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This section will describe the overall Debian Project and discuss the motivations and philosophies behind it; later sections discuss the distribution itself. Perhaps the best way to get started with Debian is to review two interesting documents: the Debian Social Contract (which outlines the philosophy of the project as a whole), and the Debian Policies (which specify in full the details of how the distribution is implemented).
The Debian Project is very closely related to the GNU Project, at least spiritually. The name of the distribution makes this explicit: "Debian GNU/Linux." As you read in Chapter 1, it can be argued that "GNU/Linux" is a more precise term than "Linux", because it more accurately reflects the GNU project's contribution to the system. Since Debian is closely related to GNU, you might (correctly) expect that to understand the goals and philosophy of the Debian Project, you need to understand free software, open source software, and how these concepts are alike and different. In other words, to understand Debian, first read Chapter 1 to grasp the context. (However, don't take this book as gospel; also view the relevant web sites and form your own opinion.)
From the start, it's clear that Debian is a socially conscious organization. If you think of Red Hat Software as a canonical "open source software" organization, then you might think of the Debian Project as a canonical "free software" organization. Let me be quick to point out, however, that that's just an analogy, and the differences are not really that black and white: the two organizations share many of the same ideals.
To illustrate its position, the Debian Project has published a "Debian Social Contract." This document states the Project's position on open source and free software, and establishes policies and commitments on the type of software that will be included in the distribution. This document is a commitment to a certain social ideal and standard of integrity in the contents of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. You can find the Social Contract online at debian.org/social_contract.
The Debian Social Contract is also noteworthy in that part of it became the basis for the definition of open source software used by many organizations. This illustrates the close tie between the free and open-source software camps, and perhaps puts the whole issue in perspective. After all, most of the goals are the same; just a few differences exist in the details.
The Debian Social Contract outlines the basic philosophy of the distribution; the Policies define the details. The Debian Project has a comprehensive set of policies governing almost every aspect of the system. There are policies as general as defining the filesystem layout—which is dictated by the Linux Filesystem Hierarchy Standard (FHS)—and as specific as governing the preferred behavior of scripts in a Debian package archive (.deb) file.
All contributors to Debian GNU/Linux follow the Debian Policies, which makes most aspects of the system pretty consistent and reliable in behavior. (For example, it's rare to find a .deb package that installs files in an unusual location.) If you're not a contributor, then you'll probably be less interested in these policies. However, they are still useful to anyone trying to master Debian GNU/Linux; after all, they spell out the entire system in detail.
If you've read Chapters 3 through 5, then the actual contents of the Debian Policies (especially Section 10, "The Operating System") probably won't surprise you; they cover the packaging format, the installation of files, the init scripts model used, and so on. If you're using a Debian system (and even if you're not), then it's a good idea to at least skim over the Debian Policies. You can find them at http://www.debian.org/doc/debian-policy/.
The Debian Social Contract makes a commitment to a certain philosophy, and the Debian Policies define how these philosophies are implemented in the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. These documents are obviously the first and last words on the subjects. Consequently, rather than rehash these documents in detail, the remainder of this chapter focuses on illustrating how Debian GNU/Linux compares to Red Hat and Slackware Linux. For the rest of this chapter, any references to Red Hat Linux refer to discussions in Chapter 4, and references to Slackware Linux pertain to material in Chapter 5.
One of Debian's policies is that the distribution will follow the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard except where it conflicts with another Debian policy. The FHS is discussed in Chapter 3, and as mentioned in Chapters 4 and 5, Red Hat and Slackware also follow the FHS fairly closely. As a result, you'll find few surprises in Debian's filesystem layout. You may encounter the occasional quirk, but you shouldn't have any problems with it.
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