Devuan GNU+Linux 3.0.0Devuan is a Debian-based distribution which removes systemd, along with dependencies on systemd, from the operating system. Devuan uses SysV init software by default and the release notes mention OpenRC is available as an optional service/runlevel manager while runit is in the repositories as an alternative init implementation.
Devuan 3.0.0 is based on Debian 10 and has builds available for the 32-bit (x86), 64-bit (x86_64), armhf, arm64, and ppc64el architectures. The project further makes available Desktop, Server, Minimal, and Net-install editions. We are also offered Live and Install flavours of media for most editions. In other words, Devuan follows Debian's example in having a lot of download options before we even begin the install process.
I thought it worth noting that while Debian's default install media does not include non-free firmware which is often used for wireless networking, and users who require non-free firmware need to download alternative media. In contrast, Devuan's editions all ship with non-free firmware and provide the option of removing it.
All Devuan 3 Beowulf install media make non-free firmware packages available at install time. These are only installed if your networking hardware requires them in order to function. You can avoid the automatic installation of non-free firmware by selecting the "Expert install" option in the installation menu.
Devuan 3 Beowulf desktop-live and minimal-live images come with non-free firmware packages pre-installed. You can remove these packages after boot using the "remove_firmware.sh" script available under /root.
I downloaded both the Live and Install media for the project's Desktop edition. The Live media is a 1.1GB download while the Install media is 3.6GB in size. I began with the Live build which boots directly into the Xfce 4.12 desktop. There is a panel placed along the top of the screen. The application menu is located to the left, the system tray to the right, and a task switcher takes up the middle of the panel. A second panel which houses quick-launch icons for starting commonly used applications sits at the bottom of the screen.
The Xfce's default wallpaper is dark red. On the desktop we find icons for launching the system installer, opening documentation, and launching the Thunar file manager. There are also icons which, when clicked, enlarge and shrink the desktop's font size. I found Xfce worked very quickly from the live media and my hardware was all detected so I dived into the installer.
Devuan GNU+Linux 3.0.0 -- Customizing the disk layout (full image size: 102kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
I experimented with three different approaches to setting up Devuan. When working from the Install media, I launched a text installer which appears to be Debian's installer with little to no changes. I talked about Debian's installer when I reviewed Debian 10. I also tried running the installer from Devuan's Live media, which I am about to discuss. Later in my trial I experimented with the Expert Install option on Devuan's Install media and I will cover the highlights of that experience later.
Launching Devuan's installer from the Live media kicks off an unusually long procedure for setting up the operating system. At first we are presented with a graphical application that displays a list of checkboxes and we can select which options we wish to enable. Most of these options deal with partitioning layouts (such as whether to have separate /boot and /home directories and whether to use swap space. There are other options though which toggle whether we wish to enable features such as automatic logins.
The next screen of the installer warns us the operating system needs at least one partition to be set up ahead of time and it offers to launch either GParted or cfdisk to help us partition local disks. The installer then asks us to pick the name of the disk we will be using for the installation. We are given the chance to pick which filesystem to use for Devuan, though options are limited to the ext2/3/4 family.
The installer then walks us through picking our time zone from drop-down lists. Then we are asked to pick our language locale from a cryptic list of language abbreviations (the default option is American English), and then we can pick our keyboard layout from another list. Then the installer confirms it should continue and begins copying its files to our local hard drive. A terminal window shows each file being transferred.
Once the files finish copying we are offered the chance to install a boot loader and pick the location where it will be set up. We then create a username and password for ourselves and, optionally, enable sudo access. We are also given the chance to disable the root account. When the installer is done it returns us to the Xfce desktop where we can restart the computer.
When my new copy of Devuan first started up I noticed it identified itself as Debian in the boot menu. This can be changed, but it's a minor cosmetic detail. The system then booted to a graphical login screen where I could sign into the Xfce 4.12 desktop again.
The desktop is fairly clean, with no pop-ups or other distractions. I often find myself adjusting font sizes to better fit in menus or to make documents easier to read so I liked having the Enlarge/Shrink Font icons on the desktop.
Early on I noticed there was no volume control in the system tray. We can work around this limitation by launching the audio mixer from the application menu or by installing a system tray mixer such as pnmixer.
Devuan performed very well in both of my test environments. When running in VirtualBox the operating system was stable, booted quickly, and Xfce was highly responsive. I did need to manually adjust the desktop resolution through the settings panel as Devuan was unable to dynamically resize its desktop to match my VirtualBox window.
When running on my laptop, Devuan performed beautifully. It started up quickly, ran smoothly and detected all of my hardware, including my wireless card. This was a pleasant change from Debian which was unable to access my wireless card until I had manually tracked down the missing firmware package.
When installed from the Live media, Devuan required 285MB of memory to sign into Xfce and consumed 4.1GB of disk space. These amounts varied depending on how I installed the system and I will talk more about that later.
Devuan, with the Xfce desktop installed, ships with a collection of common, and less-common yet lightweight, applications. The Firefox browser and LibreOffice are included along with the Parole media player and the Quod Libet audio player. The distribution includes codecs for playing popular media formats.
The Ristretto image viewer, Atril document viewer, and Xfburn disc burning software are included too. There is a utility for performing bulk file renaming operations and the Thunar file manager. The mutt e-mail client is included along with Java, a text editor, and a system monitor.
By default Devuan uses the SysV init software, though the release notes promise alternatives. Behind the scenes the distribution runs on version 4.19 of the Linux kernel.
While I was exploring the available software I noted the Xfce settings panel works nicely. It provides a clear approach to customizing the look and behaviour of the desktop. Lower level system settings are not accessible through the Xfce panel and generally require a trip to the command line.
There were a few minor issues I ran into. For instance there is a launcher called Mail Reader in the application menu which, when clicked, fails to launch any program. However, the mutt e-mail client is installed and can be opened through another launcher. In a similar fashion, pressing the Print Screen button does nothing even though there is a screenshot tool installed.
Switching to runit or OpenRC
The Devuan release notes mention OpenRC is available as an alternative to managing services while using SysV init. The release notes also mention the runit software is available as an alternative to the /sbin/init program, also known as PID 1. However, I was unable to locate any tips on how to swap out these components in the release notes or in the project's documentation. I also didn't find any guide in the project's unofficial wiki or on the forums. The one reference I could find to performing the switch suggested choosing the init software was an option in the Expert Install process on the Install media.
I feel it worth mentioning that the Install disc has a number of options the Live disc does not. For example, we can use the default text installer, which works like Debian's installer. We can also enable an Expert Install option which is again similar to Debian's, with a few different options. Plus we can enable speech synthesis for either installer as an accessibility option.
The Expert Install is a long, tedious process. It took about two hours in my case as the installer stops after about every third screen to download packages or configure something and each of the many steps takes us back to a menu that lists all the available steps so we can do them out of order.
When I got to the screen that allows us to pick our init software, there were just two options: SysV init and OpenRC. There was no option for using runit. Both options install SysV init as the /sbin/init (PID 1) program, however, the latter uses OpenRC to manage services.
As far as I could tell, OpenRC was not faster (or slower) to boot or shutdown the system. OpenRC does have some nice features, though from a practical point of view it doesn't seem to matter to the end user which service manager is used, with one exception. Sometimes when using OpenRC my system would not reboot, Devuan would shutdown services, but not power off or restart. This happened rarely, but only when I was running OpenRC; the restart process always went smoothly when using a pure SysV init setup.
At one point I tried installing the runit package to see if it would replace SysV init, but it did not. Devuan continued to boot with SysV init as PID 1. I still have yet to find documentation on the Devuan website on swapping out one init for the other.
On the subject of trying different install methods, I noticed a significant difference when I set up Devuan from the Install media versus the Live media. Though I stayed with the default settings as much as possible and, in each case, ended up with the same desktop and applications, there was a big difference in resource usage. The Install media resulted in a system which used 40MB less memory and 1GB less disk space when compared next to the system I installed from the Live media. At the time of writing I'm not sure what accounts for the difference, but the Install media seems to create a system that is about 20% lighter.
Devuan GNU+Linux 3.0.0 -- Running LibreOffice on the Xfce desktop (full image size: 212kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
Devuan ships with the classic Synaptic package manager. Synaptic, while it takes a low-level approach to dealing with software, does its work quickly. We can check off packages we wish to download, upgrade, or remove and process these actions in batches. Synaptic may not be the most friendly package manager, but it was dependable and fast during my trial.
We can also manage software from the command line using the APT collection of tools. The first time I ran APT it warned me there had been recent changes to the repositories, switching the repositories from Testing to Stable. We are asked to confirm this is okay and expected before APT will continue its work.
During my trial there were just 4 new updates, 41kB in size. These had to be checked for and downloaded manually as Devuan does not have any update notification system.
For people who wish to use portable package formats, Flatpak is not installed by default, but is available in Devuan's repositories. Snap depends on systemd being used as init and is understandably not in the repositories.
As we might expect, Devuan looks and feels almost exactly like Debian. The functionality is the same, most of the supported desktops and other packages are the same, just with the underlying init software replaced. Most people, I suspect, would not notice whether they were running Debian or Devuan, unless they had to manage background services manually.
The one practical difference I noticed during my trial was with firmware and hardware support. There are alternative downloads for Debian that include non-free firmware and therefore wireless support, but it takes some digging to find it, assuming you know to look for these alternative downloads. With Devuan, all possible hardware is supported from the start with the option to remove unused firmware later.
I was disappointed that while runit is listed as an alternative to SysV init, I could not find any practical documentation on performing this switch. Using the Expert Install option did not change init software, only the service manager, though the step in the installer is labelled as choosing the init implementation. I hope the steps required to switch to runit are made more clear in the documentation at some point.
Devuan, to my mind, is a solid operating system. It is fast, light, and stable. However, the steps to install the distribution are lengthy and likely to confuse newcomers. It was also released about a year behind Debian, which means most of the included software is now a year and a half old. Probably not a big deal for most people, in a practical sense, but if you crave up to date packages, Devuan's Stable branch will not appeal.
For most people, those who don't tinker with the underlying operating system, I don't think Devuan holds much attraction over Debian (apart from more accessible firmware). However, for people who like the classic init and OpenRC approaches to managing the underlying system, I think Devuan does hold appeal. It is essentially Debian, or what Debian would have been if it had not migrated to systemd.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast