Using Tumbleweed, the openSuSE rolling distribution

When openSuSE 13.2 was released, Tumbleweed got promoted to the official openSuSe rolling release distribution, and Factory returned to being the unstable development codebase.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

For the past several years, there have been two semi-official rolling release distributions for openSuSE Linux. The obvious one, the 'Factory' distribution, was actually supposed to be where development for the next release was going on, but a lot of people (including me) were willing to use it despite the inherent instability. I learned the hard way, for example, that the Factory Live images were very frequently the first thing that got broken during the development cycle, and the last thing to get fixed before a new release was made. So it was always better (and safer) to use the full-blown installer images.

On the other hand, the 'Tumbleweed' distribution was started by a Linux developer (Greg Kroah-Hartman) who originally wanted to get the latest Linux kernel incorporated into the current openSuSE distribution.

Hands on with openSuSE 13.1: Another outstanding release

Shortly before the release of openSuSE 13.2 last November, it was announced that the Tumbleweed and Factory distributions would be merged. Well, not exactly merged, although that is what the announcement said, it was more like they were adopted into the same family.

Tumbleweed became a more official openSuSE rolling release, so it gets not only the latest kernel but all the rest of the ongoing development for the next openSuSE release, and Factory gets to return to what it was intended to be, an unstable platform where ongoing development, integration and testing is being done.

So, if you would like to have truly rolling-release distribution of openSuSE, the first place you should go is the Tumbleweed Portal, where you can read a good overview of the history and current status of the project. This includes an explanation of what I consider the most important point - how to decide if you should use the standard openSuSE release or Tumbleweed:

  • If your top priority is stability, for example if you use your computer to run your company (or your life), then stay with the standard distribution. Even though the developers and maintainers put a lot of effort into the Tumbleweed distribution, it is still a leading-edge product, and temporary problems can creep into it. This is much less likely to happen with the standard distribution because of the much more extensive testing that is done before each release (including running things in Tumbleweed first).
  • If your hardware requires third-party drivers (typically non-FOSS drivers such as ATI/nVidia graphics or Broadcom wi-fi), you probably won't be happy with Tumbleweed. Those drivers are often not integrated with the latest state of the development distribution until relatively late in the release cycle, so you might find that Tumbleweed won't even work on your hardware, or you might have to use the FOSS radeon/nouveau drivers rather than the proprietary versions.
  • If you are a developer, Linux enthusiast, or your computers tend to be very new and might have some hardware bits which are only supported by the latest Linux kernels, you might choose to run Tumbleweed to get the very latest kernel and other packages.

Perhaps some examples from my own experience would be useful here. I want to run Tumbleweed at least on some of my systems, primarily because I want to stay up with the very latest kernel releases. I tend to turn over some of my systems pretty quickly (or at least acquire new ones pretty frequently), so I often find that something in a new laptop I just bought doesn't work yet with current Linux distributions.

My Asus laptop is a good example of that: the Atheros wi-fi adapter doesn't work properly with the current openSuSE, Fedora, Mint or Ubuntu distributions, but I found that it works just fine with Tumbleweed.

I also have a few examples of the other side of the situation. My Acer Aspire E11 notebook has a Broadcom wi-fi adapter that requires the proprietary 'broadcom-wl' driver. I can get that driver for openSuSE 13.2 from the packman repo or via the openSuSE Build Service, but I haven't been able to get it for Tumbleweed yet, so I don't try to run Tumbleweed on that one.

OK, enough already, I hadn't intended to be that long-winded about deciding whether to try Tumbleweed or not. The Reader's Digest version is, give it some serious thought before investing the time and effort to install tumbleweed, because if you find out the hard way that you can't use it, the process of going back is generally even longer and harder than it was to install it.

If you decide that you want to try Tumbleweed, the Tumbleweed installation page contains details about how to get it. You basically have two choices: if you have a running openSuSE 13.2 system, you can simply upgrade to it; or if you don't currently have such a system or you don't want to risk it, you can install from scratch using the latest Tumbleweed ISO images.

I took the upgrade approach for my systems. The procedure is quite simple, although it does require some command-line work. (If you're not comfortable with the Linux command-line, you should think even harder about whether you want to run Tumbleweed.)

There is also a warning on the Tumbleweed installation page saying that you should run the upgrade process from a "screen session", meaning a Linux virtual console, notin a simple terminal window (xterm, konsole or such). There is actually a good reason for this, the magnitude of the changes required for the upgrade is significant, and it grows over time as the stable release ages and Tumbleweed moves forward.

The upgrade could affect something which could cause the X Server to terminate, for example, or which would otherwise terminate your konsole window, and that could cause the upgrade process to abort. So since you have to work from the command line anyway, it's by far the best to play it safe, hit Ctrl-Alt-F2 (or whatever between F1-F6), login on a virtual console, and run the commands from there.

Kinfocenter on Tumbleweed
Now onto the specific process to upgrade. First you need to save the existing repository configuration, by moving the files in /etc/zypp/repos.d/ to some safe location. Then you add the Tumbleweed repositories (the Tumbleweed installation page contains the commands for this that you can copy and paste). Then all you have to do is start 'zypper dup' and let it run.

On the four systems I have upgraded so far, it has taken approximately an hour for this to complete. When it is done, you have to reboot and you should see that you are then running at least Linux kernel 3.18.1 (or later), rather than the 3.16.x kernel that is used in openSuSE 13.2.

The other way to get Tumbleweed is to install it from the ISO images. These are updated very frequently, so be sure to go to this page and be sure to check the filenames and dates to get the latest image. As I mentioned above, it is strongly recommended to install Tumbleweed from the full installer image, this will be named 'openSUSE-DVD-Tumbleweed-i686-Current.iso'. There will also be a file with 'i586' instead of 'x86_64', for the 32-bit vs. 64-bit architecture images. There will also be files with 'Current' replaced by something like 'Snapshot20150115-Media' indicating the date that the ISO image was created, but the Current file will always be a copy of (or link to) the latest image file.

Downloading, converting the image to DVD or USB stick, and installing is the same as I have described numerous times for the standard distribution, so I will not repeat all of that here. It is interesting to note that installation from DVD or USB stick normally takes about 15-30 minutes, so it is even faster than doing the upgrade of an existing system. I hadn't expected that.

So there you have it: either by upgrading an existing openSuSE installation or by installing new from scratch, you have a running Tumbleweed installation. The content of the distribution is pretty much the same as the standard distribution; including (in the KDE version, which I always install for openSuSE) Firefox, LibreOffice, digiKam, GIMP, amarok, kaffeine and much more.

You should keep in mind that this installation will get a lot more updates than a standard openSuSE installation would get (that's the nature of rolling distributions), and both the number of packages and the magnitude of the changes will be larger. It's not unusual to get to 100 or more updates at once, and/or to get several batches of updates a week.

I have just seen another good example of this, I know that the Aspire V5 on which I am writing this was updated yesterday, and while typing this paragraph I thought I would check for new updates right now. There are 138 updates available, and they are downloading and installing now. Part of the price of using a rolling distribution is that you have to keep after the updates.

Good luck!

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