Linux Mint Debian Introduces "Update Packs"

Linux Mint Debian Introduces "Update Packs"

Summary: There's going to be a bit of meandering before I eventually get to the point here, so bear with me, or skip the next few paragraphs to go directly to the "meat" of this post...Six months ago, when Linux Mint Debian was released, I was really excited about it - finally a Debian-based distribution with the quality of Mint and without the baggage of Ubuntu!


There's going to be a bit of meandering before I eventually get to the point here, so bear with me, or skip the next few paragraphs to go directly to the "meat" of this post...

Six months ago, when Linux Mint Debian was released, I was really excited about it - finally a Debian-based distribution with the quality of Mint and without the baggage of Ubuntu! As I have noted in other blog posts, I installed Mint Debian right away (and its sibling Mint Xfce immediately after its release as well). A month or so ago, things really seemed to kick into high gear with Mint Debian, there was a very large batch of updates, including major changes to the Mint Update program itself, and shortly after that I realized that I had started using Mint Debian a lot more than I use Mint 11. In fact, I now use either Mint Debian or PCLinuxOS almost exclusively, I only boot Mint 11 when I have some specific reason to do so (hmmm, I didn't intend for it to sound like Windows in that description...).

Mint Debian and PCLinuxOS are both "rolling" distributions, meaning that they are continuously updated rather than being on a periodic "major release" schedule. Both have been through rough patches of one kind or another, generally related to those updates. There are two significant problems related to rolling distributions - one is managing the updates themselves, in terms of frequency, reliability and cross-update interactions, and the other is the fact that because there are so many updates it becomes tedious and time consuming to make an installation from scratch - you start to get a vague feeling of Windows when you install from the ISO and then immediately have to pick up a thousand or so updates. (It's only a very vague feeling, though - we are still talking about an hour for a scratch installation, not a couple of days.)

Both Mint Debian and PCLinuxOS have had to struggle with these problems over the past six months or so. For PCLinuxOS, after hitting their stated target of making a new base release every three months the first couple of times, there has just been a lag of six months between the 2010.12 and 2011.6 releases. That is certainly no tragedy, and I don't mean this as a criticism, I am only saying that it is a good example of how difficult it can be to stick to a schedule like that. Outside events, such as problems with hosts and repositories, can throw things way off very quickly. For Mint Debian, there have been some problems with reliability or surprising side effects of updates, or even of the update process itself. I have seen a couple of times when updates have failed (who here likes F-Spot even less now?), or the update process has hung, or during updating it asked me questions which even I have a tough time understanding and figuring out what the "proper" answer should be. In every case Mint Debian came out intact, at most after having to reboot and run update again to properly finish the updates.

So now Mint Debian is trying to do something about this, to make the updating process both easier and more reliable. The Linux Mint Blog has a description of their new concept of Update Packs. The way I see it they are offering a "bouncing release" as an alternative to the rolling release. The idea is that they will accumulate the continuous flow of updates into periodic (monthly) Update Packs, in which the updates have been through some vetting to confirm that they install and function properly and don't have nasty side effects or interactions with each other which might go unnoticed when they are first released. Now, this might sound like they are moving back to the periodic-release cycle that many (most) other Linux distributions use, but there are important differences. The biggest difference is that the users can decide for themselves how they want to participate in this alternative update model. If you want, you can just keep "rolling" with the updates as they flow directly from Debian. If you like the idea of having someone else take a lot of the pain and uncertainty out of updates, you can switch to the Mint Debian "Update Pack" repository, and only install updates after they have been grouped, tested and used for a while by others. If you want to be in between those two extremes, or you want to contribute to the distribution itself, you can get the updates immediately after they are packaged and help with the testing of installation and operation before they are released to the general user base.

It will be interesting to see how all of this works out. As I said at the beginning, I have been using Mint Debian more and more, and the only noticeable problem I have seen is that the update process has been a bit more exciting than I would like for it to be. I thought that they had already made a lot of progress on this with the recent improvements in Mint Update, but perhaps this change in update concept will improve that a lot more. The only potential problem I can see with it is that they might find that making a schedule like this, for monthly batches of updates, can be more difficult than it first appears and could turn into quite a grind. Only time will tell if they are able to find a good balance between grouping and testing to improve the update process and holding them back so much that they lose a lot of the benefits of having a rolling (or bouncing) distribution.


Update: I corrected some major brain-flatulence above, where I referred to PCLinuxOS as a Debian-derived distribution. Apologies for that.


Topic: Linux

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • YaY 1st post!! I have not read that about Mint Debian going to bouncing updates, might have to give it a try again, like you said in your post some of the question it sometimes ask's during updates has mucked up my netbook in the past....... If they do make it easier that would be good!! :D
  • Jamie, are you thinking of MEPIS rather than PCLinuxOS? I have used both in the past and I'm nearly certain that PCLinuxOS is still using rpms - it's MEPIS that moved to a direct Debian base. I'm a big fan of Linux Mint and I've been following Mint Debian's progress as well.
    (If I'm wrong, just let me know!)
  • @Thomas Gellhaus - Of course you are exactly right, my brain was totally garbled when I wrote that this morning. It is Mepis which is derived from Debian (they actually made a foray into an Ubuntu base, but gave it up for a number of reasons and went back to Debian), while PCLinuxOS is indeed an RPM package distribution, and has nothing to do with Debian whatsoever.

    Wow, that was a huge mistake, and I am really sorry. I will blame it on my impending vacation, and hope that my brain has healed by the time I get back.

    Thanks for reading, commenting and correcting me.

  • Jamie it's not such a big mistake - PCLinuxOS does use the Synaptic front end along with (I think) apt-get, they just adapted it for rpms. I can understand how that might confuse anyone.
    I always enjoy reading your blog, and please have a great vacation.
  • Thanks for the info Mint's bouncing baby updates, it may well swing which Mint I move to. Keep up the good posts and have a great vacation!
    Jake Rayson
  • Jamie - More news on this particular topic. The developer for Linux Mint KDE, which has always been based on the latest Kubuntu release, has just announced that Linux Mint KDE will be switching to the new "bouncing" release Debian base as well (love your term for this style of release). Here's the announcement quoted from the "Mint 11 KDE development" thread on the LM KDE forum:

    "News people!!
    Good and bad as it turns out, due to all the Ubuntu problems I am swapping the base from Kubuntu to Debian.
    What does this mean? A bit more of a wait but it is DEBIAN!
    Hopefully this wont take too long as I have the packages built and the ISO build process is very similar.


    This makes 3 different Mint DE's that have switched to the Debian (testing) base. Gnome, XFCE and now KDE.

    I've been following the testing process so far for the upcoming release of LM KDE that was based on Kubuntu 11.04 and I have to agree with the switch to Mint's Debian base. With the changes currently going on in Ubuntu land it was making the current development of a Kubuntu based Linux Mint KDE a royal pain.

    This is going to be a much better system than just updating straight from the Debian Testing repos and you'll not have to wait more than a month to get the latest packages and apps either. And once the "respin" is released (the end of the month?) a user will be able to easily switch from to the "Latest", "Incoming" or "Testing" repos via the "Software Sources" app depending on what kind of updating system they want.