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Installing Debian

by Edd Dumbill
09/29/2005

The experience of installing Debian can vary widely depending on your hardware and requirements. There simply isn't room here to provide a comprehensive installation guide. Instead, you'll find an outline of the major points of the installation process, and plenty of information about where to go and what to do when things don't work as expected.

While Debian has a great reputation for day-to-day use, it has a poor (and not entirely unmerited) reputation for ease of installation. However, with the Debian 3.1 release, code-named Sarge, the developers have taken major steps to improve the installation experience, so don't be afraid.

Perhaps the best advice I can give concerning Debian installation is to not expect to always get it right the first time. If you're ready to start over and experiment, you'll soon become happy with the installation process.

Installing Debian

Most of the articles in this series will give you tasks that help you learn about Debian as you work through them. You'll be able to dive right in, as the amount of explanation at the beginning of an article will be minimal. Installing Debian is a little different; you probably don't want to repeat it too often. The time you spend reading about the installation process beforehand will reward you when you do the install.

The most straightforward installations are onto a computer with a fresh hard disk dedicated to Debian. However, you can install Debian in almost any configuration, in peaceful coexistence with other operating systems. If you do not have a disk you can dedicate to Debian, your most important first step is to back up all your existing data before starting the installation process.

This article walks you through the Debian installation process. If you have special requirements, it almost certainly won't cover those, but it will tell you how to cater for them.

Equip yourself

Learn Debian-speak for your computer's architecture. A Mac needs the PowerPC installer, while a PC needs Intel x86.

First, get a copy of the official Debian installation guide. This will be useful to have at your side during the installation process. Besides the online version, you can find it in the doc/install directory on a Debian CD.

The next decision to make is about installation media. The most well-trodden path is to use a set of Debian installation CDs. In addition to downloading them, you can purchase them from a vendor; the same web page gives details about that too. If you have broadband internet access, the best strategy may well be to perform a net installation, which requires only a small CD download and installs everything else over the network.

If you've got no CD drive, you can download a set of floppy disk images to use with a network installation.

There are a variety of other installation methods, including a 100 percent networked installation (requiring no CD at all). This article presumes you are using either a full CD/DVD or a small CD plus network installation. Debian also runs on many computing architectures, but for the purposes of this article we assume you are targeting a conventional PC or new-style Mac computer (G3 500 processor or better). The Debian installer documentation covers the particular nuances of your architecture of choice.

Starting the installation

If you don't back up your data, don't blame us if you lose it!

Before booting the installation CD, ensure that you have backed up your data and have spare space on the target hard drive to install Debian. A completely fresh hard drive is ideal.

If you intend to dual-boot with Windows, that may mean using a tool such as Partition Magic to resize the Windows partition and clear some space. Mac users will either need to back up and reinstall their computer, using Disk Utility to reserve space for Debian, or use a third-party partitioning tool to move their data around.

On Macs, the order of the partitions matters for Debian, so read the installer docs carefully.

Now, boot from the installation media. PC users may have to configure their BIOS to ensure that the machine boots from the CD; Mac users should hold down the C key on system power-up. On boot, PC users will see a screen as in Figure 1, Mac users a more basic text display. On both platforms, the normal procedure is to just press the Enter key to boot the installer. However, if you need special settings to make the installer work with your system, enter them at this point. PC users can find a summary of the options by using the help accessible from the function keys; Mac users can refer to the text already onscreen.

initial Debian installer screen
Figure 1. Initial Debian installer screen

One important boot option common to all architectures is the expert mode. Normally, the installer will choose sensible defaults for most configuration options. It may happen that for some reason this does not suit your system. In that case, entering expert as one of the installer boot options switches the installer to expert mode. It will then ask you questions about almost every aspect of the installation. Don't use this unless you really need to!

Beware: if during the installation process you need to cancel an operation due to an error such as the network not being available, the installer automatically puts you into expert mode for the rest of the process. In most cases, this just means you should take the presented defaults for all the extra questions.

Debian System

Related Reading

Debian System
Concepts and Techniques
By Martin F. Krafft

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

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