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    Interview with Adam Di Carlo (of Debian-Boot)
    by rob on Saturday, December 01 @ 16:51:01 GMT

    The installer is the heart of any Operating System — Debian is no different. The mature but ageing boot-floppies installer will rear its head for the last time in woody. In this interview with Adam Di Carlo, one of the lead developers of this system, we investigate the past, present and future of the Debian installation system ready for the upcoming release of woody: The next generation of Debian.

    What do you think about the potato install system – boot floppies, what do you like and what do you think could be improved?

    There are a few things that need to be improved:

    • Internationalization — we actually have most of the work done, we’re just got to get the stuff to fit in the space provided
    • Bugs in the bug tracking system
    • Support as much hardware as we can (reasonably!)
    • work decently well on the new architectures — see below. We always need more help testing and improving installation for new architectures.

    What needs to be improved still is handling of failure cases. For
    example, right now we’re strugging with how to detect whether dhcp has
    failed. Since we’ve moved from pump to dhcp-client, and the latter
    runs as a daemon and brings up the interface even without an IP, we’re
    falsely concluding that the interface is working right.

    There are plenty of little problems like that, and I’m sure many your
    readers are familiar with the frustrations which happen when the
    install system fails in a very ungraceful way.

    The kernel we use varies from architecture to architecture; for i386,
    we’re sticking to 2.2.x for size reasons.

    What is your favourite part of the installation.

    Zipping through by hitting return over and over. People might also be
    interested to know they can suppress many prompts by use the ‘quiet’
    boot argument.

    Personally I enjoy the flexibility provided by the installation system, how is that being build upon and improved for the woody release?

    Well, if we can get internationalization completed, that would be a
    major win, and I believe would set us up to compete with SUSE much
    better. Base installation is more flexible now, although more from
    the system management perspective than the user perspective. Some
    annoying steps, such as the timezone selection, have been improved
    (and moved later in the install process). We have also made some
    inroads in install automation — that is not completely there yet, but
    at least it should be easier for customizers and third parties to work
    with the boot-floppies.

    There really haven’t been all that many major UI changes, since the
    current installation system (boot-floppies) is end-of-life. More on
    that later.

    What are the major changes and improvements?

    This is really an incremental upgrade from Potato. However, a few
    notable changes have been made.

    Base installation is now done with debootstrap, from the package with
    the same name. This means that we’re not providing packed and split
    base images with the install system (boot-floppies) anymore. One of
    the benefits of this is that changes in the archives, such as security
    fixes, can be used by the install system the moment they enter the
    archive. By the way, debootstrap can also be used to install a Debian
    chrooted potato or woody or sid system on any machine.
    The other major change is of course the new architectures we support.
    As you no doubt know, Debian supports more types of machines than any
    other Linux distribution. In woody, we’ve added hppa, ia64, mips,
    mipsel, and s390.

    There are rumors that we support installation over point-to-point
    links better (such as over PLIP). This was added for s390; I believe
    we need a bit more work to get this working for other architectures.

    And can you explain briefly how the improved installation system works.

    Well, it works much the same as how the previous installation system
    worked. We have managed to improve the documentation and keep it
    up-to-date with the changes. Keep your eye on
    http://www.debian.org/releases/testing/, we should have the new
    installation manual up there shortly.

    What does the future hold for the installer beyond woody?

    Well, after woody, the boot-floppies package will be removed; we’re
    changing over to a new system called ‘debian-installer’.

    It should be noted here first that the boot-floppies system is a very
    ancient code base. I believe there still some lines in there from
    Eric Raymond! It has some very deep design flaws, the worst being
    overall fragility and too much “coupling” in the technical parlance.
    It is very sensitive to changes in the base system of the Debian
    archive. The build process is a monster. And the installer itself
    isn’t modular and doesn’t do the right thing when it fails.

    ‘debian-installer’ will address all of this by using a modular design.
    We’re hoping to get a single floppy installation for those
    architectures which support floppy booting. We’re also looking to get
    rid of all those nasty “flavors” of installation on i386 — the idea
    is to use a kernel that supports baseline install media (such as
    disks, network, CD-ROM), and not itself needing to support all the
    targetted hardware which you’re installing to. An initrd and kernel
    modules are used to make this work. This should open up alternative
    hardware which cannot be used to install from right now, such as
    PCMCIA floppies or CDs.

    The new system will lead by Joey Hess rather than myself. You might
    know him as the debconf maintainer (among others). In conjunction
    with all the other developers from the debian-boot@lists.debian.org
    list, he has come up with a design of the new system which uses a
    debconf-style system and a mini-dpkg (called udpkg, using .udeb files)
    which will make the whole build and install process much more modular.

    This should also be a big win for those Debian repackagers who want to
    improve the build system. In the past, these folks have generally
    started from scratch with their own system. Our hope is that they are
    able to make their improvements by providing new or alternative udebs,
    minimizing changes that need to be made to the core installer.


    Many users look at other distributions and see, graphical installers. Will woody have a graphical installer, if not when will we see a
    graphical Debian installer.

    Well, we should have that, we hope, with the release after woody. The
    debian-installer system, being modelled after debconf, is
    UI-independant. So it should be possible to provide an X11/GNOME
    installer, or, better yet, an installer which uses fbdev. I point
    this out since most of the graphical installers I’ve seen for Linux
    use X11; if you used a windowing/UI system which only used fbdev, I
    think you’d get a much more robust system.

    Debian Planet often covers much work with alternative filesystems, what filesystems will be supported natively by the installer?

    With woody, i386 now supports ext3 and reiserfs. However, due to our
    problems with install modularity, there may be a number of machines
    that are not able to use these kernels. OTOH, you can always replace
    the kernel and drivers used on the installation system. This is
    another thing which should be greatly improved with the
    debian-installer, being able to exploit kernel modules loaded from the
    initrd.


    What cool nifty, jaw-dropping, useful innovative eye-candy/features will
    we see in the installer into the future. What would you like to see?

    I think a UI installer is the main thing which will make Debian more
    attractive for newbies. This is a group that I think we underserve
    right now, and I’d like to see that change.

    The other thing which should be doable with debian-installer is
    automated installation. Ideally, you could do an install on one
    system in “record” mode, then take the decisions made there, ship them
    to a boot-server, and do a “cookie cutter” installation over and over
    again from there. This should be a big win for system administrators.

    How can people help and aid with the development of the installer? How should they contribute?

    Well, at this stage we need complete upgrade testing as well as
    installation system refinement. Upgrades are outside the purview of
    the installation system, but people interested in helping there should
    join debian-testing from lists.debian.org

    Discussions on the installation system proper is done at
    debian-testing. This list is for developers of

    ‘boot-floppies’ and ‘debian-installer’. We’re working on both in
    parallel, now that the boot-floppies has stabilized.

    Users with problem reports or suggestions can also just submit bugs
    against the constitutuent packages, without having to join the
    Developer discussion list. Here are the packages to file bugs
    against:

    • boot-floppies -the install system proper (note that the new boot-floppies has a “Report a Problem” step which can be used to report problems. This includes some useful extra info, such as /var/log/installer.log and version data.)
    • modconf – the kernel module UI
    • base-config – the post-reboot UI
    • kernel-image-* – most issues about supported hardware go here, such as kernels not available, patches needing to be applid, etc. Figure out which kernel-image package is used for your architecture, subarchitecture, or flavor as appropriate
    • debootstrap – installing base system
    • busybox – problems with the utilities shipped on the root disk of the boot-floppies.

    If you are not sure, you can file the bug against boot-floppies (be
    sure to include version and architecture information!) and we can
    reassign the bug if needed.

    For those of you who have non-i386 architectures, we really do need
    more testing and suggestions.

    Thankyou for giving your valuable time to answer my questions, I wish you the best of luck with your valued work

    Thanks to Debian Planet for giving me a soap box — hopefully it will
    shed some light and improve the upcoming major release of Debian.


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