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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Wed, 04 Jan 2012

I'm running the 2.6.39 Linux kernel from Debian Backports

After months spent pondering the installation of a post-2.6.38 kernel that's actually being patched when needed for my Debian Squeeze system, I finally figured out how to add the Debian Backports 2.6.39 kernel without the operation removing every other kernel in the process.

That's what threatened to happen every time I used Synaptic or Aptitude to attempt to add the newer kernel from Backports. Since the 3.1 kernel from Liquorix panics in this machine, I was loathe to add a new kernel from Backports and not have my older kernels to fall back on if that should panic as well.

It didn't. Now I have 2.6.39 from Debian Backports, 2.6.38 from Liquorix and the original 2.6.32 Squeeze kernel to choose from.

And presumably the Backports kernel will be patched if/when needed. Here's how I did it.

I already have Debian Backports in my sources, and I'd read up on Backports before you add the repository. Here is the recipe if you don't yet have Backports in your sources:

  • With rootly privileges (I always use sudo), add this to your /etc/apt/sources.list -- or create a separate file for Debian Backports containing this line at /etc/apt/sources.list.d/debian-backports.list:

deb http://backports.debian.org/debian-backports squeeze-backports main

  • Then update your sources in a terminal (example here uses sudo):

$ sudo apt-get update

  • Then use apt to add the new kernel from Debian Backports:

$ sudo apt-get install -t squeeze-backports linux-image-2.6.39-bpo.2-amd64

  • Adding the new kernel this way will result in a few messages in your terminal about firmware. If you have trouble, add that firmware from Backports. I'm running fine without it, as I'm not using any proprietary graphics drivers.

  • The apt operation will add the kernel and rewrite GRUB to include it, putting the new kernel at the top of the list followed by the other kernels on your system.

Note on sources.list: If you've never worked with /etc/apt/sources.list or the .list files in /etc/apt/sources.list.d/, I'd read up on it. A quick search on the web didn't yield a good tutorial for Debian's sources.list, but I bet there are more than a few out there.

Debian Backports: If you're running Debian Squeeze on the desktop, I really recommend tapping into Backports for newer versions of key packages you are probably using on your system.

Here are the Backports I'm using, with a small explanation of why I use them, along with any drawbacks:

Linux kernel

This particular laptop's sound chip won't work properly with headphones in the 2.6.32 kernel that ships with Squeeze. I've relied on Liquorix kernels for quite some time, but the newer ones panic every time. Messing with ALSA drivers worked for me in kernels from the 2.6.33-35 era, but now a new kernal alone fixes the sound problems.

If all of my hardware worked in 2.6.32, I'd be using it without complaint. It's easier to just use the kernel your distro ships with, but it's nice to have these alternatives, especially the Backports kernel I'm using now.

LibreOffice

The new LibreOffice suite was backported a few months ago. Installing it from Debian Backports removes all traces of OpenOffice and replaces it with LibreOffice. They look just about the same, but LibreOffice is a very-much-alive and -invigorated project that is committed to cleaning up the old Oo code and adding new features going forward. Thus I wanted to both support the new project and give LO a try.

The packages work great. There is one problem -- the PDF Import package is broken. I removed it and manually installed the OpenOffice extension for PDF Import. Now that feature works -- PDFs import into LibreOffice Draw, where I can edit them, combine them, reorder them, etc. It's Oo/LO's killer feature, in my opinion.

Iceweasel

I'm running Iceweasel (AKA Firefox) 9.0.1 instead of the rapidly aging 3.5.x that ships with Debian Squeeze. The newer Iceweasel isn't in Backports per se. It instead comes from the Debian Mozilla APT Archive, which has its own repository.

Icedove

I wanted a newer version of Icedove (AKA Thunderbird). This package is in both the Debian Mozilla APT Archive and Backports proper. Backports is currently offering 3.1.16, and the Debian Mozilla APT Archive ships 5.0. I'm using the latter. Problems? I can't find a version of Iceowl/Lightning that will work with this build. It's a big problem, but a newer Icedove/Thunderbird is more important than an older Icedove with Iceowl/Lightning.

I've veered between Icedove/Thunderbird and Evolution in the past few months, but I returned to Icedove for the most part in the past few weeks.

Final thoughts: Debian Squeeze with newer bits -- kernel, browser, mail client, office suite -- that improve the desktop experience allow users (including me) to install Debian Stable and stick with it a whole lot longer without needing a full reinstall of a different Linux distribution or in-place system upgrade.

Why upgrade every part of a system just because you want a newer browser or office suite? It's a uniquely Linux/BSD thing -- packages stay where they are in a release. It's a server mindset. On a server, I understand. But the desktop needs to be more dynamic but not completely changeable.

In my opinion, in this case the Windows and OS X worlds have it right -- there's a tradition and an expectation that newer applications will be built against an older base.

I'm not in the mood to install a new distribution or do an in-place full upgrade every six months (or sooner) just so my web browser isn't ancient.

Luckily the Debian ecosystem makes this possible. There are alternatives: Fedora's Yum update tool with the Koji Build System allows for newer versions of many packages to be installed in current releases, and it's way more bleeding edge than Debian Backports. But Fedora is way too fast for me at this stage of the game.

In this setup, I have less breakage than ever.

I won't lie. I enjoyed using Yum to get new versions of applications in my Fedora 13 system when I first got this laptop. But when everything else stopped working at various points, I moved back to Debian.

I could return to Fedora at any time. I like it. But the always-working aspect of Debian along with the great community that brings Backports and multimedia bits to the system is a very great thing.