Searching for the best open-source operating system for you? Then you probably already know there are a myriad of Linux distributions to choose from. As we have already dealt with the topic of CentOS vs. Ubuntu, it is time to examine the differences between Debian and Ubuntu.

Debian and Ubuntu are two of the most commonly used distributions, similar in many ways. While Debian is an original distro, created in 1993 by Ian Murdock, Ubuntu is a Debian-based distro developed in 2004 by Mark Shuttlework. Although they share the same foundation, they differ in many ways.

Learn more about Debian vs. Ubuntu and see which option would be better for you.

Debian vs. Ubuntu Comparison

Debian vs. Ubuntu

Both distros can be downloaded for free and installed on your own cheap dedicated server

The best way to examine the differences and similarities between two distributions is to focus on specific criteria.

Debian Ubuntu
Release Cycle Stable, Testing and Unstable branch; No fixed release cycle. LTS and Regular branch; Two-year release cycle.
Stability Known for its excellent stability. Slightly less stable than Debian, but has newer software.
Desktop Environment No default DE; Has a wide variety of DEs from lightweight minimalist to full-featured DE. Has a default DE - GNOME Shell; Offers Ubuntu flavors that include different DEs.
Support Platforms Available on a wide range of platforms. Available on 64-bit x86 and ARM platforms. 
Development A community-driven project. Developed and maintained by Canonical.
Installation Requires more user input and manual configuration. Fast and simple set up; Includes pre-installed software with its default configuration.
Performance Lightweight and fast. Not as fast as Debian, but still very good performance.

Release Cycle

Debian has three types of releases: Stable, Testing, and Unstable

The stable version is the main, up-to-date version, that includes five years of support (3 years of Debian security team support + 2 years of Debian LTS team support). Although it doesn’t have a fixed release cycle, stable versions usually come out every two years. The latest published stable branch is version 11, codenamed Bullseye.

The testing version is the next stable branch in its development state. It includes the latest features and updated software, appealing to users who want to test out the latest updates. However, the testing release does not have permanent security support.

Unstable releases have the latest software packages and features, which have not been fully tested yet. As they include active development, they have the potential to break.

Ubuntu has two types of releases: LTS and regular.

Long-Term Support (LTS) versions are published every two years and receive five years of support. After that, users can subscribe to Extended Security Maintenance (ESM) which provides an additional five years of security maintenance for the Ubuntu base OS.

Regular branches are released every six months and include nine months of support. They have the latest software packages, features, and applications.

At the time of writing, the latest Ubuntu LTS version is 20.04, Focal Fossa, released in April 2020 and supported until April 2025. 

Stability

Debian is known for its stability and has a slight upper hand over Ubuntu. Debian is only upgraded after new features have been thoroughly tested and accepted by Debian’s development team so the chances of unexpected behavior and bugs are minimal.

For this reason, Debian is often the preferred OS for servers. On the other hand, such stability also entails utilizing slightly outdated software. Although this is not an issue for servers, users that prefer working on newer software releases may find Ubuntu more appealing. 

The difference between Debian and Ubuntu stability.

Desktop Environment

Debian does not have a default desktop environment. Instead, the installer asks you to choose a desktop interface of your preference during the installation process. The options range from lightweight minimalist window managers to full-featured desktop environments. 

Its main advantage is that the Debian desktop environment is more lightweight than Ubuntu, and this characteristic is essential when setting up a distro on older hardware.

Ubuntu uses an out-of-the-box interface which is installed by default. Its desktop version is regarded as highly intuitive and user-friendly. Older Ubuntu releases use Unity, while versions 17.10 and younger utilize the GNOME Shell desktop environment. 

Still, the predefined option does not restrict users from using alternative environments. You can install other Ubuntu GUIs (such as Xubuntu for Xfce or Kubuntu for KDE) on top of the existing setup. Switch to "expert mode" during installation to configure and edit everything manually, including the DE.

Platform Support

Debian is available on a wide range of platforms, including 32 and 64-bit architecture, 64-bit ARM, ARMv7, ARM EABI, 64-bit little-endian MIPS, 64-bit little-endian PowerPC, and IBM System z.

Unlike Debian, Ubuntu no longer has 32-bit support. Instead, it is available on 64-bit x86 and ARM platforms. 

Development

While both are open-source, there is a significant difference between how these two distributions are developed. Debian is a community-driven project, free of centralized control. Therefore, it is maintained exclusively by community members and developed by programmers worldwide. 

Ubuntu is developed and maintained by Canonical but also has a strong community of users that contribute to its development. Although being managed by a corporation instead of a community has its limitations, it also includes a defined release cycle and official support for enterprise clients.

Software, Drives, and Firmware

By default, Debian has no proprietary software in its repositories and focuses on keeping everything FOSS - free and open-source. This policy also applies to its kernel, which has no proprietary drivers or firmware. 

Although most Debian users prefer to keep the system entirely open-source, additional repositories can be installed manually. Since Debian doesn’t include any closed-source binary firmware, users who utilize proprietary hardware must add the proprietary drives manually.

Focusing on functionality, Ubuntu offers open-source as well as proprietary software. Thanks to its large repository and drive support, this Linux distribution provides everything necessary for an out-of-the-box experience for users who prefer a quick setup. Ubuntu allows you to easily add repositories and install third-party software using PPA (Personal Package Archives), providing the user with various software options.

Debian vs. Ubuntu difference in firmware and software.

Installation

Debian is often the choice of more experienced users who prefer to have control during the installation process. The OS utilizes the Debian Installer based on nCurses, which requires more input and manual configuration from the user.

When it comes to Ubuntu, whether you are installing Ubuntu Desktop or the server version, you will find the installation process beginner-friendly. Ubuntu uses the Ubiquity installer with a modern graphical user interface and requires little to no configuration.

Not only is it fast and straightforward to set up, but Ubuntu has all the required software preinstalled on its default configuration. It also has a dual boot option, which recognizes and allows other operating systems installed on the disk.

If you are a Windows user who wants to experiment with a Linux distribution, try installing Ubuntu on Windows with Hyper-V, a built-in Windows tool that lets you create and manage virtual machines.

Performance

Both distributions offer excellent performance specific for Linux-based systems. The difference in performance is slight and depends on the hardware and software you use. 

The default Debian setup that consists of the minimal preinstalled software is extremely lightweight and fast. It uses less power and provides excellent performance, even on older hardware. 

On the other hand, Ubuntu offers a broader range of preinstalled software and newer features, making it more resource-demanding than the basic Debian system. While users can speed up performance by uninstalling software, doing so is not recommended for inexperienced users as it may break the installation. 

Debian vs. Ubuntu Final Words

More experienced users who like having complete control over their OS setup prefer using the Debian distro. Alternatively, beginners and users who favor out-of-the-box distributions with the latest software find Ubuntu suits their needs better.

As they are both are similar in performance, stability, and functionality, you may still be on the fence about which distro to opt for.
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