Debian non-profit profits NGO sector

By   |  April 28, 2004

A few weeks ago I got my hands on a copy of Debian Non-Profit, one of a growing list of Custom Debian Distributions. And after spending a few weeks installing and re-installing it on my painfully old (433MHz AMD) work machine for testing purposes I\’ve become something of a fan. There are some issues that could do with a little more attention (in my opinion) but as a whole the Morphix-based Debian NP is a formidable start to what could be a very important project.

Lets start at the beginning:

According to the the developers working on Debian NP the goal of the project is:

\”to develop Debian into an operating system that is designed to fulfill the requirements of small non-profit organizations. The goal of Debian-NP is a complete system for all common tasks that non-profit organization need using 100% free software. We want to provide this functionality in a integrated and documented stable free desktop environment.

Debian NP is distributed as a \”live\” CD and is based on the Morphix project. What this means is that the entire operating system can be run from the CD drive without ever touching the existing operating system on the hard drive. This is becoming an increasingly popular way for new versions of Linux to be distributed because for first-time users it gives them some hands-on time with Linux without ever requiring them to sacrifice their existing operating system(OS or having to find a spare PC for testing.

Getting Debian NP up and running is as simple as rebooting the computer with the CD in the drive and CDROM set as the primary boot device in the bios settings. Debian NP takes just under a couple of minutes (on my really old hardware) to boot up fully, and display a Gnome desktop. The installer takes care of detecting all hardware and configuring it correctly. To date the installer has failed on only one of my machines and this was an even older, built-from-spare-parts, 200MHz machine. Every other machine has had Debian NP up and running perfectly.

Once you\’re running the OS from the CD you can do all the expected tasks. Within reason, of course, given that the entire system is running off CD and in memory. So you can\’t alter all the settings (at least not permanently) as you could with a typical hard drive install. You can however, connect to a network or other hard drives and mount them and use them just like any other device.

Once you\’ve played a round a bit on the CD-based version you might want to install it to your hard drive, which is theoretically as simple as clicking the \”Install to HD\” icon on the desktop and following the instructions. I say \”theoretically\” because although the install process is generally very simple and perfectly understandable on the whole, there is one screen (the initial one) which may be a bit daunting for first time Linux users. This is the screen in which you need to select the appropriate partition for the install and select swap space etc. First time users could benefit from a little more hand-holding in this section. If, however, you\’ve installed Linux before you shouldn\’t have any problems. Once past this section the rest of the install is painless. The remaining screens install the software and then ask for user names and passwords. Fairly straightforward an then you can re-boot without the CD and log on.

On my older machines the entire install process takes little more than 20 minutes. On newer machines significantly less time.

Although the entire OS is housed on one CD the installed version of Debian NP is by no means short of applications. In fact, by my philosophy, there are perhaps too many applications given its purpose as a desktop OS. For example there are range of terminal applications, a dizzying array of multimedia and games and many developer-level applications. Admittedly many of these are \”hidden\” in the Debian menu at the bottom of the drop down menu, but they can tend to be a little overwhelming for first time users because there appear to be an endless array of choices for any given task. Some application selection has, however, been applied to the menu system although personally I would like to see this stripped down even further to explicitly providing one (best of type) application for each major task.

The major task group, and their associated applications) for Debian NP are office productivity (OpenOffice.org), email (Evolution), web browsing (Mozilla Firebird), Web editing (Bluefish), graphics (Gimp), project management(MrProject) and desktop publishing (Scribus). With the exception of Scribus most of these tools could well be considered the best in their fieled (Scribus is beter described as the only one in its field and still a little immature for productive use.)

The first thing that struck me was the fact that despite recognising my external modem the core distribution did not include wvial (my preferred dialler) although it did include gnome-ppp. I have never had much luck with gnome-ppp and in the absence of wvdial my attempts to dial up my service provider were completely stumped. Once I downloaded wvdial and installed it I had no problems with connecting to the Internet. Given that many Southern African NGOs don\’t have broadband access and dedicated connectivity, the failure to include a working dialler for a modem is a reasonably large problem. It is easily solved but for users in remote areas with few skills and no Internet connection the problem is compounded.

A second problem I had (as a desktop user) and one that I can\’t fault the Debian NP team on because it fits within their stated objective, is that the fonts most commonly used by the people I communicate with (Windows users of course) were not included. In particular I\’m referring to the Microsoft True Type fonts (Arial, Verdana etc). Most of the documents I receive are formatted in one of these fonts and without them I constantly ran up against badly formatted, sometimes even barely readable documents and on a number of occasions I received complaints form colleagues who complained that my documents were formatted strangely. Unfortunately, however hard I try to convince others to avoid using these fonts, I can\’t so I am forced into an uneasy acceptance of their use.

I\’m not sure of how one resolves this (short of including the fonts and issueing a large and noticeable disclaimer.

USB support in Debian NP is great. Although auto-mounting devices (USB memory keys etc) is not completely flawless most devices are recognised correctly and ready for use immediately. One peculiarity is that my CD drive works perfectly for data disks but the moment I insert an audio disk I get nothing out of it. I\’ve done a little research and found a few other people with this problem but to date no specific answer.

Debian NP uses the Gnome 2.4 desktop which is clean and elegant and with a little tinkering is ideal for novice as well as advanced users.

Many of the applications used in Debian NP appear to be from the unstable and testing sources and not exclusively from the stable releases. In many cases I understand why this but on the whole I would have preferred \”stable\” versions as much as possible. Having said that however, the team has done a good job of ensuring that everything works as well as possible and all the applications included are very reliable.

In summary, Debian NP is a great example of what can be achieved with free software. There are a few minor issues that could do with some attention but on the whole the distribution is a stable and comprehensive working environment. So much so that I now use it (on my 433MHz working machine as my everyday OS. And really enjoying it.

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