Last week, while browsing the web to learn what was happening in the Linux world, I read a post about a distribution that has a “half rolling release” model. I got immediately interested, and here’s why. For my home computer, which I use also for work (sometimes), I use GNU/Linux since 2005, when I discovered Ubuntu. My complete switch was a mistake at first, as I intended to have a dual-boot with Windows XP, but I never looked back. Now, when I want a new laptop, I’ll buy it without any OS so that I can put whichever I want on it.
One of the good thing about GNU/Linux distributions is the way they handle softwares: you have repositories of “packages” that you can download and install. Looking for these packages is done through a package manager, so no need to surf the web to find it. As soon as your package manager points to the relevant repositories, you’ll be able to install it without much fuss. Particularly, no need to take care for the dependencies (the other packages a particular software needs to be able to do its job): the package manager will do that for you. This is a very good model, as it frees you from spending hours looking for the dependencies of a particular program. In fact, it is so good that Apple more or less copied it in OSX Lion with the Mac App Store, which strongly resembles Ubuntu’s Software Center. I’ve got no doubt that the “specialized” press will treat that as an Apple innovation, although it exists pratically since the beginning of GNU/Linux. Anyway… It seems the success of both Apple and Microsoft was done by appropriating the ideas of others.
Building on this system, the distributions have the choice of being “fixed releases” or “rolling releases”. In the former, once you installed your distribution, your softs won’t be updated until the next release cycle (unless there is a security problem somewhere), the latter will have the packages constantly updated when new versions of the softwares become available. One can immediately see the pros and cons of each model. In the “fixed release” model, you get a stable system but your software packages are not updated that often. The average release cycle of the distributions is 6 months (it’s not years like Windows or OSX), so there shouldn’t be any problem sticking 6 months with a piece of software. However, for people like me, who like to see new features coming to their computers as soon as they are available, this might be too long to wait. Besides, performing a distribution upgrade (from version n to version n+1) takes time and is not usually stress free. So there’s the alternative of a “rolling release”, where packages are always updated. This is good for the new features lover; the distribution, once installed, never need to be installed again. But this, too, comes at a cost: such a system is prone to break once in a while. Running a “rolling release” is definitely not for the Linux beginner as this needs extensive knowledge of the workings of your distribution.
While I enjoyed Ubuntu a lot, its fixed release scheme —although I do understand the rationale behind it— was annoying me: it got tired of performing an upgrade every 6 months and I also got tired of managing ppas (which normally allow you to install more recent version of your softwares on your computer). So I looked for a rolling release distro which would allow me not to have to reinstall (or perform an upgrade) every 6 months. Along came Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE), which, since September at least, is not a rolling release per se. It is more of a “bouncing release”: the repositories of debian testing are frozen at any time, which allow you to have a stable distribution. The updates are done by “update packs” which are basically a snapshot of the debian testing repositories at a later point in time. These packs are tested by the community, so that it is easy to trace where the problems are and, eventually, not include the problematic packages in the “latest” repository. I run LMDE since September, and I am very happy with it: a huge choice of packages, with the Mint goodies. It is fast, rock solid… Very good. One minor drawback, though: it is based on debian testing, which means that, for example, libreoffice is still 3.3 while the 3.4.4 version is out (to be fair, as of today, the 3.4.3 version is in the testing repository, it is not yet in the update pack). Another drawback being that, if you have a lot of packages installed, the upgrade might take a while… But hey, don’t install what you don’t need and you should be fine.
There comes Chakra Linux. There is a double idea behind this distro, one that I think might really do the trick when you want a distro that sports the latest packages and is yet stable. It comes with a “half rolling release” model. The core of the distribution is frozen and updated only when the newer packages are deemed stable enough. The applications, however, are updated on a rolling basis. If this would be the only aspect of the distro, I’d be sold immediately. But this distro is also KDE-centric, which is not really a problem: KDE is a great and beautiful desktop environment, the problem is that, as a matter of principle, the developpers of this distro decided not to include any GTK-based applications in their distro. Although the most popular of these applications, like Firefox, Chromium (which is Google Chrome, but more privacy friendly), The Gimp or Inkscape, are available as “bundles”, I still wonder how this works. What are the relationships of the applications within these bundles with the rest of the system? Is it possible to use one’s previous settings? It’s not clear, I should read more on Chakra website. Anyway, I tried the live session, and this is a very pretty distro, it is quite young though some features do not seem to be fully implemented yet. Nevertheless, the distribution is pretty darn promising.
In the meantime, and also because I use a French dvorak keyboard that can only be fully supported under Debian or Ubuntu, I decided to stick with LMDE. The new desktop is around the corner, can’t wait to have it on my laptop.