Linux 3.2 Kernel: What To Consider Before Updating

Monday Jan 30th 2012 by Matt Hartley

A kernel update offers advantage, yet can also create big headaches without proper preparation and testing.

There are few things in life more exciting than a new system update for your favorite Linux distribution. Often, system updates can bring performance enhancements or simply address problematic security issues. These updates are generally considered a good thing. But when it comes to installing kernel updates, there are some critical factors that must be considered.

By now, you've likely heard all about the new 3.2 Linux kernel. While the new 3.2 kernel does offer some worthwhile benefits, this doesn't always mean that everything is going to work as expected for every person upgrading.

I guarantee you as various users upgrade their Linux boxes, the Linux forums will be filled with people questioning why something working previously doesn't any longer. It's not an opinion, it's a simple fact of life that comes with certain types of system upgrades.

In this article, I'm going to explain what you need to know before attempting to upgrade to the latest kernel.

Is upgrading really necessary?

For the most part, keeping your system up to date ensures that you're avoiding bugs and getting the latest hardware support possible. The downside to this is, sometimes with the new additions offered, other issues surface as well: regression issues can crop up, also once working hardware can present undiscovered bugs, among other hassles.

Obviously this isn't always the case, but it's something to consider as you get ready for the 3.2 kernel. Another reason to keep things up to date is to prevent exploits from becoming a problem.

Updates come in all shapes and sizes. The most common updates handle issues with desktop managers, software and other related factors on the Linux desktop. But when it comes to kernel updates, some people will choose to hold off on updating due to the deep changes it can make to a Linux PC.

A kernel update not only addresses security patches and bug fixes, but sometimes also enables worthwhile new hardware compatibility as well.

The problem is that distributions such as Linux Mint put kernel updates under a Level 5 notice, indicating that upgrading the kernel may "potentially" break the user's system. Ask an advanced Linux user, they will tell you this is nonsense.

To be clear, I am not advocating that anyone should put off updating their kernel. After all, we had an important kernel update here recently that needed to be patched immediately. Sadly though, there will still be those that put off their kernel update due to the reasons outlined above.

As a general rule, I've found it best to keep an eye on important kernel upgrades. Even though it can lead to hassles, the best approach is to keep your system up to date as to avoid any security snafus down the road. Better to have to work through a few bugs than find yourself the victim of a nasty exploit on an unpatched system.

Kernel 3.2 – preparing for the update

In a word, performance is the biggest reason why people will be upgrading to the latest 3.2 kernel. The new kernel offers long overdue battery life improvements, exciting advances with various Linux file systems, improved process handling, plus a laundry list of other great features.

This kernel release is all about making your Linux box hum along nicely while getting the most out of the system resources available. In addition to all that, new wireless support is being introduced and existing wireless support is supposed to get some needed attention as well.

Now comes the big question: should you update to 3.2 immediately? Speaking for myself, I tend to lag behind a little bit when it comes to heavy updates like this.

While I try to stay current on various security concerns surrounding kernel updates, I'm also wary of experimenting on the PC I use daily. Therefore I tend to update my notebook, netbook and other secondary PCs first. This way if there is a glaring bug that could affect most systems, I’ll catch it early.

Another consideration I take seriously is mirroring my partitions. If that's not possible for some reason, then I will at least have the home directory backed up along with a package list so I can reinstall my software easily.

By taking this approach, I am assured that even if something goes wrong I'm not without easy recovery options. If the issues are minor, I could simply roll back to the previous kernel instead. In both instances, installing the new kernel won’t be a problem no matter how it turns out.

After the upgrade – testing for changes

One of the things I like to do before getting too comfortable with a new kernel is to see whether or not things are still running as they should be during my initial tests. Speaking for myself, I've never had hardware working differently after a kernel upgrade. However, I’ve seen my wireless dongles adjust a bit in the speed department on occasion.

One example would be the internal Atheros wireless card on my netbook. This adapter uses the heavily tested ath9k wireless driver.

After a recent kernel upgrade, I noticed that it suddenly went from 160Mbps down to 65Mbps. Considering that no other changes were made to my netbook, I thought the problem must have been related to the kernel upgrade. After I did some tinkering around, it struck me that perhaps the issue was with the router after all!

On a hunch, I logged into my router and changed my default wireless channel settings. Bingo, that did the trick and I was now back to the 150-160Mbps range.

While it lacked the speed seen with my Ralink RT2870-based dongle used on my larger notebook computer, I found the speed being offered to me was more than enough, considering the lumpy throughput of my mixed 802.11g/n router setup.

Even more important, the kernel update was proven not to have interfered with the existing wireless performance. I've decided this serves as a personal reminder to check external causes before blaming a system upgrade for networking woes.

Additional areas I recommend testing include your peripherals and overall system performance. For notebooks, check that the temperature is still normal and your fans aren't running into overdrive. I would also suggest testing out your preferred scanning software as kernel updates can affect this functionality as well.

Getting the most out of kernel 3.2

With the discussion about the merits and challenges of upgrading your kernel to 3.2, it should also be noted that making the leap isn't going to magically solve all your Linux challenges overnight. But rather than drag down the efforts put forth by the developers, I'd like to offer some supplemental ideas to enhance what the new kernel has to offer.

Power consumption – It's said that the 3.2 kernel is going to do wonders for power management. This is nonsense. The fact is that it does make better use of resources, especially on the graphics card side of things.

However, you would be wise to supplement this feature with a simple tool called the Jupiter Applet. Unlike eee-control, this applet will work well with both netbooks and notebook computers alike.

Wireless support – This is an area that can frequently find itself enhanced by various kernel updates, but more often than not most people won't see a clear benefit with existing hardware. The best advice I can offer here is to avoid using NDISWrapper like the plague, instead stick to Atheros, Intel, RealTek and Ralink devices supported here.

As a general rule, if you're looking at USB dongles and hate compiling, stick with 802.11g options. If you must have 802.11n and still hate compiling, look to Intel. I could write an article on this alone, explaining how I never deal with wireless compatibility issues, but it's a complex subject best suited for another time.

Run decent specs – Just because your favorite distribution can run on 128MB of RAM doesn't mean it's a great idea. And don't expect a new kernel to magically make a bogged down PC run faster, either.

My advice when running heavier desktop environments: run at least 1GB of RAM, if not more. RAM is so cheap, it's really silly not to keep your system running with a healthy dose of memory allocated to needed resources. And if you must run a low resource PC, run a desktop environment reflecting this need.

And there you have it. For advanced Linux users, a kernel upgrade isn't that big of a deal. But for the rest of the world, I've found it helpful to keep the pointers above in mind just to make life a little easier.

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