Debian VS Gentoo – Open for Discussion

Many of us Linux users are often finding ourselves in a situation where we’re gravitating towards “distro-hopping“, a term that simply means we are hopping  from one distro to another, usually, in order to try and find the perfect distro for us, or sometimes just to gain the experience that comes with it. In this

Updated Sep 18, 2016Comparisons
Debian vs Gentoo

In this post, I wish to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of two fairly prominent distros, that each has its own set of unique features to bring to the table. Understand that this is not intended to ignite a flame-war, but merely serve as a tool or a guide for the curious seeker who wishes to discover what makes each distro distinct ;-]

Let’s start with some general facts,


One of the oldest Linux distros that still exists nowadays, has been created by Ian Murdock on August 1993 (more than 20 years ago). Its latest stable release is version number 7 codenamed “Wheezy”, in case you were wondering, the code names of Debian releases are names of characters from the film Toy Story. The unstable, development distribution is permanently nicknamed “sid”, after the emotionally unstable next-door neighbor boy who regularly destroyed toys.

Debian is available under more than 73 different languages, its motto is to be the universal operating system and it’s also part of its slogan. The official standard for administering packages is the apt toolset, which is commonly used for installing pre-compiled binary packages, although compiling from source is also possible.


Created by Daniel Robbins on march 2002 (more than 11 years ago). The name “Gentoo” comes from the fast-swimming Gentoo penguin, which was chosen to reflect the potential speed improvements of machine-specific optimization the OS is designed to perform.

Unlike most other Linux distributions out there, Gentoo distinguished itself by making use of source package management as its official standard method for installing software. Its package manager Portage is commonly used for compiling packages from source, although, installation of pre-compiled binary packages is also possible.


Debian vs Gentoo – Comparison chart

Technical details:[1]

Feature / Distro
Debian Gentoo
 Default file system  ext4  none
 Default init system  sysvinit (systemd, starting from next release)  openrc
 Install time desktop environment or window manager selection  GNOME, KDE, Xfce, LXDE  Awesome, Enlightenment, Fluxbox, GNOME, KDE, LXDE-Meta, Openbox, XBMC and Xfce
 Architecture support  x86, x86-64,  ppc, ppc64, sparc64, arm, mips, s390x  x86, x86-64, ia64, ppc, ppc64, sparc32, sparc64, arm, hppa, mips, sh, s390, s390x, alpha, m68k
 Approximate number of pre-compiled packages  48,610  14,975
 Approximate number of source packages  15,691  31,136
 Package format  .deb  ebuild
Security features
 Compile time buffer checks  Yes  Optional
 Mandatory access control  SELinux, AppArmor  SELinux
 Software executable space protection  PaX  PaX


Advantages vs Disadvantages

Strong points


The strong points of Gentoo would certainly include its flexibility and modularity, which allows it to be installed on the largest number of different architectures (as the table above suggests) and to work with almost any hardware parts you might have.

Moreover, its flexibility also comes into play on a situation where you want to mix different packages versions on the same system, e.g. if you wish to use an upstream version of certain package, let’s say GIMP for that matter, then you don’t have to turn your entire system into using testing branch. Instead you can simply set a rule for the package manger to compile only GIMP from testing branch, and keep all the rest – stable branch.

User empowerment is also one of Gentoo’s pluses over other distros out there, since compiling packages is part of the built-in design, the user can set his own “use-flags” in order to fine tune the packages and optimize the overall performance.

Basically these are the most prominent advantages Gentoo has over other distros, if you’d like to know more, check out 5 Reasons why use Gentoo.


The places where you might say Debian has the edge over most other distros are probably its: well proven stability, large number of available packages and also its large number of active community members.

If you’ll ever get the chance to see some server statistics, you’ll find that Debian is one of the most popular OS’s behind them. The reason that is, they say, is that Debian is simply one of the most stable, if not the most stable Linux distribution exists nowadays. An attribute that most server administrators know well to appreciate.

Other than that, the fact Debian and its based off of distros are often (if not always) found leading the chart with total number of available packages, is yet another one of the attractive traits that draw people towards it, Many people may sometimes disqualify a distro simply because it lacks some specific package/s inside their repos, and I suspect the connection between that and the large number of active developers is more than merely a coincidence.

Weak points


Difficulty of installation and maintenance is one of the first things that comes to mind, when a novice Linux user usually thinks of Gentoo. Although difficulty is defined differently among one another, statistics suggests that most people would rather have a simple OS which can be installed by a click of a button and doesn’t require reading a manual first.

Besides that, compile times and required resources can be a major drawback, especially in case you’re running a very busy box where it usually being stressed to the limits.


Make no mistake about it, almost anyone who ever tried Debian would say to you that stability is engraved deep in the roots of the OS, yet, this seemingly conspicuous advantage can also serve as its downfall when you examine things from a different prospective.

I.e. in order for Debian to reach that high level of well tested, stable OS, it first needs to go through a tedious process of testing period, this practically means that as long as you use the stable branch of the OS, you’ll never march on the first row, that is to say, in most cases you’ll never get the chance to use the latest version of any package, and what’s more than that is when you’ll be getting towards the end of its life cycle (approximately between 2 to 3 years) you’ll be using a pretty out-dated OS.

Person & hardware suitable types

It would simply be superficial to say that there’s only one / specific type of person or hardware which would be the most suitable to run any of the herein OS’s, however, in order to utilize the information gained from this comparison, we should at least be able to define some of the characteristics a person or a piece of hardware should have, so that one OS would be preferable over the other in that case.

Person types
 Debian Gentoo
  • The user would be inclined to have a well tested stable OS rather than having the most bleeding edge software he can get, hence you might assign that person a conservative trait.
  • Another tendency the Debian user might have is selection over configuration, i.e. a larger apps selection rather than having the ability to tweak each package to its fullest potential.
  • The Gentoo type of user, would apparently have to be a very patient one, since going through all the installation & maintenance readings plus the compile times would usually require such trait.
  • Moreover, that user would presumably also prefer having more control over the system rather than having an easy to use out of the box OS.
Hardware types
  • As mentioned before, the stability feature might mostly be beneficial (yet not limited) for servers usage.
  • Another case where Debian might shine as well is for when you have older hardware.
  • Compiling takes time and resources thus using Gentoo on a desktop PC where downtime is less of an issue, and resources might be abundant (new hardware), would probably be the best utilization.


In conclusion

Both Debian and Gentoo are certainly well established and unique projects, each has its own set of great features to offer the user, hence, it can be a tough decision to make when you try to choose one of the two. Although this comparison might be considered quite comprehensive, examining all sorts of different aspects. Remember that all in all, there’s no better than trying things yourself, and “learn it on your own flesh”, gaining some experience on the way.

If you have anything you’d like to add, please feel free to leave a reply in the comment section below.



[1] Stats taken from wikipedia.