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Ubuntu's rolling release: Pros and cons

Soon, new Ubuntu will be available on a rolling release, which is a good way to make new versions available. However, it comes with its share of risk.

According to Canonical’s Kernel Team Manager, Leann Ogasawara, it is possible that Ubuntu will get rid of the current "new release every six months" model and move to a rolling release. (You can find more info in this recent video.)

So, just what is a “rolling release”?

It’s exactly what it sounds like, really. As individual new/updated packages are ready, they are put up on a repository and made available to everyone. New version of Firefox? No need to wait until the next big release of your operating system...you get it right away. New improvements to the Desktop Environment (such as Ubuntu’s Unity)? BAM! No waiting until next April. Immediately available.

As you can see, there are definitely some great reasons to do a "Rolling Release" for a Linux Distro. In fact, one of my favorite Linux Distro’s, Arch, uses this very model. And it works wonderfully well.

Even openSUSE has a Rolling Release version that they call "Tumbleweed.” (Get it? Because it rolls. Ahh, I love a good code-name.)

This sort of system allows the developers to get feedback from the community much earlier in the process, which can save a great deal of time "re-thinking the wheel" in the long-run. "Release early. Release often,” as the saying goes (a saying the Ubuntu Unity team is living by lately).

But there are definitely some dangers to having a system that delivers the latest and greatest versions of every package on an ongoing basis. Because these packages are being released to the public at a more rapid rate, that means less time for testing.

Even with larger, less frequent releases, major bugs can creep in at the last second before a launch. If you’ve been around the Linux world for a few years, you’ve seen this first-hand. Just do a quick Google search for "ubuntu update breaks X11," and you’ll see what I mean. This isn’t, in any way, a knock against the Ubuntu team (who do an absolutely stellar job). It’s just the reality of the software world. Bugs happen.

But the more often you release, the more chances there are for bugs to be released.

Luckily, the Ubuntu team isn’t planning to do away with the LTS ("Long Term Support") releases. Those will remain and, in all likelihood, will be the preferred option for those using Ubuntu in mission-critical installations (they really shouldn’t be using the current "non-LTS" versions anyway).

And this change isn’t going to be made any time soon. In fact, if it does happen, the word on the street is that Rolling Releases won’t be implemented until after the next LTS release, which is currently scheduled for April of 2014.

If you’ve got a thought on this, one way or the other, now is the time to let the Ubuntu team know.

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