Long Term Support vs Rolling Linux Release

Monday Feb 8th 2016 by Matt Hartley
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There are pros and cons to an LTS distro release yet they remain a solid option for a variety of reasons.

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to try a lot of different Linux releases. As the time passed, I found myself gravitating more toward the Ubuntu-based Long Term Release model. Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages to using an LTS distro release. That said, when it comes to current software packages, control and speed – rolling releases are a solid option.

Good options include Antergos, PCLinuxOS, Linux Mint Debian Edition, among others.

In this article, I'll offer a candid view between the two options by examining the core differences between running a rolling release and using an LTS type release distribution.

Stability starts with you

In the past, I've made the claim that fixed release and LTS releases of Ubuntu offer greater stability than bleeding edge distros that have multiple updates each day. The fact is, this is true, but not because one distro is more stable than another.

Stability testing is done with both types of distros, including their updates. But, when you constantly spend your time changing moving parts in something like an operating system, you're introducing the opportunity for new errors. It's commonsense, but most people can't seem to wrap their heads around it. They believe that since they've never experienced an error, that the mere idea of it happening is just fictional hot air.

I run both Arch and Ubuntu MATE. Both distros have, over time, seen minor issues when updated. Statistically, Arch has seen errors with greater frequency simply because new updates are being introduced with greater frequency. One of my favorite examples was an annoying error a year or so ago from an xcursor update.

There have been others, but this one was a bit of a problem. After all, using X without a mouse does lend itself to convenience. It took me about a day to finally figure out what the problem update was. I rolled it back and eventually a fix was released. No big deal...unless you're not aware of the problem.

Since this event, I can count on one hand how many times I've had a serious Arch issue. Point being, they were show-stopping issues...but they were extremely rare. In truth, the most common issue you'll have with Arch has less to do with stability and more to do with wondering why software you like decided to change a core feature or its UI. It's the price we pay for the latest software I guess. First world problem, perhaps? It's difficult to say.

Next we have a distro like Ubuntu LTS. Once installed, the updates have never broken anything for me – ever. Sure, I've had software PPAs do weird things to me. Maybe Steam needs some housecleaning, etc. But I've never had an xcursor bug like experience when updating an Ubuntu LTS. This isn't to say it never happens, it's just to say it happens with far less of an impact on my being able to use my computer.

However, when I go to update Ubuntu LTS to another LTS using the updater program, I've almost always had to start over and do a fresh installation. Not because the distro was in error, but because something in my personal configuration didn't like the upgrade process. It's incredibly annoying, but like rolling updates back on Arch, not a big deal.

So all of this begs the question: which is more stable? Is Ubuntu LTS more stable than Arch? The truth is that it depends. Statistically, based on MY OWN experiences...Ubuntu's updates are pushing less regressions than Arch. However, Arch provides a better "upgrade" process in that I'm not wading through a failed Ubuntu upgrade process should something go horribly wrong. That, and as previously mentioned...my Arch "bugs" were extremely rare. I'd say it depends on your configuration, desktop environment and other "moving parts" type factors. Obviously your mileage may vary.

Winner for long term stability: Arch

Winner for daily stability: Ubuntu LTS

Obviously some folks will debate both results because their experiences might differ. My counter to this is your experiences don't negate my own experiences. But, having used both distros on multiple machines...I stand by findings 100%.

These aren't opinions based on which distro I like better or what some might consider to be easier. My stability findings were based on how often I had to take extraordinary measures to deal with a broken LightDM issue or some other new bug that was introduced by one distro vs another. Both distributions are by and large, two completely different experiences and are best suited for different goals.

Desktop vs home server environments

As a general rule with anything Linux, there are only a few reasons where updates are beneficial to the end user. First, patching security issues to prevent malicious exploits. Second, offering new features or an improved user experience such as appearance/performance. Lastly, hardware and peripheral compatibly improvements.

The next step in deciding what type of distro is right for you is to assign importance to each of the above three points.

Ubuntu LTS: Offers security patches on a regular basis, but may lag behind with new features and hardware compatibly improvements offered by new kernels.

Affects: Anyone dealing with existing software bugs or who needs a new kernel for more modern hardware.

Workarounds: PPAs for newer kernels and newer software. Sometimes this creates new issues where none were present before, however.

Arch: Offers security patches on a regular basis, plus you also get the latest software and kernels. Downside is that on rare occasions you may need to roll back an update if something presents an issue.

Affects: Tracking down problem updates can be a pain in the backside sometimes, especially if you haven't updated in awhile. LightDM is one such example of a bug that might be tricky to diagnose if it's not working correctly.

Workarounds: Rsyncing your complete system or using LVM snapshots are useful in recovering a system should updates go horribly wrong. This can be done with Ubuntu LTS as well. This will allow you to then install the updates again, one at a time. Then you're able to spot the problem update after you go down the list of updates.

On the desktop, both Arch and Ubuntu LTS are both manageable. However, you must decide for yourself if you want to update with the frequency that Arch needs to remain current or not. There is no wrong answer, however, Ubuntu does mean less daily updating. If you want a more hands off experience and don't have the very latest PC tech (only a few months old), then Ubuntu LTS should be just fine.

If you want the latest software changes, super-current kernel and have no problem backing up your system on a schedule to minimize any surprises, Arch is a speedy alternative worth using.

When it comes to a NFS/Samba, Plex/XBMC, or other home servers, the choice becomes a bit clearer. Speaking exclusively for myself, it’s Ubuntu LTS all day long – not even a debate. The only urgency I have to updating my home servers come down to security and feature fixes. Both, of which I prefer to do on my own schedule and not all at once. I want old, stable...but patched and secure for these appliances.

Since these are not enterprise devices and are patched at all times, I don't need "bleeding edge" software on any of them. If there is a new feature that comes to the software running on them, the vendor provided repositories make upgrades easy enough when I have the time or interest.

Decide for yourself

Which distro is best for you? My response is simply this – it depends on what you expect from your operating system. Generally speaking, I believe Ubuntu LTS based distributions are the best bet for newcomers. I also believe it's the best option for those who prefer a more hands-off user experience (less daily updates). Myself, my "goto" fixed release distro is Ubuntu MATE. Contrary to popular belief, there are specific things added that make this a great install and forget it distro. TLP for power management, a working disabled touchpad while typing feature, among other fixes on the backend. Full disclosure, I contributed to small elements of the project and also contribute a little financially to it as well. But, I do so because they "got it" right.

Arch of course, has updates daily and this is why I selected it for my comparison. Be aware, however, there are other distros that are also rolling releases that are not as bleeding edge as Arch. If you want an install it and forget it distro, but would rather avoid building it yourself or using Arch derivatives, I'm a big fan of PCLinuxOS or LMDE. For someone wanting a more vanilla experience, you can also look to Debian Unstable.

What say you? Do you feel I have this completely backwards? Perhaps you feel Arch isn't the best comparable for the rolling vs LTS release comparison? Hit the Comments and share your thoughts.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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