Setting my Debian Stretch up

January 21, 2018

  Linux Debian Setup

Kevin Cazelles  

David Beauchesne  

14min

Feb 24, 2018 -- add a seflfie
Apr 17, 2018 -- new gist (won't be updated)


This post details my Debian Stretch setup on my Lenovo ThinkPad T470p. I got this machine in early August 2017, so I now have almost 6 months worth of experience on Debian and I thought it was a good time to 1- document the rationale behind my move from MacOS to Debian 2- explain how I set my computer up and 3- how I rate my appreciation of working on Debian. Any comments/questions about what follows? Please, feel free to use the Disqus section at the end of the post.

Go Debian

From MacOS to Linux

I have been a MacOS user for a long time mainly because my father was himself a MacOS user. I remember back to 2005 how weird it sounded to be a Mac aficionado compared to how trendy it is nowadays. According to me, Apple still makes good computers and the money spent on their products if generally worth the performance. However, given the trend of making computers as thin as possible, a Mac user has less and less control over his hardware and given the costs associated with having a Mac (adapters, repair costs, etc.), owning a Mac progressively became much less appealing to me. Even less so since suspicions of planned obsolescence. surfaced. Moreover, since I started doing more and more coding, I realized how rarely I was using Apple’s softwares in favor of many freewares. The list of softwares I used on my MacOS is actually very similar to the one I use on Debian and that I present below. It therefore occured to me that I really had no valid reason to keep using MacOS and I decided to go Linux. So far soooooo good 😄.

Why Debian?

The choice of Linux distribution is huge, as you can see on the dedicated wikipedia page. As I had only a little experience with Linux, mainly Ubuntu on university computers and Raspbian on my Raspberry Pi, I had no strong opinion or inclination to any particular distribution. After spending some time reading comparisons of Linux distributions I concluded that what matters the most was my motivation to learn more and I decided to go Debian, a.k.a. the mother of many Linux distributions.

I do not want to go into much details about Debian. First, because I am still very much a beginner and I do not want to make any glaring mistake and offend anyone! Second because you will learn way more by searching on the web, especially on the official website and reading exhaustive manuals such as Debian Developer’s Reference and The Debian Administrator’s Handbook.

It is nonetheless useful to have a broad understanding of Debian’s development. Basically there are four different kinds of Debian releases named after Toy Story’s characters:

  • unstable: always named Sid;
  • testing: currently Buster;
  • stable: currently Stretch (Debian 9);
  • old stable: Jessie, Wheezy (oldold stable) and previous.

As explained in this post by J.A. Watson, all new Debian packages, including new versions of existing packages, first enter the Debian testing process through the unstable release. After a couple of tests, a new package goes to the testing release where it stays for a longer period. Depending on the kind of package, it may or may not spread to stable and old stable releases (see https://wiki.debian.org/StableUpdates). In reality, the majority of new package versions do not spread further and are instead accumulated as testing releases.

When developing the next stable Debian release, the latest version of packages are frozen, softly at first and then permanently, meaning that new developments for the next stable Debian release are gradually stopped. This frozen period is the time to perform tests and address bugs, necessary developments in order to release a stable version. Essentially, all this means is that package versions included in a new stable Debian release are slightly outdated at the time of the stable version release, which does not preclude packages from being further developed or render new development inaccessible. One simply has to install the testing version of Debian to access up-to-date packages.

Debian packages I said? Well they basically are softwares for Debian. Let’s say that they are non-random sets of files that Debian can install using dpkg -i. Many packages are available online and you can readily install them using a single line of command to the package manager apt-get. If you are interested, I invite you to have a look at the list of mirrors forming the main Debian package repository available online. To illustrate this, in the video below I navigate to a mirror and show where Pandoc is stored.

Two additional comments

  1. There are different repositories. For instance, I use a repository to use icons from the papirus team.

  2. There is an upcoming collaborative development server named Salsa based on .


Installing Debian

About my hardware

Unfortunately, I do not have strong knowledge of hardware and the choice that I made was based on discussions with other non-experts and research on the web Several brands of computer have a high reputation and constantly make good computers. One of them is Lenovo, which is supposed to have a good Linux compatibility. I guess that was enough for me, so there my adventure with a Lenovo computer began!

Once I chose which brand I would buy, I spent some time thinking about my general expectations: a laptop, medium-sized screen (13”-15”), a good i7 processor, no less than 8Go of RAM, and at least 500Go SSD storage for less than 3000$CAN, warranty included. I finally zeroed in on a customized Lenovo ThinkPad T470p. Below are a couple of details about my computer that I can display using the command inxi. Note that inxi is one of the freeware I installed to retrieve information about my hardware using command lines; if you are interested in free command line tools that return information about your hardware I recommend this post on binarytides. The command inxi -SGCADP entered in my terminal returns the following:

System:    Host: debian Kernel: 4.9.0-5-amd64 x86_64 (64 bit) Desktop: Gnome 3.22.3
           Distro: Debian GNU/Linux 9 (stretch)
CPU:       Quad core Intel Core i7-7820HQ (-HT-MCP-) cache: 8192 KB
           clock speeds: max: 3900 MHz 1: 899 MHz 2: 899 MHz 3: 899 MHz 4: 913 MHz 5: 951 MHz 6: 899 MHz
           7: 899 MHz 8: 1080 MHz
Graphics:  Card-1: Intel Device 591b
           Card-2: NVIDIA GM108M [GeForce 940MX]
           Display Server: X.Org 1.19.2 driver: N/A Resolution: 1920x1080@60.02hz
           GLX Renderer: Mesa DRI Intel Kabylake GT2 GLX Version: 3.0 Mesa 13.0.6
Audio:     Card Intel Device a171 driver: snd_hda_intel Sound: ALSA v: k4.9.0-5-amd64
Drives:    HDD Total Size: 1000.2GB (40.1% used)
           ID-1: /dev/nvme0n1 model: N/A size: 1024.2GB
           ID-2: USB /dev/sda model: Rikiki_USB_3.0 size: 1000.2GB
Partition: ID-1: / size: 922G used: 80G (10%) fs: ext4 dev: /dev/nvme0n1p2
           ID-2: swap-1 size: 17.03GB used: 0.22GB (1%) fs: swap dev: /dev/nvme0n1p3

Hello and good bye Windows 10

The factory settings of my new Lenovo ThinkPad T470p was running on Windows 10 and I did not have the choice of the OS, sadly 😞. Well, I am no Windows user and do not intend to become one, so I got rid of Windows ASAP (I obviously took a selfie 😈) and installed Debian Stretch. Let me now explain how!


me on windows

1- Get a bootable USB stick

I decided to go with the stable release of Debian so, in August, 2017, that meant installing Stretch (actually released on June 17th, 2017). To get the Debian installer, you should simply know your architecture and visit the official website. On a recent laptop using an intel processor, it must be amd64. So, I downloaded the debian-installer for amd64 architecture. I was quite familiar with installing Ubuntu or MacOS with USB stick but I was unable to remember the command lines required, so I googled something like “bootable USB stick Debian Stretch” and got an answer similar to this conversation on stackexchange. Keep in mind that I was on MacOS before!

2- A small modification in the BIOS

BIOS ([…] an acronym for Basic Input/Output System and also known as the System BIOS, ROM BIOS or PC BIOS) is non-volatile firmware used to perform hardware initialization during the booting process (power-on startup), and to provide runtime services for operating systems and programs. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BIOS)

Before you can install a new OS on your new computer, you may have to change some settings in the BIOS. In my case, I certainly did! When booting a Lenovo ThinkPad, the first image that pops up is the Lenovo logo and the following message:

To interrupt normal startup press Enter

So I pressed Enter and then F1 to access the BIOS. I opened the Security table and disabled the Secure Boot option to be able to boot on the USB stick. As I needed a non-free firmware to use the Wi-Fi I plugged my device on an Ethernet Cable and seamlessly followed the different steps to successfully install Debian Stretch. Unfortunately, I did not record everything I did, but it is essentially what is described in The Debian Administrator’s Handbook. I chose an installation that includes Gnome and a collection of very useful freewares such as LibreOffice, Inkscape and Octave.


Gnome, gnome-tweak-tools and shortcuts

I made three short videos to show you:

  1. How to get the gnome version you are using with the GUI;

  2. how to tweak your gnome even more. I personally added the papirus icons and Vimix dark them. you can find many good-looking themes on gnome-look;

  3. where to find and add keyboard bindings (for instance to record the screencasts below ctrl+alt+shift+R).

Gnome version


Gnome-Tweak-Tool


Keyboard bindings


Using Debian

My list of softwares

I use a fair number of softwares and using a package manager is extremely useful to install them properly (e.g. the package manager takes care of all dependencies) and to keep track of what is installed. Once Debian was installed, I proceeded to install my collection of softwares, which is recorded as a list in a bash script and provided below as a gist. To be able to fully reproduce this you need to change a few lines in the sources list. I edited /etc/apt/sources.list in the super user mode su with the text editor nano. So:

su

to enter the super user mode (require the adequate password) and then

nano /etc/apt/sources.list

to change the file as follows:

deb http://debian.mirror.rafal.ca/debian/ stretch main contrib non-free
deb-src http://debian.mirror.rafal.ca/debian/ stretch main
deb http://security.debian.org/debian-security stretch/updates main
deb-src http://security.debian.org/debian-security stretch/updates main
# stretch-updates, previously known as 'volatile' https://wiki.debian.org/StableUpdates
deb http://debian.mirror.rafal.ca/debian/ stretch-updates main
deb-src http://debian.mirror.rafal.ca/debian/ stretch-updates main

# R version 3.4.x repositories
deb http://cran.utstat.utoronto.ca/bin/linux/debian stretch-cran34/

# Qgis repositories
deb http://qgis.org/debian stretch main
deb-src http://qgis.org/debian stretch main

# Papirus icons repositories
deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/papirus/papirus/ubuntu xenial main
deb-src http://ppa.launchpad.net/papirus/papirus/ubuntu xenial main

The first line indicates that I subscribe to a non-free repository (I needed this for the Wi-Fi). The six following lines indicate the official repository I use and the rest of the changes are made so that I subscribe to other repositories (R, Qgis and papirus icons). Note that if you are a Homebrew user, having different repositories in your source list is like using different taps. For further information about non-free softwares I installed, have a look at the official website on unofficial repositories, Skype and Dropbox. Also, if you wonder what is the difference between deb and deb-src, go on stackexchange. Once you are aware of this, have a look at my gist below (also version 138 when I first shared this post and version 146 after review of this gist https://gist.github.com/KevCaz/29536740b9150383a9d543ec1be96103 I keep updating).



For some of the softwares listed, I do not use sudo apt-get package and I rather use the following strategy:

  1. wget and save the .deb file in the temporary folder /tmp/

  2. install them with dpkg sudo dpkg -i xxxx.deb

This allows me to retrieve a newer version of the software than the one available for the stable release. I do so for Pandoc, Atom and Hugo.

A few details

For some of the above-mentioned packages, I added a relevant link in the table below:

  • atom
  • Calibre
  • conky-all
  • docker
  • gnuplot
  • GraphicsMagick
  • Hugo
  • ImageMagick
  • jobber
  • Julia
  • Lyx
  • MkDocs
  • Pandoc
  • Pandoc-citeproc
  • pidgin
  • postgresql
  • postgis
  • prezto
  • Python
  • Okular
  • Owncloud
  • R
  • rsync
  • valgrind
  • xournal
  • Zotero


Also, for all the atom packages I install using the apm command, the package documentation is online and the URL is formed as follows: https://atom.io/packages/ + pkgname. For instance, the URL for the pigments package is https://atom.io/packages/pigments.

A last note to mention is that I greatly benefited from reading this and this to set Zotero up.

Issues

Did I face a couple of issues? Of course I did, but I have learned a lot through solving them. Do I still encounter issues? Yes I do: (1) a couple of error messages on startup and (2) an issue with the back light of my screen! BUT regarding (1), everything works fine so I do not complain, especially since some of the message I get might be kernel issues that may be solved when I use a more recent release, and regarding (2), I found a work around 😸!

Various messages on startup

As you can see below I have a couple of error messages on log (command line is sudo dmesg -l err):

Well from what I understood this is nothing too bad. For instance, kvm: disabled by bios is more of a warning message than an error message. My Wi-fi works great despite the firmware: failed to load iwlwifi-8265-26.ucode message. The ACIP errors are triggered because of firmware errors. Well so far everything works well and fixing such errors sounds far beyond my expertise (for the moment 😄) and motivation level.

Back light

After the fresh install, I was able to change the brightness of my screen using F5 and F6 but I am no longer able to do so. I guess at some point my computer hibernated and this caused the issue. Many posts address this issue and I have tried in vain to follow the procedures described to fix this (note that it is likely that I misinterpreted the procedure). However, I took some time to read thorough posts and bug reports reporting the same issue and I have learned a lot. That’s something I really enjoy with Debian: it forces me to understand how things works, and even if my problem is not solved and I can no longer use F5 and F6, I still found a workaround. I have appended a bash alias in my .zprofile:

alias mybl='sudo tee /sys/class/backlight/intel_backlight/brightness <<<'

so now if mybl 500 (mine is between 0 and 1060, that I’ve leaned too!) my backlight is changed accordingly! .zprofile I said? Well, let’s keep this for another post!


Future

I am very satisfied with my actual setup. My guess is that I would have been happy on many Linux distribution. I acknowledge that it requires some time to get used to Linux and how it works. That being said, the time spent to make your laptop working is really rewarding and I have already learned tons of tips. I am now considering switching to Debian testing and reading The Debian Administrator’s Handbook very carefully!


➡️ SEE YOU NEXT POST!! 💥


My MacOS Setup July 13, 2018

MacOS Setup