Linux distributions tend to use two different types of release cycles: standard releases and rolling releases. Some people swear by rolling releases to have the latest software, while others like standard releases for being more stable and tested.

This isn’t an option you change in your current Linux distribution — instead, it’s a choice the Linux distribution itself makes. Some distributions release regular standard releases and use a rolling release cycle for their unstable development release.

How Linux Distributions Are Put Together

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To understand the difference, you need to know how Linux distributions are put together. They contain software from many different projects — the Linux kernel, GNU shell utilities, Xorg X server, GNOME desktop environment, and LibreOffice office suite are all developed by different software projects with different development cycles. It’s the job of a Linux distribution to take all this software in source code form, compile it, package it into easily installable software packages, test it to ensure it works together, and release a complete package of software we call a “Linux distribution.”

Linux distributions — whether they use a standard release cycle or a rolling release cycle — all take their software and package it up into software packages that they distribute to users. The difference is in how they distribute new versions of these packages.

A Standard Release Cycle

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Most Linux distributions use standard release cycles. For example, Ubuntu uses standard releases — these may also be called point releases or stable releases. The Ubuntu project regularly release new versions of Ubuntu every six months. During the six-month development process, they take the latest versions of all the software in their repositories and package it up, updating all the software. They then “freeze” the versions of the software in the Ubuntu repositories and spend a few months testing it, making sure all the software versions work well together and fixing bugs.

When a new version of Ubuntu is released, the software in it has been tested to ensure it works well together. This release stays frozen in time as much as possible. Ubuntu releases updated software versions to fix security problems and other important bugs, but they won’t just update software to add new features or bump the version number.

If you need the latest version of a specific package, you’ll have to get it elsewhere. For example, you could get it from a third-party PPA or use the official-but-unsupported Backports repository that brings new versions of important desktop applications to older versions of Ubuntu. Otherwise, you’d have to wait for the next major release of Ubuntu. You get the latest version of all your software by upgrading from one frozen-in-time version of the Linux distribution to the next frozen-in-time version of the Linux distribution.

A Rolling Release Cycle

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A rolling release cycle dispenses with regular, standard Linux distribution releases. For example, Arch Linux uses a rolling release cycle. There aren’t multiple different releases of Arch. Instead, there’s just a single version of Arch. Software packages are tested and then released immediately to the stable version of the Linux distribution. Depending on your distribution, they may not even see much testing before they’re released as stable updates. When a new version of an application or system utility is released, it will head straight to the current Linux distribution. A rolling release distribution is never “frozen in time” — instead, it’s updated on a rolling basis.

Because there are no standard releases, you just have to install a Linux distribution like Arch once and perform regular updates. New versions of software packages will gradually arrive as they’re released — you won’t have to perform large upgrades like the ones from Ubuntu 13.10 to 14.04. When you install the distribution, you’ll get a snapshot of its software at a point in time.

If you need the latest version of a package, you should only have to wait a few days and it will appear as an update for your Linux distribution. You won’t have to wait for six months until the next standard release of your Linux distribution.

Which is Best?

A rolling release cycle is best if you want to live on the bleeding edge and have the latest available versions of software, while a standard release cycle is best if you want to benefit from a more stable platform with more testing.

Having the latest version of all your software sounds good, but it’s often not as beneficial as you might think. You probably don’t need the latest version of low-level system utilities and services. You probably wouldn’t even notice the difference if you installed them — unless there were bugs because different versions of software weren’t tested together. Updating this stuff in midstream could result in your system becoming more unstable or a weird bug popping up. For software you do want the latest version — like your desktop applications — it’s fairly easy to update a few applications even if you’re using a Linux distribution with a standard release cycle.

A rolling release cycle does make it easier to stay upgraded, of course — rather than a big upgrade all in one go, your software is regularly updated. Users aren’t using different versions of the Linux distribution — everyone is using the same version.

Overall, there’s no one best answer — if you want a stable platform, you’re probably better off sticking to a Linux distribution with a standard, stable, point release cycle. If you want to live on the bleeding edge and have the latest versions of everything, a Linux distribution with a rolling release cycle is the way to go.

Image Credit: Michal Docekal on Flickr

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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