The future of Linux Mint Debian Edition and its derivatives

With Linux Mint Debian Edition set to switch from Debian Testing to Stable, what does this mean for its future?

This is not going to be one of my usual 'Hands-On with Linux' posts. So if that is what you are looking for, bail out now! Fair warning...

I have had a sort of strange relationship with Linux Mint Debian Edition over the years. When it was first announced, I was really ecstatic. I was already a big fan of Linux Mint, and I had already fallen out of love with Ubuntu, so the prospect of getting a Mint distribution that didn't pass through Ubuntu along the way was appealing. Add to that the fact that it was initially announced as a "rolling distribution" (continuous updating), and I thought it was nothing short of great.

Unfortunately, the real world sort of caught up with the LMDE distribution, from a couple of different directions. First, the updates. It didn't take long for the LMDE developers to realize that a rolling distribution is a lot of work, and trying to keep frequent updates from breaking anything is very difficult.

The first step back from "rolling distribution" that they took was to create "Update Packs", where updates are bundled and tested and distributed periodically. The first schedule for this was something like monthly updates, if I recall correctly. That was not as good for an impatient person such as myself, but it was still better than the six-month cycle of the "normal" Linux Mint distribution, and it was way, way better than the pseudo-random Debian release cycle.

Unfortunately, the monthly Update Packs apparently didn't work out very well for the LMDE developers, because it didn't take long before they were down to every three months, and then every six months.

Finally, we got to the current state, where the latest LMDE ISO images were released in April 2014, and there has not been an Update Pack since then. At this point it was starting to look like the LMDE update/release cycle was eventually going to stretch out to the point that it more or less reflected the Debian release cycle. Ugh.

A year or so ago, I happened across another distribution, SolydXK Linux which was developed by LMDE users, also based on Debian Testing, and was (mostly) independent of LMDE development. Mostly, because they do use some Mint utilities, and they got a lot of good advice from the LMDE developers, but the actual development and release of the distribution was still independent.

This looked particularly promising, first because they were using two of my favorite desktops (KDE and Xfce), and because they were on a monthly Update Pack release schedule. So I was back in a happy place... but not for long. Two months after I first installed SolydXK, they announced that monthly Update Packs were too much work and too much distraction, so they were switching to quarterly Update Packs.

To their credit, the SolydXK developers have meet the quarterly Update Pack schedule this year. They have also said that when the delta between the latest ISO images and the current state becomes too large, they would create new ISO images, and they have recently done just that.

But then things started to come apart (from my perspective). From a rather casual note at the end of the Linux Mint Blog Monthly News - July 2014: "After a long reflection and many discussions the decision was made to switch Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) from its current snapshot cycle to a Debian Stable package base."

There was another very brief reference to this in Clem's SegFault Blog in August: "As previously announced, LMDE is switching to Debian Stable and a frozen cycle similar to Linux Mint."

So LMDE is definitely switching to being based on Debian Stable, rather than Debian Testing. This removes what I consider to be one of its largest advantages - as a consequence of the relatively long (and somewhat unpredictable) release cycle, Debian Stable tends to have rather old versions of the Linux kernel and other critical packages. In addition this change more or less obviates another advantage of LMDE, the testing and integration of patches and updates, because Debian Stable is much more conservatively updated than Debian Testing.

At this point I was starting to wonder if it was still worthwhile to run Linux Mint Debian Edition rather than just running Debian itself. LMDE should still have a couple of significant advantages, the largest of those being the inclusion of the excellent Mint utilities for system administration. But another of those advantages used to be that it had different desktops from the Debian distribution - Cinnamon and MATE with LMDE vs. Gnome with Debian.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that the real world has sort of caught up with Mint Debian in several ways. One of those ways is in fact the availability of other desktops. Debian now includes not just Gnome, but also KDE, Xfce, and many of the other popular alternatives. So another reason to choose LMDE is slipping away.

Then came even more bad news. In the SolydXK News on 14 Aug, they wrote about The Future of SolydXK. Basically they said that keeping up the distribution in its current form was not practical (too much work, too few people), so starting with the release of Debian Jessie they were going to merge the Home Edition and Business Editions, and do the same thing as LMDE - base on Debian Stable. There was still a bit of good news in this announcement, because they also said that when this change was made, they would also be creating a new "Enthusiast's Edition" distribution, which would be based on Debian Testing and would be a true rolling release, constantly updated. That sounded promising...

Shortly after this announcement they posted The New SolydXK - Q + A to explain what their intent with the new structure was. Basically it said that the intent of the new consolidated distribution was more stability and less overhead, while the new Enthusiast's Edition was intended for "those who need more up-to-date software and know how to handle a breakage once in a while". That sounds fair enough, I thought.

Unfortunately last week came the final blow, with a posting titled Important SolydXK News. It turns out that even the reduced/consolidated distribution was too much, and the founder and primary developer of SolydXK has decided to largely withdraw. They intend to continue with only 64-bit KDE and Xfce versions, but no 32-bit versions, and the Enthusiast's Edition will be turned over to the SolydXK Community. No more Update Packs are planned, because they say that Jessie is going to be "Stable" so they won't be needed. But there is no other information about any other means of updating, tracking future Debian Stable update releases, or whatever.

Now, my intention here is not to complain, or berate any of the developers involved in this. I have a pretty good idea how much work it takes to produce a Linux distribution, and I can only admire those in both Mint Debian and SolydXK who have made the effort to do this, and to produce excellent distributions over the past few years. The only thing I would say to any of them is "thank you very much for all your hard work".

My intention is to ask the question, "What now?". I haven't even answered that question myself yet, at least not entirely. The second part is easy, I will stop using SolydXK because it won't have significant advantages over LMDE or even Debian Stable any more. But LMDE is a more difficult question. There are still some advantages, not least of which are the Mint utilities, and the additional testing, vetting and integration they do. But are these enough, when balanced against the drawbacks of being based on Debian Stable?

If your focus is on stability, for example if you are running on servers and office systems which are installed once and then just need to work reliably over long intervals, then the answer is probably yes. A lot of people already choose to run Debian Stable for exactly that reason.

But if you frequently update your hardware, and you need to have newer kernels or other such newer packages to support the latest hardware, then it might be better to choose Debian Testing. The down side is greater instability, and to some degree more difficulty supporting various hardware with non-FOSS drivers such as Radeon and nVidia display controllers, and Broadcom WiFi adapters. But even that has gotten a lot easier on Debian over the past year or two with the non-free repositories.

So what are others thinking and doing about this? If this is an issue for you, and you have given it some consideration, I would like to hear what you have decided, if you have decided, what you see as the pros and cons.

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