Open Source

The Ubuntu release cycle and what it means for aging hardware

Confused about the way in which Ubuntu release their operating system and if they will continue to support 32-bit systems? Jack Wallen breaks it down so you can understand.

Ubuntu releases

Since the upcoming release of Ubuntu 14.10 is drawing near, I've been getting a number of questions from readers asking for an explanation about the Ubuntu release cycle and what it means to aging hardware.

Very good questions, all. Why? First and foremost, there's been a drawn out kerfuffle with the state of Ubuntu releases. That's right, I'm talking about the old "rolling release" debate. Let me explain...

As it stands, Ubuntu releases a new iteration of their Linux platform every six months. On the fourth month of the year, they release the .04 version and on the tenth month of the year, they release the .10 version. The .04 release is always major, and the .10 release is always minor (mostly major bug fixes and some new features). Every two years, they release a Long Term Support release (LTS). The LTS releases are supported for three years on the desktop and five years on the server. This is important, because it means that after three years of a release, an LTS is sunsetted and no longer supported. Ultimately, you can install an LTS release and enjoy full updates and security patches for three years. After that, it's time to install the newest LTS release.

If you're like me, you don't bother waiting for a new LTS — you just install the latest release regardless. This means you're always up to date.

Or does it?

That is where the issue of the rolling release comes in. Because of the way Ubuntu does their releases, a lot of packages wind up being out of date. It's nothing major, and you can — with the help of PPAs — get those crucial packages updated to the latest releases. A rolling release would put an end to this, because everything would be up to date all the time.

This is probably not going to happen. Ubuntu is deeply entrenched in their release cycle, and I can't imagine they're willing to change. Believe it or not, I'm okay with that. The Ubuntu release cycle has always worked for me. And with their current focus on Unity 8 and Mir, there's really no way they could switch to a rolling release now, even if they wanted it. You see, Unity 8 and Mir are going to do to Ubuntu what Unity did when it replaced GNOME as the default (or what Windows 8 did to the Windows ecosystem) — it's going to change... a lot.

Whether that will be a change for the good or bad is yet to be seen. If you have a touch screen, it will certainly be for the good — otherwise, who knows? Anyway, back to the questions at hand.

One of the big concerns with the newer releases is whether or not Ubuntu is dropping support for 32-bit hardware. This concern is legit, as most hardware today is 64-bit and it's becoming less economical for a distribution like Ubuntu to focus on both architecture. However, at the moment, the new releases do still support 32-bit hardware.

Back in 2012, the i386 chip was dropped from the kernel. This did not mean 32-bit architecture wouldn't be supported. What it did mean was that you wouldn't be able to run Linux on the Intel 80386 chip (which was the original 32-bit chip from Intel). Those processors had clock speeds of 12-40 MHz and were superseded by the Intel 80486 and (in the early- and mid-1990s) the Intel Pentium. Support for those older chips was removed to clean up quite a lot of complexity and ugly workarounds from the kernel.

Nearly every year, you'll find people shouting to the rafters that 32-bit architecture will be gone in X number of years. Well, years have passed and, lo and behold, 32-bit systems still remain. That is key — and it's incredibly important for Ubuntu (and all makers of Linux distributions) to understand. People are reluctant to upgrade.

If Ubuntu (and other distributions) are serious about sunsetting support for 32-bit systems, here's what they need to do: Create a special ELTS distribution for the sunsetted architecture. ELTS being "Extra Long Term Support." Give this release a five-year life cycle for support. Once that five years is up, it's so long to 32-bit architecture. That would be very close to 2020, and if those 32-bit machines are still working, I'd venture a guess that singularity had occurred and it wouldn't matter anyway because we'd be nothing more than batteries powering the machine-created 128-bit architecture.

At the moment, however, both 32- and 64-bit systems are supported by Ubuntu. You just have to select your architecture (32, 64, and 64 AMD for Mac) and download the release specific to your hardware.

Now, when you go to download the latest release of Ubuntu, know that if it's not 14.04, it's not an LTS. If you prefer to install an OS and leave it be for as long as possible, make sure that you don't install 14.10 — instead, stick with 14.04. If, on the other hand, you install every new release, then 14.10 will be ready very soon. And even if you're still running 32-bit hardware, you'll be good to go — as long as you download the correct version of the release.

What do you think? Should Ubuntu switch to the rolling release once Unity 8/Mir becomes the default? Or is the current release schedule ideal? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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