Saturday 16 January 2021

Is it fair to compare the stability of Debian vs. ArchLinux currency?


In other blogs and forums it is not uncommon to read arguments pro or against diverse Linux distributions.


Most of those arguments fail to recognize that there is more in common between Linux distributions than things that set them apart: a Linux is a Linux is a Linux.


The most common comparison for people who strive to have a minimalist desktop system is comparing Debian vs. ArchLinux.


The usual propositions are 


Should I choose the stability of Debian at the cost of package currency or the currency of ArchLinux at the cost of stability. 


I prefer the rolling releases of ArchLinux to the standard Debian releases 


For me, both are false dichotomies given Debian can be current and rolling and ArchLinux can be reliable.

How so? First some clarifications: 

  • Debian has stable (Buster); but also testing and unstable (Sid). Sid -> Testing -> Buster.
  • When people talk about Debian older packages they refer, in general to Buster.
  • The word "stable" refers to how frequently packages change, not how reliable the system is.
  • Both Debian Sid and ArchLinux are rolling release. And both are reliable.
  • With that clarified:

 In Debian

  • You will only notice the older packages when there is functionality you need which is only in a newer version. So, most users don't ever notice given that, for mature applications newer features usually fall into edge cases or advanced uses.
  •  There are workarounds for having newer packages: PPAs, AppImages, Flatpaks or building from source (Note: building from source is usually trivial even if people are afraid about it). 
  • Bottom line, the "older packages" argument is a non-issue. Even if you were using Debian stable, you can use well tested applications for most things and only install the newest version for things you really need to have bleeding edge, but then you only have those few things to keep an eye on.

In Arch:

  • ArchLinux tries to keep up with the latest versions, but there is still a testing repository. Which means that packages aren't just recompiled and thrown at the users.
  • Given that it has newer packages, even with the testing, it is more likely that one may find an issue. However, there are various workarounds to solve them: One knows the system better so troubleshooting is easier. One can very easily have snapshots (if using Btrfs) and/or easily rollback packages and/or avoid certain versions. 
  • Bottom line: Instability is a non-issue. You use current applications for most things and only keep back version for things that are giving you trouble. But then you only have those packagesto keep an eye on.
  • Personally, the main difference I see is not technical but practical.

I'd advise to use Debian Buster for systems which should rarely change, like production servers or customs systems to be used by non technical people.


I'd advise to use Debian Sid for people who like the Debian philosophy and implementation decisions.


I would recommend Arch Linux for more technical people who can, and want resolve their own issues, and who have the time, and want to learn the details of how their system works.

Of course there are many other Linux distributions and I could do the same analysis. In the end,  Choosing the right distribution is, mostly, a matter of preference for the initial configuration as we can make them all eventually work similarly.

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