Debian based riced up distribution for Developers and DevOps folks

post, Dec 3, 2021, on Mitja Felicijan's blog


I have been using Ubuntu for quite a longtime now. I have used Debian in the past and Manjaro. Also had Arch for some time and even ran Gentoo way back.

What I learned from all this is that I prefer running a bit older versions and having them be stable than run bleeding edge rolling release. For that reason, I stuck with Ubuntu for a couple of years now. I am also at a point in my life where I just don't care what is cool or hip anymore. I just want a stable system that doesn't get in my way.

During all this, I noticed that these distributions were getting very bloated and a lot of software got included that I usually uninstall on fresh installation. Maybe this is my OCD speaking, but why do I have to give fresh installation min 1 GB of ram out of the box just to have a blank screen in front of me? I get it, there are many things included in the distro to make my life easier. I understand. But at this point I have a feeling that modern Linux distributions are becoming similar to Node.js project with node_modules. Just a crazy number of packages serving very little or no purpose, just supporting other software.

I felt I needed a fresh start. To start over with something minimal and clean. Something that would put a little more joy into using a computer again.

For the first version, I wanted to target the following machines I have at home that I want this thing to work on.

# My main stationary work machine
Resolution: 3840x1080 (Super Ultrawide Monitor 32:9)
CPU: Intel i7-8700 (12) @ 4.600GHz
GPU: AMD ATI Radeon RX 470/480/570/570X/580/580X/590
Memory: 32020MiB
# Thinkpad x220 for testing things and goofing around
Resolution: 1366x768
CPU: Intel i5-2520M (4) @ 3.200GHz
GPU: Intel 2nd Generation Core Processor Family
Memory: 15891MiB

How should I approach this?

I knew I wanted to use minimal Debian netinst for the base to give myself a head start. No reason to go through changing the installer and also testing all that behemoth of a thing. So, some sort of ricing was the only logical option to get this thing of the grounds somewhat quickly.

What is ricing anyway? The term “RICE” stands for Race Inspired Cosmetic Enhancement. A group of people (could be one, idk) decided to see if they could tweak their own distros like they/others did their cars. This gave rise to a community of Linux/Unix enthusiasts trying to make their distros look cooler and better than others... For more information, read this article What in the world is ricing!?.

I didn't want this to just be a set of config files for theming purpose. I wanted this to include a set of pre-installed tools and services that are being used all the time by a modern developer. Theming is just a tiny part of it. Fonts being applied across the distro and things like that.

First, I choose terminal installer and left it to load additional components. Avoid using graphical installer in this case.

After that I selected hostname and created a normal user and set password for that user and root user and choose guided mode for disk partitioning.

I left it run to install all the things required for the base system and opted out of scanning additional media for use by the package manager. Those will be downloaded from the internet during installation.

I opted out of the popularity contest, and now comes the important part. Uncheck all the boxes in Software selection and only leave 'standard system utilities'. I also left an SSH server, so I was able to log in to the machine from my main PC.

At this point, I installed GRUB bootloader on the disk where I installed the system.

That concluded the installation of base Debian and after restarting the computer I was prompted with the login screen.

Now that I had the base installation, it was time to choose what software do I want to include in this so-called distribution. I wanted out of the box developer experience, so I had plenty to choose.

Let's not waste time and go through the list.

Desktop environments

I have been using Gnome for my whole Linux life. From version 2 forward. It's been quite a ride. I hated version 3 when it came out and replaced version 2. But I got used to it. And now with version 40+ they also made couple of changes which I found both frustrating and presently surprised.

The amount of vertical space you loose because of the beefy title bars on windows is ridiculous. And then in case of Tilix you also have tabs, and you are 100px deep. Vertical space is one of the most important things for a developer. The more real estate you have, the more code you can have in a viewport.

But on the other hand, I still love how Gnome feels and looks. I gotta give them that. They really are trying to make Gnome feel unified and modern.

Regardless of all the nice things Gnome has, I was looking at the tiling window managers for some time, but never had the nerve to actually go with it. But now was the ideal time to give it a go. No guts, no glory kind of a thing.

One of the requirements for me was easy custom layouts because I use a really strange monitor with aspect ratio of 32:9. So relying on included layouts most of them have is a non-starter.

What I was doing in Gnome was having windows in a layout like the diagram below. This is my common practice. And if you look at it you can clearly see I was replicating tiling window manager setup in Gnome.

That made me look into a bunch of tiling window managers and then tested them out. Candidates I was looking at were:

You can also check article 13 Best Tiling Window Managers for Linux I was referencing while testing them out.

While all of them provided what I needed, I liked i3 the most. What particular caught my eye was the ease to use and tree based layouts which allows flexible layouts. I know others can be set up also to have custom layouts other than
spiral, dwindle etc. I think i3 is a good entry-level window manager for somebody like me.

Batteries included

The source for the whole thing is located on Github

Currenly included:

  • non-free (enables non-free packages in apt)
  • sudo (adds sudo and adds user to sudo group)
  • essentials (gcc, htop, zip, curl, etc...)
  • wifi (network manager nmtui)
  • desktop (i3, dmenu, fonts, configurations)
  • pulseaudio (pulseaudio with pavucontrol)
  • code-editors (vim, micro, vscode)
  • ohmybash (make bash pretty)
  • file-managers (mc)
  • git-ui (terminal git gui)
  • meld (diff tool)
  • profiling (kcachegrind, valgrind, strace, ltrace)
  • browsers (brave, firefox, chromium)
  • programming languages:
    • python
    • golang
    • nodejs
    • rust
    • nim
    • php
    • ruby
  • docker (with docker-compose)
  • ansible

Install script also allows you to install only specific packages (example for: essentials ohmybash docker rust).

su - root \
    bash -c "$(wget -q -O -)" -- \
    essentials ohmybash docker rust

Currently, most of these recipes use what Debian and this is totally fine with me since I never use bleeding edge features of a package. But if something major would come to light, I will replace it with a possible compilation script or something similar.

This is some of the output from the installation script.

Let's take a look at some examples in the installation script.

Docker recipe

# docker
print_header "Installing Docker"
curl -fsSL | gpg --yes --dearmor -o /usr/share/keyrings/docker-archive-keyring.gpg
echo "deb [arch=$(dpkg --print-architecture) signed-by=/usr/share/keyrings/docker-archive-keyring.gpg] $(lsb_release -cs) stable" | tee /etc/apt/sources.list.d/docker.list > /dev/null
apt update
apt -y install docker-ce docker-ce-cli docker-compose

systemctl start docker
systemctl enable docker
systemctl status docker --no-pager

/sbin/usermod -aG docker $USERNAME

Making bash pretty

I really like Oh My Zsh, but I don't like zsh shell. When I used it, I constantly needed to be aware of it and running bash scripts was a pain. So, I was really delighted when I found out that a version for bash existed called Oh My Bash. Let's take a look at the recipe for installing it.

# ohmybash
print_header "Enabling OhMyBash"
sudo -u $USERNAME sh -c "$(curl -fsSL" &
wait ${T1}

Because OhMyBash does exec bash at the end, this traps our script inside another shell and our script cannot continue. For that reason, I executed this in background. But that presents a new problem. Because this is executed in background, we lose track of progress naturally. And that strange trick with T1=${!} and wait ${T1} waits for the background process to finish before continuing to another task in bash script.

Check Multi-Threaded Processing in Bash Scripts for more details.


Take a look at script to get familiar with it. This is just a first iteration and I will continue to update it because I need this in my life.

The current version boots in 4s to the login prompt, and after you log in, the desktop environment loads in 2s. So, its fast, very fast. And on clean boot, I measured ~230 MB of RAM usage.

And this is how it looks with two terminals side by side. I really like the simplicity and clean interface. I will polish the colors and stuff like that, but I really do like the results.

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