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How Often Do I Need to Update (or Upgrade) an Ubuntu Computer?

ZDNet recently reported that Microsoft “may” soon allow Windows 10 Home users to “hit pause on Windows Updates for up to seven days,” which if true “partially addresses a key gripe users have with that edition.” (Users of the Windows 10 Pro and enterprise editions can presently delay updates for up to 35 days.) As one ZDNet commentator noted, Microsoft’s current forced-update policy places an unfair burden on home users, a group that “is probably least equipped to troubleshoot technical problems and least likely to have professional IT help at hand.”

In contrast to Windows, Linux-based operating systems do not typically force users to update. Now, many distributions enable updates by default. In Ubuntu MATE, for example, the system is set to check for software updates each day. It will then download and install anything designated as a “security update” by Canonical, Ubuntu’s publisher. For all other updates, the system will prompt the user once a week and ask if they wish to install them.

All of these default settings can be changed through a Software & Updates dialog box. Below I’ve displayed the current settings for my laptop:

In fact, you can instruct the system to never check, download, or install updates at all unless you initiate a request. Is this a good idea? No. Updates may seem inconvenient, but they are necessary to keeping any computer running properly. Linux distributions also make every effort to minimize any disruption to users. For instance, unlike the normal behavior of Windows, an Ubuntu-based system will not forcibly restart a computer without the user’s prior approval. And as the above settings window illustrates, you can customize the interval between system prompts to look for updates. I tend to be obsessive about this sort of thing, so I update everything daily, but for most users, I’d recommend keeping automatic security updates on and checking for all other updates on at least a weekly basis. 

Long-Term Support vs. Interim Releases

There’s also a critical distinction in Ubuntu between regular software updates and upgrades to the base operating system itself. Canonical typically publishes a new version of Ubuntu every six months. These versions are numbered according to the year and month of the release, e.g., Ubuntu 18.10 was released in October 2018. 

There are actually two distinct types of releases. The first is what are called long-term support (LTS) releases. The April release in every even-numbered year is a LTS release. This means the most recent LTS release was Ubuntu 18.04–and the next scheduled one will be Ubuntu 20.04. In between each LTS there are three interim releases. This includes both releases in the odd-numbered years (e.g., Ubuntu 17.04 and 17.10), and the second release in every even-numbered year.

The main difference between the LTS and interim releases is the length of support–that is to say, the time period during which Canonical makes security and other updates available for the software. Interim releases are only supported for 9 months. So the most recent interim release, Ubuntu 18.10, will not receive any further updates after July 2019.

Now the LTS releases, as the name implies, receive updates for a much longer period. How much longer? Well, the stock answer is 5 years from the date of the original release. So for Ubuntu 18.04, first released in April 2018, users can expect free software updates until April 2023. (Canonical also sells “extended security maintenance” to enterprise-level customers, which provide security updates for an additional 3 years.)

But there’s a caveat here. The 5-year support window only applies to part of the Ubuntu distribution. As I discussed in last week’s post, every Linux-based operating system has its own set of repositories that provide software to the user. You’ll note that “repositories” is plural. There are actually different repositories that serve separate functions, even though when the user receives updates they might appear to come from a single source.

Ubuntu divides its available software into four main repositories: main, universe, multiverse, and restricted. The main and restricted repositories form the base system that receives 5 years of updates. But packages in the universe and multiverse repositories do not.

Without delving too much into the legal and technical issues–that’s for a future post–the universe and multiverserepositories contain software that is not directly maintained by Canonical. Instead, it is considered “community” software. And this includes a lot of common user applications, such as the MATE desktop itself. These packages typically receive just 3 years of support from the community.

Looking at my own laptop, only about 70 percent of the programs installed fall within the 5-year support window. The rest are supported for 3 years–or even less in some cases. It’s also important to note that if you install software from outside the repository system, it is not subject to any of these support periods.

Plan to Upgrade Every 2 Years

So if you’re moving to Ubuntu, is it better to stick with the LTS release cycle or upgrade to each new interim release as it comes out? Personally, I choose the LTS cycle. The six-month interim releases are really for the benefit of the software developers, who require a more up-to-date base system in order to do their work. But for non-technical professional work, such as freelance writing, there’s no demonstrable benefit to the shorter release cycle.

For similar reasons, I’d also advise upgrading with each LTS release. So if you’re starting out with Ubuntu 18.04, prepare to upgrade to Ubuntu 20.04 next year–do not wait out the full, 5-year window on the current LTS. Once again, the 5-year cycle is not really intended for everyday users. The target audiences here are large enterprises, who don’t want to pay thousands of dollars to update applications that depend on an older Ubuntu release, and people who run servers (such as machines that run websites), which only run a handful of applications and typically do not require a graphical user interface.

Categories: Welcome to Linux

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S.M. Oliva

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