Side-by-side: openSuSE Tumbleweed and Leap

openSuSE offers a development distribution, Tumbleweed, and a stable distribution, Leap. Here is a side-by-side rundown of the differences between the two.

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The openSuSE project offers two distributions: Tumbleweed, which is a rolling distribution that gets continuous updates, and Leap, which is a point distribution that gets periodic updates.

Looking at it a different way, I think of Tumbleweed as being a development distribution, so I expect it to get the latest version of all its major packages very quickly, but I am not surprised when there is some minor instability. I consider Leap to be a stable distribution, so some of the major/critical packages only get updates when a new point release is made, and I expect it to be very dependable.

What I would like to do in this post is to look a little more closely at the differences between these two distributions. This will include decisions about when and where each distribution should be installed, differences in the distribution and installation process, updates and daily use of the systems.

Choosing

The first major difference between Tumbleweed and Leap is in the consideration of when and where they should be installed. Because Tumbleweed is a rolling distribution and is tied very closely to openSuSE development (it is one step behind the unstable factory version), it generally should not be installed in a situation where stability is a high priority. That obviously means it is not well suited for production systems where downtime would be a significant problem, but I also recommend that it not be used on systems which are being prepared for non-technical (or non-tolerant) users. A specific example of this would be that I have openSuSE on all of my own systems, but I would not put it on a system that I was setting up for my partner, or for another family/friend/neighbor as a Windows replacement system.

openSUSE also recommends a technical consideration in deciding where to install Tumbleweed. Because it is a rapidly changing leading-edge distribution, it should not be installed on systems which need or want proprietary hardware drivers. Some common examples of this are systems which have nVidia or Radeon display adapters, or Broadcom WiFi adapters. In some cases there are FOSS drivers available, such as nouveau and radeon if you are happy to use those. In other cases, such as the Broadcom WiFi adapter in my Acer Aspire E11, you might be able to find the proprietary driver in the pacman repository, but you should keep in mind that Tumbleweed sometimes moves forward so quickly that pacman doesn't keep up. I recently ran into this problem, and it finally caused me to give up and switch to Leap on my Aspire E11.

If you take those restrictions on who should install Tumbleweed and turn them around, you have a pretty good idea who should install Leap. The primary target is stable systems - and by that I mean not only stable operation without downtime, I also mean systems which are themselves stable, and are not getting new hardware swapped in and out regularly. If you don't need the absolute latest Linux kernel, desktop, display system or whatever, then Leap is a good choice.

I suppose that the choice could be reduced to one very simple statement - you should install Leap unless you know that you have some specific need for or interest in Tumbleweed.

Installing

There is more difference in the installation process of the two distributions than you might expect. Leap is available from the openSuSE Downloads page, as a 4.7GB full installer image, or an 85MB Network Install image. Note that both of these are installation images only, not full-boot Live images. There also used to be Live images available, but i can't find them any more.

Tumbleweed ISO images are on the Tumbleweed Installation page, again as full DVD installer or network installation images. There are also Live CDs listed on that page, but there is a clear warning that says use of the Live images is discouraged. I would state that even more emphatically, do not use the Live images for anything other than emergency system recovery. The problem is that the Live images are updated much less frequently than the installer images, and it seems to me that they get less attention in general. There have been numerous times in the past few years when I learned (the hard way) that the Live images were broken and would not install. I don't bother with them at all any more.

All of the ISO images for both Leap and Tumbleweed are hybrid images which can either be burned to CD/DVD or copied directly to a USB stick and booted. The installer (yast) is nearly identical for both as well. Both versions offer btrfs as the default for the root filesystem.

Both Leap and Tumbleweed are compatible with MBR and UEFI systems, including UEFI Secure Boot support. In fact, the openSuSE bootloader is the one reason more than any other that I keep it loaded on all of my computers. The bootloader handles multi-boot with other Linux distributions and/or Windows with no trouble, and it is graphically very pleasing. The default bootloader on every one of my systems is openSuSE - even if I often actually boot into some other distribution.

Booting and Running Tumbleweed

tumbleweed.png

openSuSE Tumbleweed KDE Desktop

If you choose the KDE desktop during installation, it boots to the rather plain-looking desktop with the geometric wallpaper shown above, with KDE Plasma 5.6.4.

One of the biggest differences between Tumbleweed and Leap is in the day-to-day operation of the system - the frequency and number of updates that come through. The Software Updates notifier sits in the system tray, and by default checks daily for updates. It is not unusual for it to announce new updates are available every day.

Booting and Running Leap

leap.png

openSuSE Leap 42.1 KDE Desktop

Leap (KDE) comes up with a somewhat more decorative wallpaper, running KDE Plasma 5.5.5.

Leap also has a Software Updates notifier in the system tray, but updates come through much less frequently. I don't use Leap consistently enough to have a good feel for exactly how often updates are available, but I would guess it averages something like weekly, or perhaps even every few weeks. It really depends on when there are significant security fixes coming out (they come through to Leap very quickly, of course), or when there are updates to some of the core applications such as Firefox or LibreOffice.

Contents

The difference in focus between the leading-edge Tumbleweed distribution and the conservative Leap distribution makes for significant differences in content, even though they are both openSuSE distributions with the KDE Plasma desktop:

Leap Tumbleweed
Linux Kernel 4.1.26 4.6.3
KDE Plasma 5.5.5 5.6.4
Qt 5.5.1 5.6.1
gcc 4.8.5 6.1.1
X.org 1.17.2 1.18.3
Firefox 47.0 47.0.1
LibreOffice 5.0.4.2 5.2.0.1
GIMP 2.8.16 2.8.16
digiKam 4.14.0 4.14.0
Amarok (music)
2.8.0 2.8.0
Dragon Player (video)
15.12.3 16.04.2

Note that gcc is not installed in the base system of either Leap or Tumbleweed, but it is indicative of what compiler was used for the entire system. The switch to gcc 6 and the resulting recompilation of essentially the entire system was one of the major changes made to Tumbleweed over the past few months.

I think this table clearly shows the heart of the difference in these distributions. Like a lot of "point release" distributions, Leap tends to stay with the same Linux kernel version through the life of the release cycle - so that is currently 4.1.x. Tumbleweed tracks kernel development very closely, so it is already running 4.6.x, and I'm sure it will pick up 4.7 shortly after its final release.

The "leading-edge" nature of Tumbleweed is also shown in the recent switch to gcc 6, while the "stable" Leap is still using gcc 4. For comparison, Fedora 24 also has 6.1.1, Debian testing (stretch) has 5.4.0, Debian stable (jessie) and LMDE have 4.9.2, Ubuntu 16.04 and Mint 18 have 5.3.1.

It would appear from the comparison table that one significant exception to the "stability first" rule on Leap is Firefox, but if you remember that the majority of Firefox updates and new versions include significant security fixes that becomes more understandable.

Stability and Recovery

The last thing I want to mention about these two distributions is actually something I have said several times along the way - stability. As a leading-edge distribution tied closely to development, Tumbleweed can occasionally have problems. Especially when major changes are under way, such as the recent switch to gcc 6, there can be problems with dependencies, interactions of packages and such. If you choose to run Tumbleweed, you should be capable of handling, recovering or at least surviving such problems. In the simplest case this might just mean sitting tight and waiting for the next batch of updates to come through, or perhaps getting updates via the CLI (zypper update), or at the other extreme it might mean picking up the latest Tumbleweed snapshot and making a fresh installation.

Because of this it is very important to keep your home directories, work and data files separate from the root filesystem. A simplistic "root filesystem only" installation is not likely to be sufficient for Tumbleweed - but then again, I would hope that anyone who is sufficiently experienced and competent to install and run Tumbleweed would never consider such a basic installation anyway.

Leap, on the other hand, should never have such stability problems. It is so extensively tested, and so conservatively updated, that such problems are extremely unlikely to make it through. While the Leap distribution doesn't have that long of a history to look at (it's initial release was in April 2015), I think it is safe to say that Leap is related to SuSE Linux Enterprise in much the same way that Tumbleweed is tied to factory, and one thing that SuSE Linux Enterprise is very well known for is rock solid stability.

That's pretty much it, so I hope this brief review of the two distributions is helpful in deciding which would be right for your purposes.

Read more from my 'Jamie's Mostly Linux Stuff' blog

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