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'Tis the Season for Rolling Releases

By Katherine Noyes LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Dec 9, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Ah, the holiday season. Children may have visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, but here in the Linux blogosphere, it's been something a bit different.

'Tis the Season for Rolling Releases

Rolling releases, that is.

Yes, there must be something about this time of year that has made tongues more likely to wag and Linux bloggers more likely to think about daily updates. How else to explain the recent rash of rumors and discussions on the topic of release schedules for certain popular Linux distros?

'Jumpin' Meerkats!'

First it was Ubuntu, with a rumor sparked primarily by an article in The Register entitled, " Jumpin' Meerkats! Ubuntu moving to daily downloads?"

A rumor is just what it turned out to be, of course, as Ubuntu engineering director Rick Spencer later asserted -- but not before the rumor mill had swung into full speed.

Bloggers on

and beyond were all quick to pick up on the topic -- fueled, perhaps, by the big changes happening elsewhere in the Ubuntu world.

Bottom line, of course, is that Canonical is apparently planning no such thing. But openSUSE? Well, that's another story.

'openSUSE Tumbleweed'

Last week, that project announced "openSUSE Tumbleweed," a repo that is "a rolling updated version of openSUSE containing the latest 'stable' versions of packages for people to use," in the words of openSUSE kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman.

This from the horse's mouth, as it were, so one can only hope it's for real this time.

Either way, bloggers lost no time in analyzing the idea -- and adding their own two cents, of course.

"The BSD people have been doing this for eons," noted an anonymous user on OStatic, for example. "Linux finds it novel?"

'Better for Security'

On the other hand: "What I like about rolling releases is you get to deal with application incompatibilities one at a time as they come up, rather than having to spend a week or few all at once when upgrading a distro," wrote msobkow on Slashdot. "I think it's also probably better for security, as you get the latest patches for the software."

Alternatively: "Only if you can dedicate time each and every day to support efforts and you can afford not knowing when your system will be down for maintenance," countered turbidostato. "Most people neither can nor want to afford that."

Then again: "What's the fascination with 'rolling releases'?" asked Anonymous Coward. "Seriously. I *like* to know I'm running a specific release that is fixed for a while so that I know what I'm dealing with if I run into problems, and so that if it's working fine I can *stay* on that release for a while."

Opinions were sharply divided on the topic, in other words, so Linux Girl had no choice but to dig deeper. She headed down to the blogosphere's seedy Sudo Saloon to learn more.

'It's All Good'

"Rolling releases cause stability problems but solve antiquation and test group problems," Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza told Linux Girl. "Fedora proves that people are willing to live on the bleeding edge, and Arch Linux proves that rolling releases are feasible, as does Gentoo Linux to an even greater extent."

On the other hand: "Rolling releases, if done carefully, can lead to a more stable production process by having smaller changes tested more often," asserted Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

"Either approach has advantages and disadvantages with respect to random release dates," blogger Robert Pogson opined.

"It's all good," Pogson added. "GNU/Linux needs diversity. Each distro must make its own choices unless they are built on a distro that chooses to change. Even then, a distro can switch its base."

'Danger of Over-Exposure'

Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site, could also see both pros and cons.

"On the one hand, I can see the benefits," she explained. "For example, packages that aren't 'quite ready' before the next release date are under less pressure to skip the testing. On the other hand, packages could also skip the testing, figuring that if worse comes to worse, the next rolling release will fix it."

From a marketing point of view, "it looks like the 'New Coke wasn't a total failure -- it got us twice the shelf space' school of marketing," Hudson added. "Each significant update to the rolling release is yet another opportunity to make an announcement, but then there's the danger of over-exposure, and certainly less reason for people to get excited about a new mainline release."

'Talent Is Like Jam'

Ultimately, "I can see it working if it's done right, but I wonder how much effort it will take away from other areas," she noted. "After all, talent is like jam -- it only spreads so far, and this is a rather ambitious goal."

It's also not clear how much of a difference a rolling release schedule would make to average users, as opposed to simply updating on a regular basis between releases, Hudson added.

"It's not like the rolling releases are going to contain bleeding-edge packages, and I usually wait a while after a new release anyway, just to be on the safe side," she explained.

In short, "Who knows?" Hudson concluded. "If it helps a certain distro run out of weird names that make us look like idiots faster, it can't be all bad."

'Rearranging Chairs on the Titanic'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet wasn't so sure.

"What do Windows, OSX, BSD and Solaris all have in common? A stable hardware ABI," hairyfeet explained. "Go to the forums of ANY Linux distro and count how many 'update foo broke my...' cases you find. A good 85 percent plus of Linux problems on the forums are driver-related.

"That is just unacceptable," he asserted. "All a rolling release will do is cause yet MORE things to break. And why should I need an old kernel to run old software, or a new kernel to run the latest?"

In short, "I've been told by friends running Solaris and BSD they can drop a five-year-old driver with NO recompile and 'it just works.' Now why can't Linux do that?" hairyfeet concluded. "As long as it can't, rolling releases aren't gonna change enough to matter -- it is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

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