Debian vs Ubuntu: what's the difference? Which one should you use? - ­čĆć Managed Server

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June 19 2022

Debian vs Ubuntu: what's the difference? Which one should you use?

Let's see the pros and cons of two Debian-based Linux distributions that are as similar as they are different.

Ubuntu e Debian are two of the most popular Linux distributions in history, they are two titans in the landscape of Linux distributions, recognized and respected worldwide for their reliability, versatility and extremely active support community. These two distributions have shaped the history of Linux and continue to be very popular with users, both experienced and novice.

Ubuntu and Debian are not only famous, they are also closely related to each other. This close relationship can lead to confusion, particularly for those new to Linux who find it difficult to identify and understand the differences between the two distributions. Therefore, it is important to explore the features and comparisons between Debian and Ubuntu in more detail.

At first glance, one might think: is Ubuntu equivalent to Debian? While there are many similarities and some features may appear nearly identical between these two mighty distributions, the reality is that Ubuntu and Debian have a number of significant differences.

For example, both Debian and Ubuntu allow you to use "apt-get" commands to manage applications. This means that with both Debian and Ubuntu, you can install, update or remove software using the same set of commands. Also, you can install DEB packages in both distributions. This compatibility can often lead to very similar package installation instructions for both distributions, contributing to the perception of similarity.

But if Ubuntu and Debian look so similar, what's the real difference between the two?

Debian and Ubuntu, despite their similarities, are not interchangeable. Both are on the same side of the Linux distribution spectrum, but their histories and philosophies are different. Debian is the original distribution, born from the visionary mind of Ian Murdock in 1993. Ubuntu, however, is a derivative of Debian, created in 2004 by Mark Shuttleworth. While being based on Debian, Ubuntu has introduced a number of changes and features to accommodate a wider and more diverse range of users.

Ubuntu is based on Debian: what does it mean?

Although there are hundreds of Linux distributions, only a handful of them are independent, created from scratch. Debian , Arch, Red Hat are some of the largest distributions that don't come from any other distribution.

Ubuntu is derived from Debian. It means Ubuntu uses the same APT package system as Debian and shares a huge number of packages and libraries from the Debian repositories. It uses the Debian infrastructure as a base.

Ubuntu VS Debian Scheme

This is what most "derivative" distributions do. They use the same package management system and share the basic distribution packages. But they also add some packages and modifications of their own. And this is how Ubuntu differs from Debian despite being derived from it.

Difference between Ubuntu and Debian

Ubuntu is an operating system that is based on the Debian architecture and infrastructure, taking advantage of the .DEB package management system that is characteristic of Debian itself. This means that its structural foundation is based on the robustness and reliability that Debian offers, while maintaining the convenience of the .DEB format for installing applications and updating the system.

The question may arise: does this mean that using Ubuntu is equivalent to using Debian? Not exactly. Although they have a common basis, there are many aspects that differentiate one from the other. Each distribution has its own peculiarities and specificities, and it is the combination of these that determines the personality and uniqueness of a distro.

To better understand these differences, let me discuss these factors in more detail. We will analyze a number of aspects, ranging from system stability, ease of use, the variety and topicality of the software available, and so on. This comparison between Ubuntu and Debian will help to understand what are the strengths and weaknesses of each distribution, highlighting the differences that could guide the user's choice towards one rather than the other.

It's important to note, however, that not all comparisons will apply to all versions of Ubuntu and Debian. Some comparisons are better suited to desktop versions, which are ideal for personal daily use or office work, while other comparisons are better suited to server versions, which are designed to provide network services and website hosting. Each release has its own particular needs and requirements, and Ubuntu and Debian have both been optimized in different ways to meet these needs. So, when considering Ubuntu versus Debian, it's essential to keep in mind the specific context in which you intend to use the operating system.

1. Release cycle

Ubuntu has two types of versions: LTS and regular. The Ubuntu LTS (Long Term Support) version comes out every two years and they get support for five years. You have the option to upgrade to the next available LTS version. LTS versions are considered more stable.

There are also non-LTS releases, every six months. These versions are only supported for nine months, but have newer software versions and features. You need to upgrade to next Ubuntu releases when the current su reaches end of life.

So basically you have the choice between stability and new features based on these versions.

On the other hand, Debian has three different versions: Stable, Testing and Unstable. Unstable is for actual testing and should be avoided.

The test branch is not that unstable. It is used to prepare the next stable branch. Some Debian users prefer the testing branch to get new features.

And then comes the stable branch. This is the main version of Debian. It may not have the latest software and features, but when it comes to stability, Debian Stable is rock solid.

There is a new stable release every two years and it is supported for a total of five years. The first three years are by the Debian security team and the next two years by volunteers (in the form of the Debian LTS team). Next, you need to upgrade to the next stable version available.

As many as five years may seem, it must be considered that in mission critical environments, they could be extremely short and insufficient. In this regard it would be appropriate to evaluate different distributions such as those based on RedHat or RedHat enterprise Linux itself.

2. Software update

Debian's focus on stability means it doesn't always aim for the latest software versions. For example, the latest Debian 11 includes GNOME 3.38, not the latest GNOME 3.40.

The same goes for other software like GIMP, LibreOffice, etc. This is a compromise you need to make with Debian. This is why the ÔÇťDebian stable = Debian staleÔÇŁ joke is popular in the Linux community.

Ubuntu LTS releases also focus on stability. But they usually have newer versions of the popular software.

You should note that for some software , installation from the developer repository is also an option. For example, if you want the latest Docker version, you can add Docker repository in both Debian and Ubuntu.

Overall, the software in Debian Stable often has older versions than Ubuntu.

3. Software Availability

In the context of Linux distributions, a key element to consider is the availability of the software. This aspect can have a significant impact on the user's choice, based on their needs and preferences.

Both Debian and Ubuntu boast huge software repositories, which means that they offer users a wide variety of applications that are ready to install. These range from simple productivity tools, to web browsers, to more complex software such as those for technical drawing or 3D modeling. This vast availability of software makes these distros suitable for a multitude of purposes, whether for home or professional use.

However, despite the already large selection of software available, Ubuntu has one more advantage: access to PPAs, or Personal Package Archives. PPAs are a very useful feature of Ubuntu, as they allow users to install software that may not yet be available in the official repositories. This can include newer versions of a particular piece of software, or completely new applications. Additionally, PPAs also offer the ability to get faster updates for your installed software, which can be especially useful for those who always want to have the latest version of a particular piece of software.

While it is technically possible to try using PPAs in Debian as well, this is not a recommended solution. The experience of using PPAs in Debian can be quite problematic. This is because PPAs are specifically designed for Ubuntu, and using them in Debian can lead to a variety of problems. Users attempting to do this may therefore encounter difficulties and glitches most of the time, making the whole process frustrating and inefficient.

4. Supported Platforms

Ubuntu is an extremely adaptable operating system that is compatible with a wide variety of hardware devices. Currently, it supports x86 and ARM 64-bit platforms. This implies that Ubuntu can be used on a wide range of devices, ranging from powerful professional workstations up to the most modern mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. However, it is crucial to point out that Ubuntu has stopped releasing 32-bit ISOs, highlighting a clear movement towards more advanced and performant hardware platforms. Despite these evolutions, Ubuntu maintains its status as one of the most widely used and popular open source operating systems.

On the other hand, we find Debian, an operating system that stands out for its exceptional compatibility with a variety of hardware architectures. Debian not only supports both 32-bit and 64-bit architectures, making it suitable for a wide range of devices, from older hardware to the latest technological innovations. But Debian's adaptability goes beyond common architectures: it also supports the 64-bit ARM architecture (known as arm64), commonly used in the latest generation of mobile devices. Even more impressive is Debian's support for less popular architectures: ARM EABI (armel), ARMv7 (EABI with hard-float ABI, armhf), little-endian MIPS (mipsel), 64-bit little-endian MIPS (mips64el), PowerPC 64-bit little-endian (ppc64el) and IBM System z (s390x).

Debian's ability to run on such a variety of hardware architectures elevates it to a unique status among operating systems: it is for this reason that it is often dubbed "the universal operating system". Not only can it be used on virtually any device, but it can also take full advantage of each architecture's uniqueness. This broad hardware compatibility, combined with the proven stability and flexibility of the software, makes Debian a go-to choice for users who need a versatile operating system that can adapt to a wide range of situations and requirements.

5. Installation

One of the factors that can influence the choice between different Linux distributions is certainly the ease of installation. In this sense, installing Ubuntu is generally considered to be much simpler and more intuitive than installing Debian. This is not an exaggeration: Debian can be potentially confusing and challenging even for intermediate Linux users.

When you download Debian, the ISO file provided by default is a minimal version. This ISO excludes any non-free, i.e. non-open source firmware. Therefore, as you proceed with the installation, you may find that certain hardware components, such as network cards, are not recognized by the system. This can require considerable patience and significant technical expertise to resolve such issues, two requirements that are not always easily reconciled in production environments where speed of deployment is of the essence.

While there is a separate Debian ISO file that includes the non-free firmware, this is quite hidden and not easily found by someone unaware of its existence. Consequently, ignoring this detail can lead to unwanted surprises during the installation.

ubuntu-installer

In contrast, Ubuntu takes a much more lenient approach to including proprietary firmware and drivers. The default Ubuntu ISO includes these components, making the installation process much smoother and hassle-free for a range of hardware.

Also, the look and feel of the Debian installer can appear dated when compared to the Ubuntu installer, which has a more modern and appealing look. This is not only about aesthetics, but also about functionality. For example, the Ubuntu installer is able to detect other operating systems already installed on the disk and offers the option to install Ubuntu in dual boot with these systems. In my testing, I didn't see the same functionality with the Debian installer, which is an added benefit to Ubuntu for users who want to explore Linux while keeping their existing operating system.

6. Ready-to-use hardware support

As we discussed earlier, one of Debian's core principles is its commitment to free and open source software, also known as FOSS. This philosophy has influenced many aspects of the operating system, including the composition of the kernel. The Debian-supplied kernel does not include proprietary firmware and drivers, consistent with its focus on free software distribution and modification.

This approach has advantages, such as transparency, security and independence from specific vendors, but it also presents challenges. If you have hardware that requires specific drivers or proprietary firmware to function properly, they will not be included by default in the Debian operating system. It's not that you can't get them to work with Debian, but that would require adding or enabling additional repositories and manually installing these components. This can present a challenge for novice users or those looking for a more immediate and hassle-free user experience.

Ubuntu, while also based on the concept of free and open source software, takes a slightly different approach when it comes to drivers and firmware. Ubuntu tends to be more inclusive about these components, shipping many proprietary firmware and drivers by default. This means that Ubuntu may be able to support a wide range of hardware without the need for manual user setup or configuration. This makes Ubuntu a more convenient choice for those looking for a complete out-of-the-box experience.

In summary, Ubuntu can be considered more user-friendly than Debian in terms of hardware support due to its greater inclusion of proprietary firmware and drivers. This doesn't mean that Ubuntu is necessarily "better" than Debian, as each has its own strengths and user niches. However, for those looking for an operating system that is easy to install and use on a wide variety of hardware, Ubuntu may be a more suitable choice.

7. Desktop Environment Choices

Ubuntu and Debian, while having a close relationship, have some significant differences in terms of managing the desktop environment.

Ubuntu uses, by default, a customized version of the GNOME desktop environment. This offers a clean, modern and user-friendly user interface that has become popular with many Linux users. However, Ubuntu doesn't limit users to just one desktop environment - you can install several other desktop environments according to your preferences. Additionally, there are numerous variations of Ubuntu based on specific desktop environments. For example, Kubuntu is a version of Ubuntu designed to use the KDE desktop environment, while Xubuntu is designed for those who prefer the Xfce desktop environment. These versions offer users a great deal of freedom of choice, allowing them to choose the desktop experience that best suits their needs.

On the other hand, we have Debian, which also installs GNOME as the default desktop environment. However, the Debian installer provides an even greater level of customization by offering the ability to choose the desired desktop environment during the installation process itself. This feature offers great flexibility, allowing users to configure their operating system according to their specific needs right from the start.

It is worth pointing out, however, that in some work contexts, such as systems engineering, it may not be necessary to install an advanced desktop environment. In these cases, terminal-based interfaces and command lines may be more than sufficient to perform the required tasks. This is yet another example of the flexibility and adaptability that characterize both of these Linux distributions, allowing users to create an experience tailored to their specific needs.

8. Game

Over the years, the Linux gaming industry has made tremendous progress, largely thanks to the arrival of Steam and the launch of its Proton project. The latter, in particular, has made it possible to run more and more games originally developed for Windows directly on Linux, opening the door to a whole range of possibilities previously inaccessible to fans of games on the Linux platform.

SteamProtonLinux

However, it is important to note that the gaming experience on Linux, as on any other operating system, is highly dependent on the computer hardware. For best performance, your system hardware must be compatible with the games you want to play and the appropriate drivers must be installed correctly.

That's where Ubuntu tends to have an edge over Debian. When it comes to hardware compatibility and proprietary driver support, Ubuntu is generally more user-friendly than Debian. Ubuntu often includes proprietary drivers in its default ISO file and offers simple tools to manage and update these drivers. This makes Ubuntu an especially good choice for Linux gaming enthusiasts, as it can greatly simplify the process of setting up your system for the best possible gaming performance.

This doesn't mean that gaming on Debian is impossible, far from it. With the right knowledge and a little patience, it is possible to configure Debian to run a wide variety of games. However, this may take more time and effort than Ubuntu. In Debian, installing and managing proprietary drivers may require a deeper understanding of the system and the ability to troubleshoot potential problems.

Bottom line, if you're looking for a simpler, more straightforward Linux gaming experience, Ubuntu might be your best choice. If, on the other hand, you're willing to invest some time and effort into customizing your system and optimizing your hardware, Debian offers a wide range of possibilities.

9. Performance

When it comes to performance in an operating system context, the question is often complex and there is no single answer that establishes an absolute "winner", especially when comparing two such popular and versatile Linux distributions as Debian and Ubuntu.

Both Debian and Ubuntu have earned solid reputations and sizable followings in both the desktop and server world. Both of these operating systems have proven their reliability and scalability, and have been used successfully in a number of different applications, from desktop workstations to large server infrastructures.

The performance of an operating system, however, isn't just dependent on which distribution you choose, it's heavily influenced by a number of other factors, including the hardware on your system and the specific software you're using. For example, a system with a powerful processor and large amounts of RAM may be able to handle heavier tasks and run more demanding applications than a system with less powerful hardware.

Furthermore, both operating systems offer a high level of customization. This means that users can tweak and control different aspects of their operating system to optimize performance as per their specific needs. This could include tuning kernel settings, configuring specific memory management policies, installing custom drivers for specific hardware, and much more.

10. Community and support

When it comes to open source projects like Debian and Ubuntu, community and support are two key aspects that largely contribute to their popularity and success.

Debian is a prime example of a genuine community project. Its existence, evolution and management are the result of the collective effort of community members, who actively collaborate to develop and maintain the operating system. In Debian, all important decisions are made through a democratic process involving the whole community. This community-based organizational structure helps make Debian an inclusive project, accessible and open to anyone who wishes to contribute.

On the other hand, Ubuntu, while an open source project, is backed by a commercial company, Canonical. This doesn't mean that Ubuntu is exclusively a corporate project; in fact, it has a vibrant and active community of users and developers who contribute significantly to its development. However, it is important to note that the final decision on crucial Ubuntu-related issues rests with Canonical, who manage and steer the direction of the project.

When it comes to support, both Ubuntu and Debian boast extensive dedicated forums and online communities where users can seek and offer help, solve problems, and share knowledge. These community resources are a vital point of reference for users of all levels of experience.

Ubuntu Professional

In addition to community support, Canonical also offers a paid professional support service, primarily aimed at its corporate clients. This commercial support can include dedicated assistance, technical advice, training and more, and is especially useful for organizations using Ubuntu in production settings or for critical projects. Debian, being a purely community project, does not offer a similar commercial support service.

Conclusion

Both Debian and Ubuntu establish themselves as reference Linux distributions, representing reliable and solid choices when it comes to selecting an operating system for use on desktops or servers. These two distributions, both rooted in the same basic architecture, share the same package manager, apt, and adopt the .DEB package format. This affinity not only simplifies the management of the software on both platforms, but also the transition from one to the other, providing a continuity in the user experience.

However, it is important to note that Debian may require more technical expertise, particularly when it comes to configuring the desktop environment. If you are taking your first steps in the vast universe of Linux and are trying to familiarize yourself with the system, Ubuntu may be a more suitable starting point for you. As a general rule, I'd recommend starting with Ubuntu, given its more accessible and newbie-friendly nature, before gaining real experience and solid command of the Linux system, and only then consider upgrading to Debian.

This does not imply that a beginner cannot venture straight into exploring Debian. However, it is realistic to expect that such an approach could present greater challenges, given the wide range of customization and control options that Debian offers. Its vast flexibility can be overwhelming for those new to Linux, as Debian is designed to meet the needs of advanced users who want finer control over their system. For this reason, it is recommended that you first gain some experience and familiarity with Ubuntu or a similar distribution before trying your hand at Debian. That said, it's important to note that both distros make excellent choices, depending on your individual skillset and the specific needs you plan to meet.

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