Ubuntu vs. Rolling Release Distributions

Monday Feb 10th 2014 by Matt Hartley
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With a rolling release Linux distribution, users don’t have to downgrade an entire release cycle because of one or two bad packages.

Here in my office, I have two different desktops running Linux. One is running Arch Linux and the other is running Ubuntu. Both distributions are fully up to date, with Ubuntu running the latest release. Each desktop has its assigned tasks throughout my work day, with the Arch box serving as my daily use PC for most work.

In this article, I'll share my thoughts as I compare these two Linux experiences, how they handle updates and upgrades, and I'll make recommendations as to which option is best for you.

Ubuntu is easy to use

I've relied on Ubuntu for years now. I enjoy the fact that it has a strong support community, access to any Linux software I might want to run, plus it's very simple to setup. And if you need a recent version of a software in Ubuntu, usually you have the option of adding an Ubuntu PPA (Personal Package Archive) so the new software title can be installed. Because of its ease of use and software availability, Ubuntu users won't find themselves wanting for a Linux software title enjoyed on other distributions.

The other side of Ubuntu's ease of use is that you're bound to Ubuntu release cycles. From each release cycle is an Ubuntu release that eventually expires, requiring an upgrade to the latest version of the distro. Granted, Ubuntu offers a very nice upgrade tool for making this transition. And if you've carefully backup your home directory data, going with a clean installation as an alternative to an upgrade is also an option.

A positive with Ubuntu's release cycles is that they're frequent enough that you get to look forward to something new twice a year. The obvious downside to this, of course, is that upgrading your Linux installation twice a year doesn't always go as planned.

Rolling release advantage?

With any Linux distribution, you have the ability to roll back a problematic update should something go horribly wrong. How easy or complex this is, really depends on the Linux distribution and which update created a problem. Where things become problematic is when it's not a single package that created a problem, rather, the upgrade to a new Linux distribution release. Because with distributions like Ubuntu, sometimes its difficult to find out exactly what went wrong without combing through your update log.

With a rolling Linux distribution, on the other hand, you're able to tackle "upgrades" in nice bite-sized pieces. This means if you're updating your package management daily, odds are good your package cache is going to keep the older version of any newly upgraded package. Just like Ubuntu, you can also browse through your update log to see what was done recently.

The biggest difference with a rolling release distribution is you'll never find yourself downgrading an entire release cycle because of one or two bad packages. Let that sink in for a minute, as I've personally experienced this. I'm not by any means claiming that you're stuck with bad packages in new releases of Ubuntu, rather, downgrading packages from release to release is much more difficult than doing so with a rolling release distro.

Ease of use – rolling release distributions

For sometime now, I've had friends tell me that rolling release distributions are too difficult to use. They've shared concerns that they might not be as stable as a fixed release distro or that they won't become very popular because rolling release distros lack real release dates.

My counter to this claim is but a single word – Manjaro. This Arch Linux derivative has proven that a small team of developers can create something amazing in a relatively short period, without disenfranchising newbies completely. Note: Manjaro isn't completely out of its development stage yet. This caused some tough lessons early on in its development, in regards to the changes in the Arch libraries, and other related challenges.

Despite these challenges, Manjaro is gaining new users at an impressive pace. The Linux questions I receive in my inbox have sharply shifted from Ubuntu questions to that of Manjaro. While Ubuntu questions still take the lead, I’m seeing more and more Manjaro how-to questions over time.

Much like the rolling release distro LMDE (Linux Mint Debian Edition) has done for making Debian more accessible to the masses, Manjaro has done the same for those interested in trying an Arch-based distribution. Manjaro provides many under the hood tweaks that make using Arch seem overwhelming to newer Linux users.

For those who want direct access to the Arch repositories (unlike Manjaro), I'd recommend trying out Antergos. It shares Manjaro's vision of making an Arch experience more accessible, however it differs in that it is indeed, true Arch Linux. Both Manjaro and Antergos post updates about periodic releases on their blogs, however these are more or less just milestones than actual release dates.

Ease of use – fixed release distributions

Flashing back to fixed release distributions like Ubuntu, it's easy to see why Linux users might find the idea of a rolling release appealing. Imagine never again needing to worry if your distro is about to hit "end of life" like we've seen with older releases of Ubuntu. On the surface, the idea of using a rolling release distro is certainly appealing. But what are the downsides?

Ubuntu, while far from perfect, tends to see a lot of release testing before it goes live to the world. With a rolling release, you're that team of testers. Now to be clear, rolling releases like Arch and Debian have both stable and testing repositories. This means packages from the stable repositories should be perfectly good to use. And if you're an experienced Linux user, this is the way to go.

For the less experienced Linux user, Ubuntu makes reverting to the previous release a preferred course of action. Using Ubuntu, one doesn't have to know why something doesn't work. Purists will argue that this mindset is unhealthy and leads to that user never developing into a more experienced enthusiast. I would counter that most people honestly don't care why something doesn't work, rather, they simply want it fixed.

To revisit the section on package downgrading vs. reverting to an older release of a distribution, it really comes down to this.

-Ubuntu (and derivatives) are great for anyone who just wants their computer to work. If the latest version fails for some reason, they're free to revert back to an older release without needing to determine why the failure is happening in the first place.

-Arch (and derivatives) happens to be the goto distribution for anyone who wants to enjoy the latest bleeding edge software, in addition to maintaining close control over each package that's installed on their PC. This is perfect for those who understand why a feature is suddenly not working, and are willing to decide which package needs to be downgraded to address the issue.

Final thoughts

So now comes the big question: which distribution type is more stable, a rolling release or a distribution with a set release schedule? No Linux distribution is going to be 100% stable, there are too many variables that can happen between the Linux install and the end-user. That said, Ubuntu does better at not being updated regularly than a rolling release distribution.

I've had Ubuntu installs that needed to be upgraded, were badly neglected and then only packages were updated much later. When trying the same thing with a rolling release, things can indeed break. To be clear, this isn't the fault of the Linux distribution, this is the fault of the end-user.

My advice is to use the above information as a guide. If you're someone who loves to tinker, and wants to enjoy a deep symbiotic relationship with their OS, go with the rolling release. If instead you simply enjoy running software and running various tasks on your PC in a consistent environment, Ubuntu may be your best bet.

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