Sunday, March 21, 2010

Interview: CrunchBang Creator Explains Switch to Debian Sources

MY fondness for CrunchBang Linux is well documented, so when the release of the first alpha version of the next generation of this fine UK-based distribution was announced I was excited, to say the least.

Regulars on the CrunchBang forum have known for some time that distro leader Philip Newborough was considering ending his creation's Ubuntu foundations, moving instead to being built from Debian.

So it was no real surprise when Philip's release notes for CrunchBang 10 'Statler' revealed:
"The first alpha builds of CrunchBang Linux 10 “Statler” are available now. For the first time, CrunchBang is being built with Debian sources, as opposed to Ubuntu.

The LiveCD build process has changed. Previous versions of CrunchBang were built using the remastersys project, this has now been dropped in favour of using the Debian Live Project.

CrunchBang builds now take place remotely on a VPS provided by Linode. The VPS, Dr. Bunsen, is funded by generous sponsors to the project.

The CrunchBang 10 alpha 1 builds were completed on the 16th & 17th of March 2010 and contain all package updates available at the time from the Debian Squeeze repositories.

What's new?

This is a new start for the project and a lot has happened. In fact, too much has happened to be able to reasonably detail in full. So instead, here is a short list of the main changes:

A completely new build process.
Switched from Ubuntu to Debian sources.
Now uses a customised Debian text installer, available from the LiveCD boot menu.
Now available with either a default Openbox or Xfce4 session. The new Xfce offering has been designed to mimic the original CrunchBang Openbox experience, i.e. a minimal desktop with right-click system menu and predefined shortcut keys for popular applications and commands.
Available for 32 bit and 64 bit architectures, with the 32 bit offering available in i486 and i686 optimised kernel flavours.
Now includes a minimal set of pre-installed applications. The application line-up will be revised over future releases."
As a Debian fan I'm excited by this change, but I wanted to know a little more about what motivated Philip to make the switch... so I asked him. What follows are my questions, followed by his unedited answers.

RD: What is it about Debian Squeeze that you prefer over the latest Ubuntu?

PN: For myself, it is not really a question of what it is about the Debian Squeeze release in particular, but more a question about the different approaches taken by the Debian and Ubuntu projects. Unlike the Ubuntu project, Debian does not have a commercial sponsor with any commercial interests. This was never an issue for myself, until recently when Canonical seem to have become less of a sponsor and more of a governing party; I know this is debatable, but I believe that some of their recent decisions might not necessarily have been made with the best interest of their users/community at heart.

From a less political perspective, the Ubuntu project is geared towards producing a polished end-user system. The Ubuntu developers make changes to Debian packages to achieve this goal. These changes often cause problems for derivative projects such CrunchBang. Therefore, the obvious thing to do to negate these problems was to make the switch to Debian.

Also, I would not like for anyone to misunderstand my words and so I think I should point out that I do not think there is anything wrong with the Ubuntu project. As a full Ubuntu member myself, I believe that the project has admirable goals. I am particularly in favour of the Ubuntu Code of Conduct document, both because of what it stands for and because of what has been achieved because of it.

Something else that I also want to make absolutely clear is that I do not have any personal issues with any of the Ubuntu members or developers with which I have ever conversed with online, or met in meatspace. They have all been the best of people.

RD: What advantages will it bring for the CrunchBang community?

PN: Interestingly, the CrunchBang community is not really confined to people who use CrunchBang. Our community is made up of people who use various different distributions. I think the one common interest that brings us together is our love of experimenting with Linux and having a little fun whilst doing it.

I can honestly say that the best thing to come out of the project has been the CrunchBang forums. There are some really talented, friendly and knowledgeable people on the forums and it is a pleasure to be able to go there every day and share ideas.

Regarding what advantages the switch to Debian will have for the community, I cannot say, but early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and nearly everyone on the forums has embraced it.

RD: What technical challenges does it represent for you as a distro leader?

PN: Blimey, "distro leader" sounds a bit serious! Regarding the technical challenges, as you know, Ubuntu is a Debian derivative and so technically there is not a huge difference between the two systems.

In fact, it could be argued that there is only one system and Ubuntu just adds a level of abstraction, and patches! Seriously though, the main challenges for Statler have been in the build process.

CrunchBang images were previously built using the Remastersys Tool, which involved manually creating each build from a minimal CLI installation. This obviously has some limitations, such as being very time and labour intensive.

CrunchBang is now built using the Debian Live Project. Basically, the difference is like night and day. All CrunchBang builds now take place on a remote system and are fully automated. Refining both this new way of working and the actual build process remains the biggest technical and fun challenge.

RD: Also, I was wondering why you had decided to introduce an Xfce version alongside the Openbox version? I found the Xfce option a little strange, personally, especially when I read that it will be set up in such a way as to mimic the Openbox version - I couldn't help wondering why you would bother when you already have a much-loved Openbox version anyway, and Xfce is in no way a lightweight desktop environment?

PN: Firstly, I disagree with your statement about Xfce. I use Xfce daily and find it to be very light on resources and very snappy. I have to be careful now, because I do not want to offend anyone, so I will just say that I think some Xfce based distributions, such as Xubuntu, may have added to the general consensus that Xfce is not a lightweight desktop environment.

I think a lot of the criticisms aimed at Xubuntu are unfair, the Xubuntu developers are doing a fantastic job, but at the same time I do think there are some distributions which implement Xfce better.

I do not think the Xubuntu devs are at fault for this; having spent time on the Xubuntu devel mailing list, it is easy to see that the developers are often having to concentrate on providing fixes and workarounds to issues caused by changes made to packages by Ubuntu devs who are working on the main GNOME desktop edition.

I have often thought that Xubuntu would do better as a project if it added a level of separation from Ubuntu, such as having its own packages repositories.

Anyhow, as for CrunchBang's Xfce edition, I think the main idea behind it is to maybe shake-up some common misconceptions about how an Xfce desktop environment should look and behave.

For example, I think it is strange that you think it is strange that CrunchBang would offer up an Xfce version which mimics CrunchBang's Openbox version, when often you find other distributions offering up Xfce versions which mimic GNOME sessions.

Personally, I think Xfce provides an excellent environment which is lightweight and extremely flexible; this is made somewhat obvious by how simply it can be customised to look and behave like CrunchBang's original Openbox session. If you, or any of your readers have yet to try it, I would encourage you to give it a whirl, you never know, you might be pleasantly surprised!

Thank you, Philip, for explaining your thinking in such clear, honest terms.

Statler is still very much a testing release so Philip strongly advises against installing it on a production machine, but for anyone wishing to try it out and maybe contribute useful findings, it can be downloaded from here.

It's way too early in the development process to be reporting on Statler's development but I have both the Openbox and Xfce versions sat in my Downloads folder and will be taking an early look-see - particularly at the new Xfce version - with a view to doing a full review of the full release version later.


fox said...

Nice to read this interview. It fills in some information and perspective missing on the CrunchBang forums, especially about the remastering process. Personally, I like CrunchBang 9.04 but was looking forward to seeing the faster Ubuntu 10.04 boot in the new CrunchBang. However, I'm happy to give the new Debian-based CrunchBang a try, and so far I like what I see. The xfce option is attractive the way it's set up, so I'm testing both it and the openbox version.

SirJ77 said...

I have been running CrunchBang 9.04 on my older Dell laptop and have been fairly happy with it. I have also been dabbling with Debian for a while due to various things I am seeing about ubuntu (some of which were touched on), and I am also looking forward to the new CrunchBang.
Nice to see an Interview providing a little more information on a distro I like.

Jake T said...

Huh. I'll have to give the xfce thing a go.

After using xubuntu a little bit, I just concluded that xfce was gnome w/o some of the features along w/ a (mostly failed) attempt to be lighter on resources.

Sounds like I might be wrong.

Anonymous said...


I've not heard of CrunchBang until I read about it today on 'Linux Today'; I'll be downloading it when I get home.

I've spent much time setting-up the Package Freedom Verification (PFV) work on the gNewSense (gNS) project, who are also shifting from Ubuntu sources to Debian.

It's interesting to see this move away from Ubuntu, amongst the community.

I look forward to experimenting with CB.

Thanks for the distro,


richs-lxh said...

I have installed Crunchbang Alpha1 OpenBox on both 32 and 64 bit machines, as well as the Xfce Edition on a 32 bit Tower, and it is absolutely excellent.
I would also like to say that although Xubuntu devs do the best they can, it is not a good representation of the speed and power of the Xfce desktop. Distros such as Dreamlinux and Crunchbang really show its true potential.