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Ubuntu or Debian?

Teh Linux mascot Tux
The Linux mascot Tux.

Linux is free, open source software that is owned by no-one alone. There are then several suppliers for Linux; we speak of different "distributions". There are two main distributions that were built from scratch: Red Hat Enterprise Linux (Red Hat 2019a). (Red Hat 2019a) and Debian (Lamb et al. 2018a).

In addition, there are distributions that are derived from one of these; three of these are of particular relevance. Red Hat is a commercial product; you have to purchase a licence to use it. However, Red Hat is also obliged under the open source licence to make most of the distribution available in source form to anyone and free of charge. Hence the CentOS group of volunteer developers can distribute essentially the same operating system free of charge (CentOS 2019a). This may appear controversial, but Red Hat does in fact support the CentOS project. The situation is similar with Scientific Linux, which is supported primarily by the particle physics research institute Fermilab (Fermilab 2019a) and which is quite commonly used in science. Compared to CentOS this has the possible advantage of being more distant from the commercial supplier Red Hat. But CentOS has the advantage of being a larger project with more resources. This makes its installation and maintenance somewhat easier.

The logo of the Debian project

Debian is the antithesis to Red Hat. Debian is a project of over 1000 software developers, with a democratically elected project leader, with a constitution, and with a social contract. The objective is to secure the open source character of Linux and of the Debian distribution and to prevent any future commercialisation of Debian.

Entirely consistent with the Debian ethos is that the commercial company Canonical builds and publishes a very direct derivative of Debian under the name Ubuntu (Canonical 2018a). Ubuntu is probably the most popular Linux distribution among single users, private users, small groups and small companies.

To install Linux you have to select a distribution. The obvious choice is Ubuntu, because that is what your neighbours install as well. However, Ubuntu is just a derivative of Debian, perhaps that would be a better choice.

Perhaps Ubuntu is easier to install? Or perhaps it has more or better applications? Or perhaps there is more choice during the installation? In my experience this is not the case. The Debian installer is slightly better, and the desktop environment is a little less obnoxious than Ubuntu's orange-purple colour scheme. (These colours can of course be configured away.)

The Ubuntu logo
The Ubuntu logo.

Another consideration is the release cycle. Debian makes a new stable release about every two years, last time 2017-06 as version 9 "squeeze". These reach their normal end of life after about three years. After that there is somewhat restricted long-term support (LTS) for a further two years.

The stable Debian version results from the "freeze" of the perpetual test version. The last freeze happened in 2019-03 as "buster", which will be released in about 2019-07 as version 10. But we can even now install and use the test version.

Ubuntu takes a snapshot of Debian testing every six months in April and October to turn this into a stable Ubuntu version. The version number, e.g. 18.10 "Cosmic Cuttlefish", reflects this. In general, these have a lifespan of nine months. This is how Ubuntu gets its reputation of having the latest software versions of any major distribution. The short lifespan means, however, that you have to carry out a major update rather often.

The Ubuntu April versions in even years (most recently version 18.04 "Bionic Beaver") have a longer life span (LTS or long term support). Until 16.04 this was five years, for the 18.04 version this is supposed to be ten years. In reality, you may want a newer version of Linux every three to four years anyway.

The differences between Ubuntu and Debian are very subtle; there is no clear argument in favour of one or the other. This being the case, I prefer Debian.