexible Linux Installer

I was just recently blown away by what I can accomplish with the Debian installer on getting Debian installed on a system. I used to think that the openSUSE installer was the most flexible Linux installer, with Anaconda running a close second, but I think I'm going to at least put the Debian installer in a 2-way tie for first with openSUSE. The only reason I would say that, is because the openSUSE installer uses a hub-and-spoke design to installing the operating system. This means you can pick and choose what you want to install, rather than going through the entire installer itself. Further, the openSUSE installer supports installing from a SMB share on a Windows network, with neither Anaconda nor the Debian installer support (that I can tell).

However, one thing that continues to impress me about the Debian installer is the extreme amount of choices in which to get Debian installed on your system. You can pick any path, ranging from the complete newbie-have-the-installer-choose-everything-for-you to total hacker control over what you want installed, and everything in between. Looking over the installer, here's a quick list of what I've come up with, and how to get Debian installed on your system:

  • Text vs Graphical- The Debian installer supports both a text mode and a graphical mode for getting the operating system installed. When booting the installer, you are presented with a menu that allows you to choose which method you want to take.
  • Beginner vs Expert- Further, if you want total control over what gets installed on your system, you can choose to take the expert path. This will ask you many more questions on what you want to install and how you want it configured. As a result, the installations takes a bit longer to get through, but if you've done it several times, it's no biggie.
  • Local vs Remote- An operating system installer wouldn't be complete without the ability to do local as well as remote installations. The Debian installer supports setting up both a VNC server and an OpenSSH server for remotely installing the operating system. It also supports "bootstrapping".
  • Manual vs Automatic- Installing the operating system here and there, one at a time is fine for manual installs. However, if you need many installations to take place, or you want the exact same install to go down on many machines, then you can do an automated install using preseed. There are other ways to do automatic installs, such as Kickstart, Kickseed and FAI.
  • Installation vs Rescue mode- Let's not forget that you're not installing Debian all the time. The Debian installer supports a rescue mode which will mount any filesystem on your local computer, and give you the ability to troubleshoot why your computer is in the trenches, and how to get it out. Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux, etc. If you can talk to the filesystem, you can rescue the computer.

So, now you've booted the installer. You've loaded the kernel and you're ready to start an install. Most experienced Debian users will choose to do a network install. This means that you have access to a server acting as a Debian software repository, from which you'll pull down the packages. Of course, if you don't have access to a software repository, you can download all the CD images or DVD images, and do an install completely disconnected from any network. Once the installer is ready to go, you have a variety of options on getting Debian installed on your system. First, let's look at different ways on getting the installer booted:

  • PXE- The Debian installer can be loaded through network booting via PXE using TFTP. If you have a TFTP server, and probably DHCP and DNS as well, setup, you can make installs rather painless using this preferred method.
  • CD/DVD- This is probably the most "tried and true" method for getting Debian onto your system. Downloading and burning bootable CDs or DVDs are a great way to get Debian installed, even if using optical media is the slowest method of doing so.
  • USB- I personally love this option, as I don't have to waste CDs. I can create a bootable USB drive by downloading, uncompressing and copying over a boot.img.gz to the drive. Then, I mount the drive, and copy over an ISO image I want to use for the installer, and use this newly created bootable drive to install Debian.
  • Local Hard Disk- Lastly, you can start the Debian installer by booting from a partition on a local disk to your system. You just grab a Linux kernel and initial RAM disk, as well as an ISO image, copy it to the front of the disk, make some configuration changes, and reboot. This method is completely host operating system independent.

Once the installer is up and running, you now have a slew of options on how to get access to the software for the install. This is where I think the openSUSE installer might have the upper hand, as it supports installing from a SMB share on a Windows network. However, your options are far from limited:

  • HTTP- Accessing a Debian software repository via HTTP is the preferred method, especially if the repository is local to your network. And setting up an HTTP software repository is rather trivial if you have the software to do an install.
  • FTP- Of course, you can do the same thing with FTP as you can with HTTP. It's rather trivial to get software of an FTP repository for the install.
  • NFS- If you have an NFS server, you can export the repository over the network, and do an installation over NFS.
  • CD/DVD- As already mentioned, you can do a complete offline install by using the CDs or DVDs. This is a very slow method for accessing the software packages, but it is rather trivial.
  • ISO- As already mentioned, you can use ISO images for the software source. These can be placed on a CDROM or on an external USB drive. Setting either of these up is slightly different than just burning an image to disk, but it's still rather trivial, and doesn't take much time. Plus, it's fast, and light.

Once the installer has booted, the kernel has been loaded, and other configuration parameters setup, the flexibility of the installer doesn't stop here. You can install Debian on a RAID array using software RAID. You can setup LVM. You have full encryption support, with even determining the type of encryption you want to support (AES, Twofish, Blowfish, etc) and the key strength. When the drives are setup, with partitions, LVM or RAID, you now have the option to install software. You can choose to just do a "base install" which installs only the bare minimum for a bootable operating system. You can install necessary system tools, a desktop environment, with or without laptop support, and so forth. You can choose to have root login or not by using sudo. You have access to two TTYs during the install, from which you can add many users, setup groups, do additional configuration, and so forth before rebooting into your new install.

The options seem to be virtually endless! I was a Red Hat and SUSE trainer for a bit, and I really grew to love the Anaconda an openSUSE installers. They are powerful, flexible installers. However, after learning what was possible with Debian, it seemed clear to me that the Debian installer held the upper hand. Not because I prefer Debian for my default operating system on all my computers, but because of what was immensely possible with it.

If you are a Debian system administrator, either personally or professionally, I would recommend spending some time with the installer to get a feel for what you can do with it. I think you'll find that it's rather impressive, keeping up very well with the "enterprise" solutions that exist out there. Also, spending some time on Google will show you a vast array of documentation on how to use the Debian installer to its fullest. This document might be a good start for you.

{ 8 } Comments

  1. Kevin Mark using Shiretoko 3.5.6pre on Ubuntu | November 16, 2009 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Wifi during install.

    "The use of wireless networking during installation is still under development and whether it will work depends on the type of adaptor and the configuration of your wireless access point."

    http://www.debian.org/releases/stable/i386/ch02s01.html.en#network-cards

  2. John using Firefox 3.5.5 on Windows XP | November 16, 2009 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    "I think you’ll find that it’s rather impressive, keeping up very well with the “enterprise” solutions that exist out there."

    Existing "enterprise" solutions are based on Microsoft software.
    There is nothing even close to Active Directory functionality in Linux.
    Instaling from FTP is not a "enterprise" functionality, Linux lacks integration with existing enterprise solutions. Only Samba is *somewhat* compatible with the rest of enterprise world.

    "Also, spending some time on Google will show you a vast array of documentation on how to use the Debian installer to its fullest."

    Google in not a proper documentation.
    Linux lacks even basic man pages.
    Try FreeBSD if you want to see how proper UNIX documentation should look.
    Try Microsoft Technet if you want to see how any modern documentation should look.

    "This document might be a good start for you."

    Most documents of this type will be quickly irrevelant.
    This and Google are NOT a substitute of proper frequently updated documentation.

  3. Aaron using Debian IceWeasel 3.5.5 on Debian GNU/Linux 64 bits | November 16, 2009 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    @John No, not all enterprise solutions are based on Microsoft software. Saying so shows severe ignorance on your part. IBM, Novell, Red Hat and HP offer "enterprise" software solutions for installations, configurations, clustering, imaging, troubleshooting and other system administrative tasks.

    Active Directory is good, but OpenLDAP and Kerberos can meet the needs of centralized user databases and single sign-on. In fact, the SSO functionality of Acitve Directory came straight out of MIT's Kerberos for Unix machines.

    No doubt Linux documentation could improve, but it's not the bleak picture you're painting. The Linux Documentation Project holds a vast array of documentation. The Ubuntu and Debian wikis fill in many of the gaps. Forums, mailing lists and yes, even Google, have all the answers I've ever needed to look up. But, I'll agree that it's an area of constant improvement. And the FreeBSD handbook is real good.

    However, Microsoft Technet? Are you serious? The problem with Microsoft documentation, is it deals only with Microsoft products, like Office, Visual Studio, etc. The majority of software that exists on a Windows machine isn't Microsoft software, and as a result, isn't in Microsoft documentation. So, "Google" is the _only_ help you have. Mailing lists are sparse, most Microsoft forums seem to be programming based (asp.net, for example), and most developers who are developing proprietary solutions don't have wikis or other forms of documentation for their software. Sorry, but I've used Technet, and it doesn't meet most of my needs.

    Lastly, the document I'm pointing to is highly relevant for the post right now. It shows the different installation modes you can perform with Debian, which is what the past is all about. Sure, it will get outdated as the Debian installer improves. Debian has a great deal of documentation for just about everything under the sun. Here is just one of many that's available from Debian.

  4. John using Firefox 3.5.5 on Windows XP | November 17, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    "@John No, not all enterprise solutions are based on Microsoft software. Saying so shows severe ignorance on your part. IBM, Novell, Red Hat and HP offer “enterprise” software solutions for installations, configurations, clustering, imaging, troubleshooting and other system administrative tasks."

    They are just a part of bigger solutions based on MS. Everything has to be compatible with MS. Your Oracle or MySQL database running on SLES or Red Hat is still used on clients with Windows workstations managed by Active Directory using Exchange and MS Office etc. etc.

    You have to be compatible with the rest of the corporate world.

    "Active Directory is good, but OpenLDAP and Kerberos can meet the needs of centralized user databases and single sign-on. In fact, the SSO functionality of Acitve Directory came straight out of MIT’s Kerberos for Unix machines."

    I always hear this argument from people who don't actually know what Active Directory is and what you can do with it. AD gives you the power to manage in one place everything from permissions of network shares, workstation settings, user profiles that can also be set to mobile and used from any computer on the network. You can encrypt user files with central key recovery, encrypt all traffic, change power options for the machines, user permissions for managing the hardware, add remotely printers, network shares, run scripts, use remote desktop and many many things more. Everything is well documented, options are clear and easy to change.

    Linux is lacking this king of system with so much integration. This is why it's not used widely in such setups. It needs more work, more admins and costs more to maintain.

    LDAP is just a directory service, nothing more. If AD is a car then LDAP is just one tire.

    Active Directory is a *BEAST* and there is nothing even remotely comparable with it.

    Samba tries to be somewhat compatible with it as a server but nobody sane will be risking using it in a corporate network. There is no point in using it instead of Windows Server. Windows servers are better for windows clients. It's a safer solution.

    "No doubt Linux documentation could improve, but it’s not the bleak picture you’re painting. The Linux Documentation Project holds a vast array of documentation. The Ubuntu and Debian wikis fill in many of the gaps. Forums, mailing lists and yes, even Google, have all the answers I’ve ever needed to look up. But, I’ll agree that it’s an area of constant improvement. And the FreeBSD handbook is real good."

    FreeBSD has man pages for everything. Even online man pages http://www.freebsd.org/cgi/man.cgi

    Debian has some outdated man pages some incomplete info pages and lots of even basic commands undocumented. You have to rely on Google and try to find the most actual informations. It's unacceptable.

    You want to rely on some bunch of people that make changes to a wiki and are not responsible for anything? This is awat your business will rely on?

    "However, Microsoft Technet? Are you serious? The problem with Microsoft documentation, is it deals only with Microsoft products, like Office, Visual Studio, etc."

    Yes and this documentation is way better than Debian docs, forums, mailing lists etc.

    "The majority of software that exists on a Windows machine isn’t Microsoft software, and as a result, isn’t in Microsoft documentation."

    Are you saying that MS should document like milion of other programs from different vendors?

    "So, “Google” is the _only_ help you have."

    NO. You have vendor documentation and support. No place for Google here.

    "Mailing lists are sparse"

    Because mailing lists are outdated form of communication just like IRC.

    "most Microsoft forums seem to be programming based (asp.net, for example)"

    Not true. You can find more informations about Windows than about any kind of Linux.

    "and most developers who are developing proprietary solutions don’t have wikis or other forms of documentation for their software."

    Maybe you should use software with better quality and support. We are talking about corporate solutions here not some freeware notepad app.

    "Lastly, the document I’m pointing to is highly relevant for the post right now."
    Sure, it will get outdated as the Debian installer improves."

    And you won't have any means of checking if it's outdated or not because Debian creators don't give you a well maintained documentation. This is the point.

    There is no place in enterprise for distributions like Debian.
    SLES and Red Hat would be a better solutions but still lacking integration with existing solutions.

  5. maciejewski using Firefox 3.0.15 on Windows XP | November 17, 2009 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Debian offers more than I ever needed. As a rookie I encounter difficulties every day, and have no problems finding solutions. Google is not the only way to get the problem solved, but is most powerful tool even when searching for the issues with microsoft software. Documentation doesn't need to be improved. I'd rather say that it needs to be tidied up :)
    And advantage which makes Debian one of the best choices for admin wannabes is that it's absolutely free and gives you a lot of alternatives during the installation and every-day use. Try to learn how to be professional admin with windows , having only 300$ for both software, and hardware AFAIK won't be enough even for win2k server :)
    Obviously it doesn't match needs all of the people, some of them are so rich , that can afford new system and full support because of their ignorance and being lazy.

  6. Aaron using Firefox 3.5.5 on Windows XP | November 17, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    @John Of course Linux and Unix have to interoperate with the Windows operating system. That doesn't imply that enterprise solutions are based on Microsoft development. Are you saying Oracle software is based on Microsoft technology?

    Acvite Directory versus OpenLDAP really is comparing apples to oranges. However, OpenLDAP plus Kerberos mimics 90% of the Active Directory installs I've personally administered. Most shops aren't using Active Directory for everything that it offers, which is generally the case for most Microsoft software. The Unix philosophy is entirely different. Rather than give you a massive Swiss Army knife to do everything under the sun for you, we split those tasks into separate smaller tools that do one job, and do it well. And yes, I'll agree with your assessment that Active Directory is a "*BEAST*". No argument there.

    Also, since our discussion, I've been reviewing the Debian documentation. I'll easily put it on par with FreeBSD documentation. As you may, or may not, be aware, every package that is shipped with Debian Stable must ship an updated man page. This is written in the policy. Further, the Debian documentation is vast, highly complete, and well written. Start here, then get back to me:

    http://debian.org/doc/, http://manpages.debian.net, http://wiki.debian.org/

    In terms of documentation, Debian is documenting all software it ships, which is 3rd party software. Microsoft isn't. So, tell me which method is more likely to reach a broader audience? And, from what I've seen, which has been over the past 10 years now, all Debian documentation has kept up rather well to the changes paces of the distribution. Show me some outdated Debian docs. Please.

    I won't argue with RHEL and SLES for their place in the enterprise. I administer both. They're solid distributions. But tell me why Debian can't compete. I'm interested. There is no more of a stable server than Debian Stable. There is no other operating system vendor that ships more software than Debian. Debian aligns itself more closely to the Unix philosophies than other distributions. All the software available for RHEL and SLES is in Debian. Please, enlighten me.

  7. Joey Hess using Google Chrome 4.0.246.0 on GNU/Linux | December 1, 2009 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    One correction -- to the best of my knowledge, d-i does not support installing from NFS. The necessary kernel modules are not available. This, as well as installing *to* NFS are still in the TODO pile.

    (Also, d-i does support wireless well in general; the manual's wording is a bit pessimistic.)

  8. Loup Vaillant using Firefox 3.0.15 on Ubuntu | December 1, 2009 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    John: "You have to be compatible with the rest of the corporate world."

    You most certainly meant "You have to be compatible with Microsoft". I disagree. You can be *free* from Microsoft, so internal compatibility isn't a problem any more. Compatibility with the rest of the world (not only corporate) can be achieved through standard file format and protocols (PDF, HTML, SMTP, HTTP…). The only thing left to overcome is the sense of total loss induced by the absence of the familiar green "start" button at the bottom left of the screen (sarcasm intended).

    John: "You want to rely on some bunch of people that make changes to a wiki and are not responsible for anything? This is awat your business will rely on?"

    Given the existence of Wikipedia, GNU/Linux, and Debian, I don't think accountability is a prerequisite for dependability. This kind of thinking is better at saving you butt than the company's. "No one has been fired for choosing IBM". Or C++.

    John: "[…] mailing lists are outdated form of communication just like IRC."

    How so ? What are the other forms of communications, and what are their specific advantages ? Are these advantages merely technical (MLs could be improved to have them), or fundamental? Right now, the only really superior alternative I see is Google Wave.

{ 2 } Trackbacks

  1. [...] I’m going to at least put the Debian installer in a 2-way tie for first with openSUSE. More here However, one thing that continues to impress me about the Debian installer is the extreme amount of [...]

  2. [...] The Debian Installer – The Most Flexible Linux Installer I was just recently blown away by what I can accomplish with the Debian installer on getting Debian installed on a system. I used to think that the openSUSE installer was the most flexible Linux installer, with Anaconda running a close second, but I think I’m going to at least put the Debian installer in a 2-way tie for first with openSUSE. The only reason I would say that, is because the openSUSE installer uses a hub-and-spoke design to installing the operating system. This means you can pick and choose what you want to install, rather than going through the entire installer itself. Further, the openSUSE installer supports installing from a SMB share on a Windows network, with neither Anaconda nor the Debian installer support (that I can tell). [...]

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