The Linux Rolling Release Model

Regardless of the operating system being used, we’re used to the idea that our current OS will become obsolete every few years, and a newer version will be released to replace the current one.

However, some Linux distributions have adopted a different release model. Instead of releasing a new version every year, they use a model called the “Rolling Release Model” to continuously update your operating system. This means that you only have to install your OS once and will always be running the latest version.

What is the Rolling Release Model?

An operating system that is based on the rolling release model (also known as Continuous Delivery) has two main characteristics. The first one is that you install your operating system only once and then never again. The second is that the operating system gets continuously updated.

Everything on Linux is divided into software packages making Linux a modular operating system. This is also the reason why a rolling release model is applicable for Linux distro. By using a package manager, each and every package – even kernels and drivers – can be updated.

Rolling Distributions

The Linux operating systems that are based on the rolling release model are called rolling distributions. There are, however, different types of rolling distributions, and the way they differ is important.

The two most important distinctive types of rolling distributions are:

1. True-rolling distributions: These distributions update every part of your operating system.

2. Semi-rolling distributions: These distributions don’t update every part of your operating system. They are divided into a rolling part and a non-rolling part. These distributions often have a non-rolling core. They don’t update the kernel and drivers but do update everything else and have rolling software repositories.

One advantage of rolling distributions is that you are able to get new versions of software very quickly because the rolling repositories get updated as soon as new software is released. In some distributions you even get software updates pushed to your computer as soon as they’re released by the programmers of the software project.

Real-world examples of rolling distributions

Examples of truly rolling distributions are Arch Linux, Manjaro, Gentoo and Funtoo. Examples of semi-rolling Linux distributions are SolydXK and PCLinuxOS, and on the UNIX side we have FreeBSD.

Rolling distributions like Arch and Gentoo are considered bleeding edge because they can receive updates so fast that they go without testing. The bad thing is that when packages aren’t tested, they can break your system.

However, not everyone wants a bleeding edge system that can break every time untested updates get pushed to their system. In such cases there are rolling distributions that focus on usability for Linux beginners, such as Manjaro.

Manjaro is a truly rolling distribution based on Arch with the distinction that it comes with an installer and has many packages pre-installed for the convenience of users.

Another distinction of Manjaro is that once updates are released for Arch the Manjaro team holds the updates for roughly two weeks to put them through a short testing phase. This way the worst bugs will get filtered out of the packages, and the chance that your system breaks after an update cycle is reduced.

Security patches, on the other hand, are pushed to Manjaro users faster than regular updates, almost as soon as they come out.

You get the best of both worlds. You get a truly rolling release distribution, where everything gets updated, and you also get the latest software every two weeks, which has at least been tested somewhat to reduce the chance of system breakage.

The strength of the Rolling Release model

You only install your operating system once and never have to bother with cumbersome reinstalls and restoring your data. This is where the rolling release model is better than the standard release.

The flexibility and customizability of Linux also see more non-rolling Linux distributions get forked into rolling distributions over the years. Examples are SparkyLinux, MX Linux and SolydXK, which are rolling distributions based on Debian.

There is also openSUSE Tumbleweed which is the official rolling release version of openSUSE. It focuses on delivering stable packages to users as soon as they are stabilized.

Even good old Gentoo has been getting forks that are still improving on its model. An example is Sabayon, which offers out-of-the-box usability and compiled binary packages through the Entropy package manager extension.

In the end, what it all comes down to is this:

The rolling release model makes our life a little bit easier.

This is because the less time it takes to maintain your operating system, the more time we have for things in life that matter.

5 comments

  1. Linux Mint gets a lot of publicity, but you cannot update from one version to another (i.e., from 17.x to 18), so instead of having to reinstall all over again I thought I’d try a rolling distribution. I just installed Manjaro Linux last week after walking away from Linux Mint 17.3. I find that Manjaro is fast and was ready to use the second it loaded. There was no need to adjust settings as it automatically detects your hardware and adjusts accordingly. I’m very happy with Manjaro Linux and HIGHLY recommend it if you’ve never tried a rolling distribution.

  2. Antergos is missing from your list, damn good distro.

  3. A rolling release appeals to me a great deal. Fairly new full-time Linux user (many years distro-hopping) and settled on Linux Mint and it’s flagship (Cinnamon) as my OS. I’m actually quite happy with Mint but the idea of a complete wipe/install has never appealed to me.

    When the time comes when I should give a newer release of Mint a try, going to give some of the distros mentioned above a good look. PCLinuxOS has always been on my radar and Manjaro (because of it’s Arch roots sounds like a good candidate too). Rolling release aside, access to the kinds of apps (including the latest builds) found on Ubuntu-derivatives would be a big plus.

    Right now I feel pretty confident that whenever I access an author’s page or a review site, they will have Ubuntu-based install instructions ready. That kind of app support is what I’m currently getting with Mint and it has made the transition from Windows pain-free. Hope I can find the same for a semi-rolling release.

  4. I have installed Linux Mint for quite a few family and friends and I don’t recall ever having to do “fresh” installs. It was simply a matter of changing the “name” in the official repo package list…in the /usr/apt/sources.list.d/ folder. I guess since not a lot of people have mentioned doing an in-place upgrade, then that means a lot of folks don’t wanna get their hands dirty with it. But it’s simple: If your on the “Rebecca” release and you want to upgrade to “Rosa” then just change the name in that file from “Rebecca” to “Rosa” and then do an “apt-get update” and after that?…an “apt-get dist-upgrade” after its all over, and you reboot your machine, you’ll notice your welcome screen will be showing that you’re on the Linux Mint 17.x “Rosa” Distribution. These same instructions apply to go from 17.x to 18…and son on and son on and son on….the only time I do clean installs is when someone hands over their Windows laptop or desktop and tells me to give them “…the same operating system you gave to (insert a former client’s name here)..”

  5. Another distro with a “best of both true-rolling and semi-rolling” approach is Chakra (https://chakralinux.org/). You never have to reinstall, but the core is updated on a less-frequent schedule and only after thorough testing.

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