Today I stumbled upon this youtube video which takes a retrocomputing look at a product I was involved in creating in 1999. It was fascinating looking back at it, and I realized I've never written down how this boxed set of Debian "slink and a half", an unofficial Debian release, came to be.
As best I can remember, the CD in that box was Debian 2.1 ("slink") with the linux kernel updated from 2.0 to 2.2. Specifically, it used VA Linux Systems's patched version of the kernel, which supported their hardware better, but also 2.2 generally supported a lot of hardware much better than 2.0. There were some other small modifications that got rolled back into Debian 2.2.
I mostly remember updating the installer to support that kernel, and building CD images. Probably over the course of a few weeks. This was the first time I worked on the (old) Debian installer, and the first time I built a Debian CD. I also edited the O'Rielly book that was included in the boxed set.
It was wild when pallet loads of these boxed sets showed up. I think they sold for $19.95 at Fry's, although VA Linux Systems also gave lots of them away at conferences.
Watching the video of the installation, I was struck again and again by pain points, which the video does a good job of highlighting. It was a guided tour of everything about Debian that I wanted to fix in 1999. At each pain point I remembered how we fixed it, often years later, after considerable effort.
I remembered how the old installer (the boot-floppies) was mostly moribund with only a couple people able and willing to work on it at all. (The video is right to compare its partitioning with old Linux installers from the early 90's because it was a relic from that era!) I remembered designing a new Debian installer that was more modular so more people could get invested in maintaining smaller pieces of it. It was yes, a second system, and developed too slowly, but was intended to withstand the test of time. It mostly has, since it's used to this day.
I remembered how partitioning got automated in new Debian installer, by a new "partman" program being contributed by someone I'd never heard of before, obsoleting some previous attempts we'd made (yay modularity).
I remembered how I started the os-prober project, which lets the Debian installer add other OS's that are co-installed on the machine to the boot menu. And how that got picked up even outside of Debian, by eg Red Hat.
I remembered working on tasksel soon after that project was started, and all the difficult decisions about what tasks to offer and what software it should install.
I remembered how the horrible stream of questions from package after package was to deal with, and how I implemented debconf, which tidied that up, integrated it into the installer's UI, made it automatable, and let novices avoid seeing configuration that was intended for experts. And I remembered writing dpkg-reconfigure, so that those configuration choices could be revisited later.
It's quite possible I would not have done most of that if VA Linux Systems had not tasked me with making this CD. The thing about releasing something imperfect into the world is you start to feel a responsibility to improve it...
The main critique in the video specific to this boxed set and not to any other Debian release of this era is that this was a single CD, while 2 CDs were needed for all of Debian at the time. And many people had only dialup internet, so would be stuck very slowly downloading any other software they needed. And likewise those free forever upgrades the box promised.
Oh the irony: After starting many of those projects, I left VA Linux Systems and the lands of fast internet, and spent 4 years on dialup. Most of that stuff was developed on dialup, though I did have about a year with better internet at the end to put the finishing touches in the new installer that shipped in Debian 3.1.
Yes, the dialup apt-gets were excruciatingly slow. But the upgrades were in fact, free forever.
PS: The video's description includes "it would take many years of effort (primarily from Ubuntu) that would help smooth out many of the rough end of this product". All these years later, I do continue to enjoy people involved in Ubuntu downplaying the extent that it was a reskin of my Debian installer shipped on a CD a few months before Debian could get around to shipping it. Like they say, history doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme.
PPS: While researching this blog post, I found an even more obscure, and broken, Debian CD was produced by VA Linux in November 1999. Distributed for free at Comdex by the thousands, this CD lacked the Packages file that is necessary for apt-get to use it. I don't know if any versions of that CD still exist. If you find one, email me and I'll send some instructions I wrote up in 1999 to work around the problem.