debian Debian? What's that?

debian Distribution, free software, community, packages, source code ... but what is Debian in fact?

The Debian GNU/Linux system

Debian is an operating system libre (as in free speech) and gratis (as in free beer). Debian allows your computer to function and offers you a a full set of Free Software for all the usual practices (surfing the Web, sending emails, playing multimedia files, doing office kind of tasks), and more ...
This collection of Libre Software comes to a large extend from the GNU project, launched in 1983 by Richard M. Stallman. The Linux kernel developed by Linus Torvalds came to complete those software to make GNU/Linux.

GNU & Tux, logos of the GNU projet and the Linux kernel by Péhä CC-BY-SA

The Debian GNU/Linux distribution was started by Ian Murdock (rip) in August 1993. Everything started with a little, but solid, group of free software hackers, which grew up to become a big and well organized community of developers and end users. Debian is now developed by a thousand of volunteers spread around the world.

in memory of Ian Murdock by Péhä CC-0

So, Debian is a complete set of free software. A free software is defined by the 4 freedoms: it gives the end users the freedom in using, studying, sharing and modifying that software, without breaking the law. To achieve this, it is necessary for the developer to distribute the source code and authorize the end-user to exercise its rights granted by a free license.
One of the major interests of the free software is that it allows competent people to audit the program code, to insure notably that it does only what it is supposed to do. So it is additional barrier to protect your privacy .

Debian implements this principle in its Social Contract, and particularly in the Free Software Guidelines according to Debian.
This contract states that the Debian project will contain only free Software. Thus, during the installation of a Debian distribution, neither non-free drivers will be install by default. However the contract recognizes that some users might need "non-free" components to run their systems, like some peripheral drivers, or some applications decoding some music or video files, for example. That's why the distributed software is separated in 3 sections:

  • main for the free software packages available by default,
  • contrib for the packages respecting the free software guidelines by themselves, but are depending on non-free software, which do not comply with these guidelines,
  • non-free for packages which do not comply with the free software guidelines.

logo Debian texte

Debian id developed very thoroughly. Every new stable version is carefully tested by users before it is released. And this release happens when it is ready. Hence few maintenance work is required once the system is installed and facing problems is very rare.

Like numerous other free distributions, Debian is not very sensitive to malware (like viruses Trojan horses, spyware...) and for several reasons:

  • This large variety of software is available from repositories hosted on servers controlled by the project. Therefore, it is not necessary to search programs to be installed on dubious sites which distribute virus and unwanted programs in addition to the one you were looking for.
  • The administrator and the user rights are clearly separated, which helps a lot in limiting the damages: In case of a viral infection, only the user's documents are affected. This clear separation of the rights limits also the risks of error made between the keyboard and the chair. More details on the rights in chapter 3.7.

The back-up of you data on a regular basis remains the best insurance to protect them against potential viruses or technical issues, but also against your own mistakes (chap.9).

Where to find help

Do you need help? The first reflex, if you can, is to consult the documentation. Next comes the various user's forums, and then a GNU/Linux Group (LUG), if you are lucky enough to be located nearby. There are also several events dedicated to the free software in various associations: you will be able to define appointments not far from your home by consulting agendas of the Libre software

  • The documentation embedded in the system itself: in general, the installed applications include a manual available from the command line (chap.3.8) by typing 'man application_name' and/or from the graphical menu with the "Help" button of the application.
  • The on-line documentation: when you use a GNU/Linux distribution like Debian, you can access a detailed on-line documentation, with a list of the functionalities of the embedded applications. Debian provides you an official documentation:
  • Self-help and support forums: the free software community is divided into a host of forums, sites and blogs of information. To find your way in this abundance of communication is sometimes tricky, and you should rather prefer the sites dedicated to your own environment or distribution. Concerning Debian 2 main self-help forums are available to support you: Debian User forum ( and the Debian Help (forum You could get some extra information on the Debian Official Support page:
  • Associations and LUGs: if you are lucky, you are living not too far from a Linux users group or an association where members meet on a regular basis. In this case don't hesitate to pay them a visit for a little chat (

About forums, geeks, and the terminal

The self-help and support GNU/Linux community mainly consists of passionate volunteers who share their knowledge with big pleasure. They are also very technical and are friendly called the geeks (usually wearing a beard) with several years of computer practice behind them. This experience leads them to master the terminal, which is the most efficient tool to manage a GNU/Linux system: therefore, the very first answers found on the forums will naturally be given in the form of a set of command line operations. Don't be scared: in most of the cases a graphical solution (using the mouse within a window) exists. Ask kindly and you will get an explanation.

To be able to ask a question on a self-help and support forum you should usually register first. You need a valid email address to register with, and receive a confirmation request message, as well as your answers notifications once registered.

Before you ask a question, please remember to look first into the Questions/Answers already solved: most of the forum include a search function by keyword, which will help you find out if your problem is already described in there and has a documented solution.

Don't forget that a forum is usually maintained by volunteers, not to be confused with a post-sales customer service organization .