Minimal Debian

Last modified on 2020-09-30

Debian buster bestFriend

Debian 10 aka “buster” is the latest stable release of the popular Linux operating system. I use Debian’s (unofficial) network installer image (which includes non-free firmware for pesky wifi cards) to create a minimal, console-only base configuration that can be customized for various tasks and desktops.

Let’s go!

Debian GNU/Linux is an operating system created by volunteers of one of the largest and longest-running free software projects in the world. There are 3 release branches: stable (code-named “buster”), testing (“bullseye”), and unstable (“sid”).

Below is a visual walk-through of an installation that makes use of the entire disk divided into two partitions: a small boot partition, with the remaining storage dedicated to a Linux Unified Key Setup (LUKS) encrypted partition used by the Logical Volume Manager (LVM) to create “virtual partitions” (Logical Volumes or LVs) for separate root and home.

Installing LVM on top of the encrypted partition allows:

Sample device (my Thinkpad X230) uses BIOS MBR and boots in legacy boot mode. I don’t have any devices using UEFI; search online about extrapolating from these steps to deal with /boot/efi.

1. Prepare install media

Download and verify firmware-10.6.0-amd64-netinst.iso

$ wget -c
$ wget
$ sha256sum -c --ignore-missing SHA256SUMS
firmware-10.6.0-amd64-netinst.iso: OK

Write the installer to an unmounted USB storage device using dd as root. BE VERY CAREFUL TO NOTE THE PROPER DEVICE. ALL DATA ON THE DEVICE WILL BE OVERWRITTEN.

Example: On a Linux system, if a USB stick appears as sde1, then write the installer to sde (no partition number) using …

$ sudo dd bs=4M if=path/to/firmware-10.6.0-amd64-netinst.iso of=/dev/sde status=progress oflag=sync

2. Launch


Select language

Select location

Configure keyboard

Detecting link




Root password

Verify password

Full name


User password

Verify password

Select time zone

3. Partitions

Select the guided partitioning option to make use of the entire disk configured with LVM on LUKS. I also recommend creating a separate /home. By default, this creates:

Settings can be altered (alternate filesystems, mount options, etc) before writing the partition layout to disk. 1 If finer-grained control is desired, select manual partitioning.

Partitioning method

Select disk

Separate home

Write changes

Erasing data


Re-enter passphrase

Amount to use

Finish partitioning

Write changes


4. Install packages and finish up

Install media

Archive mirror

Use the Debian global mirrors service

Mirror hostname


Retrieving files

Restart services

Package survey

Select only [*] standard system utilities and leave the remaining tasks 2 unmarked …

Software selection

Packages are downloaded and the installer makes its finishing touches …

Install GRUB to MBR

GRUB device


5. First boot

GRUB menu

User is prompted for the passphrase to unlock the encrypted partition …

Unlock passphrase


Login and welcome to Buster!

6. Optional: Full disk encryption (including /boot)

GRUB2 supports booting from an encrypted boot courtesy of its cryptodisk module. Debian’s installer does not provide the option of creating a bootable system with an encrypted boot. But it is possible - after installation - to move the contents of unencrypted boot into root residing on the LUKS-encrypted device. Read more

7. Network

Check which network interfaces are detected and settings …

$ ip link

Wired interfaces are usually auto-configured by default and assigned an IP address courtesy of DHCP.

To assign a static address, deactivate the wired interface and create a new entry in /etc/network/interfaces. 3 Sample entry for enp3s0

# The primary network interface
auto enp3s0
iface enp3s0 inet static

Bring up|down interface with if{up,down} enp3s0.

To create a wireless interface connection to WPA2-encrypted access points 4 with a static IP address …

iface wlp1s0 inet static
wpa-ssid MY_SSID

Alternative setup using DHCP …

iface wlp1s0 inet dhcp
wpa-ssid MY_SSID
wpa-psk MY_PASSPHRASE                                       

Optional: once a link is established install a network manager utility. Packages network-manager and network-manager-gnome provide the console nmcli and graphical nm-applet clients respectively . Comment out (deactivate) any entries in interfaces that will be managed by network-manager.

8. Upgrade

Install any upgrades …

# apt update && apt full-upgrade

9. Keyboard

If you desire a different default language/keymap, either modify /etc/default/keyboard or run …

# dpkg-reconfigure keyboard-configuration

I use the colemak keyboard layout.

10. Console fonts

Discover available fonts in /usr/share/consolefonts. Set and display a font (example: Lat15-Terminus20x10) for the current session …

# setfont Lat15-Terminus20x10
# showconsolefont

To make the selection persistent, either modify /etc/default/console-setup or run …

# dpkg-reconfigure console-setup

11. Sudo

Install sudo to temporarily provide your non-root user (example: foo) account with root privileges …

# apt install sudo && adduser foo sudo

To allow foo to suspend, shutdown or reboot the system without being prompted for a password, first create the file /etc/sudoers.d/00-alias containing …

User_Alias ADMIN = foo
Cmnd_Alias SYS_CMDS = /usr/bin/systemctl poweroff, /usr/bin/systemctl reboot, /usr/bin/systemctl suspend

… and then create the file /etc/sudoers.d/01-nopasswd containing the NOPASSWD option …

# allow specified users to execute these commands without password

I add aliases for the commands in my ~/.bashrc to auto-include sudo

alias bye='sudo /usr/bin/systemctl poweroff'
alias reboot='sudo /usr/bin/systemctl reboot'
alias zzz='sudo /usr/bin/systemctl suspend'

12. Sysctl

If a non-root user runs dmesg to read the contents of the kernel message buffer they will see …

dmesg: read kernel buffer failed: Operation not permitted

Turns out it is a security feature not a bug!

To allow users to read the kernel log without being prompted for a password, modify /etc/sysctl.conf by adding …

kernel.dmesg_restrict = 0

… and reload the configuration …

$ sudo sysctl -p

13. Main, non-free, contrib, and backports

Debian uses three archives to distinguish between software packages based on their licenses. Main is enabled by default and includes everything that satisfies the conditions of the Debian Free Software Guidelines. Non-free contains packages that do not meet all the conditions of the DFSG but can be freely distributed, and contrib packages are open-source themselves but rely on software in non-free to work.

Backports contains packages drawn from the testing (and sometimes unstable) archive and modified to work in the current stable release. All backports are disabled by default (to prevent unintended system upgrades) and are installed on a per PACKAGE basis by running …

# apt -t buster-backports install PACKAGE

Modify /etc/apt/sources.list to add contrib, non-free, and backports

# Base repository
deb buster main contrib non-free
deb-src buster main contrib non-free

# Security updates
deb buster/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src buster/updates main contrib non-free

# Stable updates
deb buster-updates main contrib non-free
deb-src buster-updates main contrib non-free

# Stable backports
deb buster-backports main contrib non-free
deb-src buster-backports main contrib non-free

Any time sources.list is modified its necessary to update the package database …

$ sudo apt update

14. Automatic security updates

Fetch and install the latest fixes courtesy of unattended upgrades. Useful feature especially for a home server.

15. Command not found

Automatically search the official repositories when entering an unrecognized command, courtesy of the command-not-found package …

$ sudo apt install command-not-found apt-file
$ sudo apt-file update && sudo update-command-not-found

Re-login to activate.

16. Swapfile

In lieu of a dedicated swap partition, an alternative is to create a 2GB swapfile

$ sudo fallocate -l 2G /swapfile

Only root should be granted read/write access …

$ sudo chmod 600 /swapfile

Create the swap area and activate …

$ sudo mkswap /swapfile
$ sudo swapon /swapfile && free -h

Make the change permanent by adding to /etc/fstab

/swapfile none swap sw 0 0

17. SSD

Periodic TRIM optimizes performance on SSD storage. Enable a weekly task that discards unused blocks on the drive …

$ sudo systemctl enable fstrim.timer

18. mlocate

Setup the locate command and database for finding files …

$ sudo apt install mlocate && sudo /etc/cron.daily/mlocate

19. Dot bashrc

Modify ~/.bashrc and create a colourful custom prompt …

# colour codes

# Set a two-line prompt. If accessing via ssh include 'ssh-session' message.
if [[ -n "$SSH_CLIENT" ]]; then
PS1="${MAGENTA}\\u ${WHITE}at ${GREEN}\\h${YELLOW}${ssh_message} ${WHITE}in ${BLUE}\\w \\n$WHITE\$${RESET} "

Add aliases and functions, enable unlimited history, and more. My own ~/.bashrc.

20. GRUB

Add a bit of colour, a bit of sound, and wallpaper to the bootloader. GNU GRUB.

21. Microcode

Intel and AMD processors may periodically need updates to their microcode firmware. Microcode can be updated (and kept in volatile memory) during boot by installing either intel-microcode or amd64-microcode (AMD) …

$ sudo apt install intel-microcode

Sample output from my laptop before reboot …

$ dmesg | grep microcode
[    0.042819] [Firmware Bug]: TSC_DEADLINE disabled due to Errata; please update microcode to version: 0x20 (or later)
[    1.325081] microcode: sig=0x40651, pf=0x40, revision=0x15
[    1.325137] microcode: Microcode Update Driver: v2.2.
$ grep microcode /proc/cpuinfo 
microcode   : 0x15
microcode   : 0x15

… and after reboot …

$ dmesg | grep microcode
[    0.000000] microcode: microcode updated early to revision 0x24, date = 2018-04-02
[    1.329836] microcode: sig=0x40651, pf=0x40, revision=0x24
[    1.329903] microcode: Microcode Update Driver: v2.2.
$ grep microcode /proc/cpuinfo 
microcode   : 0x24
microcode   : 0x24

Link: Microcode

22. Secure access using SSH keys

Create cryptographic keys, install the OpenSSH server, and configure remote access.

23. Where to go next …

… is up to YOU. I created a setup script that has some ideas.

Happy hacking!


  1. Reserved blocks can be used by privileged system processes to write to disk - useful if a full filesystem blocks users from writing - and reduce disk fragmentation. On large non-root partitions extra space can be gained by reducing this reserve. Example: highlight and select /home partition, select Reserved blocks: and reduce the default 5% reserve set aside by Debian to 1%.

  2. Task selection menu can be used post-install by running the command tasksel.

  3. Problem: setting the network interface to static address can result in /etc/resolv.conf being overwritten every few minutes with an IPv6 address that breaks DNS. The “fix” is to maually set nameserver in resolv.conf and install the resolvconf package. Note that dns-nameservers entries are ignored if resolvconf is not installed.

  4. Multiple wireless static IP address setups can be created with iface wlp1s0_NAME inet static and [de]activated with if{up.down} wlp1s0=wlp1s0_NAME.