Are Distro Release Cycles Too Short?

open-source-Distro-flavourWe bring you the thoughts of the open source community on this hot topic

The regularity with which different flavours of the Linux distributions keep arriving in the market has revolutionised the open source landscape. And these are not just the tried-and-tested operating systems for the big servers or for geeks, but are now on desktops as operating systems for regular computer users. Different Linux distros come with varied customisation options, and you can personalise them to suit your needs.

Many of these distros follow a six-monthly release cycle, and there is a general feeling among users that this is too fast and should be slowed down. So, at OSFY, we decided to get the reactions from the open source circuit and posed the following question on our Facebook page, addressed to the members of the various Linux User Groups (LUG): ‘Are distro release cycles too short?’ And this question generated quite a buzz and triggered some interesting comments from the communities.

Dave Carollo, an active member of our Facebook community, feels that with the advancement of technology, the release cycles too should be short, with distros coming out with really good updates. He says, “Technology is constantly evolving. Six to nine months is good, as long as upgrading is a smooth process. Those who do not update take a huge security risk in not doing so.”

Rahul Gaur, another member of OSFY’s FB community, loves distro-hopping and says he wouldn’t mind trying his hand at a new distro every six months or so. “Typically, I do tend to hop from one distro to another as soon as I feel I am getting too comfortable with a particular distro. However, I’ve never found a smooth and efficient way to upgrade. I am using Fedora 19 now with a clean install from F 17,” he says. Tom Sidock, yet another active contributor on our FB community, comes up with an interesting comment. “Short release cycles facilitate testing and development. I prefer that distributions with short release cycles present a Long Term Support (LTS) version that gets support for three to five years. I find these LTS releases are solid and get even better as time goes on. I have short release machines, because it can be fun to live on the cutting edge. I always have the two husband-and-wife machines on the LTS versions, and they just run and run. Good for the relationship too!” writes Tom, with tongue firmly in cheek.

While most of them vouch for shorter and quicker distro release cycles, there are quite a few ardent supporters of longer release cycles as they feel shorter cycles hamper the robustness of the distro. 3rd Coast Geeks, another member of our FB page, is quick to comment: ‘Stability is important in the production environment.’

What the LUG members have to say

Revant Nandgaonkar, a die-hard Ubuntu fan, turned to Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) only to switch back to Ubuntu. He uses FOSS for personal computing and doesn’t like the idea of rolling and the shorter releases which LMDE offers. “I think rolling releases are for continuous testing and development, and not for daily personal computing. What I experienced was that the fixed release distros had all-new FOSS developments well polished and integrated into a distro. I’m happy with the fixed release cycle and LTS system of Ubuntu,” says Nandgaonkar.

For R K Rajeev from ILUG Bombay, who is an avid Fedora user, the six monthly cycle is good. “I typically have my laptop on even versions, and my desktop on odd versions, so I effectively upgrade each system once a year, except for a short time when I buy a new laptop. So I have been following an yearly release cycle and have been on this pattern for almost eight years now. However, I see this changing soon, atleast with Fedora. They are making it simpler to upgrade and stay current, especially with the new ‘fedup’-based upgrade process. With easy package management and an army of dedicated package maintainers updating popular packages to the latest version in most distros, the release cycle isn’t as critical as it used to be, IMHO. As long as I get the latest versions and bugfixes/backports of all my packages, I don’t really mind being one or two releases behind the cutting edge. But if the upgrade is painless and smooth, why not be at the latest version?” he opines.

According to Arun Khan, an active member of ILUG Chennai, the preferences for a release cycle period vary from person to person. He is quick to comment, “As a solutions provider, I recommend CentOS/RHEL, Debian Stable/Ubuntu LTS for the business environment. At a personal level, users can choose what they want.  The frequent cycle may be good for those who work with bleeding edge hardware and need driver support for the latest stuff. For desktops, I have a hybrid model Debian Stable + the latest LTS kernel.”
Rajagopal Swaminathan, yet another active member of ILUG Chennai, gives a thumbs-up to RHEL and CentOS (and any LTS distro with commercial support in the offing), which have a life of 10 years. He says, “I do understand that new hardware does not always get supported. But the advantages are:

  • Commercial enterprises would like stable, rock solid ‘bread and butter’ platforms to run their businesses.
  • The Level 1 and Level 2 sysadmins feel more comfortable with that cycle. Six months is too short a time to gain mastery over any technology. They often have to attend to heterogeneous environments.

 

Even at a personal level, when one gets working, it is preferable to have a stable work environment instead of marching on an upgrade treadmill. AFAIK, Fedora is mulling over an LTS version.

Short release cycles mean considerable wastage of resources, especially on documentation, publicity, promotion and release engineering. Packages may also break and get dropped at release time. Distribution upgrades may not work so smoothly on bleeding edge distros like Fedora, feels A. Mani of ILUG Chennai. He says, “I prefer Debian, Scientific Linux and Kubuntu LTS. In all these distros, upgrades happen very smoothly. In many college and university labs people install Fedora …. they never get their distros upgraded and remain stuck at ancient versions. From the point of release engineering, short release cycles severely limit scope for customisation.”
If you want a stable production environment, go for a distro that gives support, like RHEL, CentOS, Debian Stable or Ubuntu-LTS, feels Mohan R. of ILUG Chennai. “If you want a stable desktop environment with the latest packages, go for any distro that does rolling releases. You install it once and forget about reinstalling. All you need to do is a package update once in a month. It’s perfectly suitable for developers who don’t want to reinstall their hard-to-find-library-packages again-and-again. Besides, it gives you a feel that there is no disturbance to your main focus. Examples of this type would be Arch, Sabayon, Gentoo, Debian-testing and LMDE.  For newbies or sysadmins who want to explore, cutting edge distros like Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian-Unstable, etc, are apt,” says Mohan.

If users want the latest or bleeding edge software (mostly in the case of personal computers), they can always keep upgrading to the latest release. Even if they don’t want to follow such a short upgrade cycle and have reasonably new software, distros like Ubuntu have LTS releases that get a lot of updates backported from the newer releases and are supported for a longer time, believes Guruprasad of ILUG Chennai. He says, “For servers, it makes sense to stick to stable and thoroughly tested releases like that of Debian, which are rock solid and work just fine, doing away with the need to have the latest software in favour of slightly dated versions. Mostly in production environments, people tend to prefer no changes unless they require newer software or want to upgrade to the newer release which comes out once in a few years. I use a combination of Debian Unstable and testing on my laptop, and that helps me have the bleeding edge software. Of course, there are greater chances for crashes and critical bugs, which would make the desktop unusable, but with a little bit of knowhow it is definitely possible to recover from such scenarios. I prefer rolling releases of distros instead of one big fat release that comes out every six months or so, as the downloads are incremental instead of bulky. Debian suits me best here.”

Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay from ILUG Chennai makes an interesting comment. He says, “While other distributions will have a documented rationale behind the release cycle, here’s what the Fedora Project states: “The Fedora Project releases a new version of Fedora approximately every six months and provides updated packages (maintenance) to these releases for approximately 13 months. This allows users to ‘skip a release’ while still being able to always have a system that is still receiving updates.’ (<https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Fedora_Release_Life_Cycle>) A six month release schedule also follows the precedence of Red Hat Linux (precursor to Fedora). Former Red Hat software engineer Havoc Pennington offers a historical perspective at <http://article.gmane.org/gmane.linux.redhat.fedora.advisory-board/1475/>.”
Mukhopadhyay adds, “GNOME started following a time-based release based on the ideas and success of Red Hat Linux and other distributions, after Fedora adopted a similar release cycle. Several other major components, including the Linux kernel, Openoffice.org and Xorg, have started following a time-based release schedule. While the exact release schedules vary between these components and other upstream projects, the interactions between these components and Fedora make a six month time-based release schedule a good balance.”

So, the opinions and preferences on this subject are wide and varied. Do continue to watch this space if you wish to know what our open source community thinks about the other raging topics!

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