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Advice For New Users On Not Breaking Their Debian System

Debian is a robust and reliable system, but it's still very easy for new users to break their systems by not doing things the Debian way. This page lists common mistakes made by new users. Some of the things listed here can be done safely, but only if you have enough experience to know how to fix your system when things go wrong.

The general theme to the advice here is that consequences are not always immediate, and can make future upgrades impossible without a complete reinstall. If upgrading without a complete reinstall is important to you, be careful not to make the mistakes outlined below.

One of the primary advantages of Debian is its central repository with thousands of software packages. If you're coming to Debian from another operating system, you might be used to installing software that you find on random websites. On Debian installing software from random websites is a bad habit. It's always better to use software from the official Debian repositories if at all possible. The packages in the Debian repositories are known to work well and install properly. Only using software from the Debian repositories is also much safer than installing from random websites which could bundle malware and other security risks.

Don't make a FrankenDebian

Debian Stable should not be combined with other releases. If you're trying to install software that isn't available in the current Debian Stable release, it's not a good idea to add repositories for other Debian releases. The problems might not happen right away, but the next time you install updates.

The reason things can break is because the software packaged for one Debian release is built to be compatible with the rest of the software for that release. For example, installing packages from Jessie on a Wheezy system will also install newer versions of core libraries including glibc. This results in a system that is not Wheezy or Jessie but a broken mix of the two.

Repositories that can create a FrankenDebian if used with Debian Stable:

Don't use GPU manufacturer install scripts

Debian includes Free open source drivers that support most video cards. The Free drivers provide the best integration with the rest of the Debian system and work quite well for most users.

If you absolutely must have the proprietary closed source drivers, do not download them directly from the manufacturer's website!. Installing drivers this way only works for the current kernel, and after the next kernel update your video drivers will not work until they are manually reinstalled again.

Fortunately there is a Debian way to install proprietary video card drivers using packages in the repository. Installing the drivers the Debian way will make sure that the drivers continue to work after kernel updates.

Don't suffer from Shiny New Stuff Syndrome

The reason that Debian Stable is so reliable is because software is extensively tested and bug-fixed before being included. This means that the most recent version of software is often not available in the Stable repositories. But it doesn't mean that the software is too old to be useful!

Before attempting to install the newest version of some software from somewhere other than the Debian Stable repositories, here are some things to keep in mind:

Don't 'make install'

It's quite easy to compile software from source code tarballs downloaded from the software's website, but not always so easy to remove it later. Often the instructions that come with the source code include instructions to use commands like ./configure && make && make install.

When you install software this way, you will not be able to remove it with apt-get or Synaptic. The APT packaging system can only remove software that was installed by the APT packaging system. Even worse, software installed this way can sometimes conflict with the software packaged for Debian.

Software installed this way also does not benefit from security updates the way that Debian packages do. If you want to keep your system up to date without having to manually compile and reinstall for every update, stick to the Debian packages.

What can happen, and why it's bad

The make install script may make invalid assumptions about where the compiled binary and its associated files should exist in the filesystem and under what set of permissions / ownership it should run. Software installed with excessively high privilege on your system can cause errors and data loss.

How to avoid problems

Don't blindly follow bad advice

Unfortunately there's a lot of bad advice on the Internet. Tutorials found on blogs, forums and other sites often include instructions that will break your system in subtle ways. Don't simply follow the first advice you find, or the tutorial that seems the easiest. Spend some time reading the documentation and compare the difference between tutorials.

It's better to take the time to figure out the correct way to do something first than spending even more time fixing a broken system later. You would not let some random stranger feed your baby; do not execute commands without first understanding what they do.

Blog and forum posts don't expire. Instructions that might have been safe a couple of years ago might not be safe to follow any more. When in doubt keep researching and read your version's documentation.

Don't forget to read the documentation

Often reading a tutorial is only enough to get a general idea of how to install or use an application. Almost all of the software packaged for Debian has at least some documentation available. Some places to look:

Don't blindly remove software

Sometimes when you remove a package, the package manager needs to remove other packages too. This is because the additional packages depend on the package you're trying to remove.

If this happens, the package manager will show you a list everything that will be removed and ask for your confirmation. Make sure to read this list carefully! If you don't know what some of the packages to be removed are for, read the descriptions for each one. When in doubt, do more research. Some resources that can help you understand what packages are for include:

Don't install without reading descriptions

It's also wise to read the descriptions of packages before installing them. Sometimes software will have different packages available in the Debian repository, with each package configured a different way. Read the package descriptions and search for similar package names to make sure you get the one you want.

This point can be especially important for packages that install kernel modules.

Don't forget to take notes!

It's easy to forget the steps you took to do something on your computer, especially several months later when you're trying to upgrade. Sometimes when you try several different ways of solving a problem, it's easy to forget which method was successful the next day!

It's a very good idea to take notes about the software you've installed and configuration changes you've made. When editing configuration files, it's also a very good idea to include comments in the file explaining the reason for the changes and the date they were made.

Don't have poor etiquette when getting support!

When looking for support it's important to remember that Debian is a volunteer project and people will be more inclined to help if you're polite and willing to put a little effort in yourself. Here are some general guidelines that will help you get help:

See Also