June 20, 2012, 10:50 AM — Earlier this week, the Fedora Engineering Steering Committee approved Offline System Updates for the upcoming Fedora 18, a feature that will fundamentally change the Linux user experience.
Since its inception, one of the biggest unofficial advantages of Linux has been length of uptime. Bragging rights are still bandied about Linux forums on how long a given machine has been running without the need for a reboot.
This is possible because when software updates are typically applied to a Linux system, there is often no need to reboot the system. Only when a kernel patch is applied to the machine is a reboot needed, and even that can be avoided, by registering for services like Ksplice, which enables hot updates of Linux boxes.
Fedora's new Offline System Update feature will change the current system to something that is more Windows- and OS X-like: while many updates can still be made on the fly, certain package updates will require the system to be restarted so the patches can be applied in a special mode, according to the Fedora wiki page on the feature.
"By 'offline' OS updates we mean package installations and updates that are run with the system booted into a special system update mode, in order to avoid problems related to conflicts of libraries and services that are currently running with those on disk," the wiki states. "Updates will be downloaded in the background, and the user will be informed about available updates only once they are actually ready to be installed."
Users won't lose control of the update process--"we will offer 'Restart and install updates' in addition to a plain 'Restart' in the menus", the wiki adds--but this does not change the fact that there will still have to be more reboots required for Fedora users moving forward.
Fedora is not typically used for mission-critical systems, so in the grand scheme of things, this is not going to do more than annoy people, if that. Beginning users will see this as an experience similar to Windows and OS X, and likely won't care.
For some veteran Linux users, though, the change represents an unwanted shift towards the loathed Windows reboots that seem to take forever and a day.
Fedora maintains that the change is needed to make sure libraries and apps are kept in proper sync.
"Installing updates while the session is running causes havoc with some apps like Firefox that have file resources that have not been locked (just try updating xulrunner when Firefox or Thunderbird is open…)," blogged Fedora developer Richard Hughes.
And this may be just Fedora's solution. One reader of Hughes' blog pointed out that this method could critically affect distributions like Debian GNU/Linux and Gentoo.
"This offline-updates feature, if made mandatory, will kill both Debian and Gentoo. Are you sure you want to do this without coordinating with their maintainers? The conflicting features are interactive post-install scripts and the general concept of installing packages from source one-by-one," replied Alexander Patrakov.
[Update: A few members of the Gentoo community have pointed out that "Gentoo's package manager does not use Fedora's post-install scripts and is therefore unaffected by this change. No Gentoo Developer would claim otherwise." (from Richard Yao). Duly noted, but my take on Patrakov's concerns were that he was saying the same thing: that this would never work in Gentoo or Debian.]
The Fedora team is still working on the exact implementation of this new feature, so it remains to be seen how the process flow will work out on Fedora, let alone other distributions.
If anything, this new update process would seem to indicate that in some ways, Linux distributions have gotten much more complex and bloated of late. Perhaps its time for the penguin to get some slimming down.
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