Debian Unstable is very much not that

TL;DR: I run Debian Unstable on one of my daily drivers - I enjoy that, you should try it as well, so here are some things you should consider.

I like Debian. No matter what other distribution I tried out or even ran for a while, I eventually came back to Debian. The project has a clear focus, an established reputation, a huge community and a large number of packages available directly from their official repositories.

But, and I know how funny that sounds from someone enjoying Debian, sometimes their packages are awfully far behind their upstream counterparts. Just to give you an example, the version for nginx is almost ten versions behind the upstream release.

Which is mostly fine for server-side stuff in my case, because security-patches are backported and I very rarely need features from the newer versions. But for my regular, client-side computing needs, that’s a bit different. Having to work around a bug in yubioath-desktop that has been fixed two years ago is, to put it mildly, what feels like an unnecessary inconvenience.

Because of this I have upgraded one of my daily drivers to Debian Unstable last summer. Most of my “shallow” work, such as chatting with coworkers, online meetings and administrative tasks, are done directly on my laptop. The largest parts of my actual work are done on a virtual machine running in a datacenter, which I connect to remotely.

I could go on a lengthy trip of explaining to you how it’s so much more productive and distraction-free, how it’s a much more quintessential computing experience or how many benefits this approach has with regards to technical details. But all of those would be blatant lies, or at least anything but generally applicable truths.

The truth is much more simple: I’m used to it. It’s an environment that I’m comfortable in, opening up a terminal emulator and running ssh before plunging into work has become a habit that’s ingrained in my muscle memory.

So this machine, which as mentioned now runs Debian Unstable, gets heavy, almost daily use. I haven’t had that many issues, but from the experiences I made, and from what I read in posts about the experiences of other people as well as the Debian documentation on Unstable, there are a couple of things that you should consider, keep in mind or pay attention to when running the un-debian-est version of Debian:

  • Don’t mix and match between releases. I have read about people running packages from Unstable on Testing, but those configurations looked wacky. But definitely do not try to mix Stable and Unstable. You will brick your system.

  • As much as unattended-upgrades is a good thing for people who, like me, suck at remembering to regularly update their software, for Debian Unstable it’s wise to ensure that they aren’t actually configured.

    As I have pointed out above, I personally haven’t had any bad experiences with upgrades. But blindly upgrading things in the background is practically beginng for things to go wrong.

  • Make sure that you upgrade regularly. Because on one hand, what’s the point of living (more or less) ‘bleeding edge’ when you are not taking advantage of that, and on the other hand, you really do want the regular bugfixes that come with that.

    • When you do upgrade things, make sure to read through what’s being upgraded. Pay special attention to packages being removed, you don’t want to accidentally remove 500 MB of relevant software.
    • Similarly, make sure that you’re not in a hurry when running apt upgrade. Even if it’s just a minor issue that arises, fixing it takes time and focus. Which is a luxury you probably don’t have when you are supposed to give a presentation in a couple of minutes, with the slides residing on the very laptop you just broke.
  • Ensure that you have proper backups, whose restore capabilities you have tested, in place. That’s something that you should generally, always ensure, but even more so when running Debian Unstable.

    Again, I have yet to run in an issue that was so severe that the availability or integrity of my data was endangered. But better safe than sorry. If you’re one of those people running a filesystem that supports snapshots, like Btrfs or ZFS, taking plenty of those is a great idea.

Now that I read through those I realise that it’s pretty much the same recommendations that generally apply when using Linux, or a computer in general, only with a bit more emphasis behind them.

I don’t want to go all “zeal of the convert” on you, but seriously, Debian Unstable is pretty darn cool. There are no statistics out there (that I am aware of) of how many people are running Debian Unstable, but I suspect that the number is significantly smaller than the amount of people running Debian Stable, or even Testing.

Which is kind of a shame, because running an Unstable system that’s, in my experience, more stable than some LTS-releases of other Linux-distributions, is pretty rad. You should give it a try!