In the nine-year history of Ubuntu Linux, a new version of the operating system has come out every six months. But Canonical, Ubuntu's developer, is considering ditching that model in favor of one that produces an entirely new version only once every two years—while speeding up the overall pace of development by adopting a "rolling release" cycle in between.
Ubuntu 12.10 (thus named because it came out in October 2012) has just arrived, and 13.04 and 13.10 will come in April and October of 2013. But 14.04 in April 2014 could be the last version released after just a six-month development period. 14.04 is also the next "Long Term Support" or LTS edition. Every two years, Ubuntu is sort of frozen in place with a more stable edition that is guaranteed support for five years. If the change Canonical is considering is adopted, every future edition starting with 14.04 will be an LTS, so the next version after 14.04 would be 16.04 in April 2016.
Why bother? Canonical kernel team manager Leann Ogasawara explained in a Google hangout today that this proposal is on the table because Canonical thinks it can deliver both stability and cutting-edge features with rolling releases. For the two years between LTS releases, there would be no new versions but there would be lots of updates.
Nothing is "set in stone," but "when we hit the next 14.04 release it could go from 14.04 to 16.04, and everything in between is what we consider a rolling release. You're going to be pushed and following the latest package releases, not only from the kernel but also from the entire distribution."
Ubuntu developers have been discussing this potential shift for a little while as part of talks about the "road to 14.04." But it hasn't generated a ton of attention because "the whole phone announcement came out and that took center stage," Ogasawara said.
The six-month update cycle ties Canonical's hands a little bit in deciding what features go into each release. For example, Ubuntu developers have already decided that Linux 3.8 is the version of the kernel that will land in Ubuntu 13.04. What if Linux 3.9 had some amazing new features or fixes that Canonical wanted to get into the next version of Ubuntu? With a rolling release, Ubuntu developers could do that by waiting just a little while instead of six months.
There are challenges to conquer, though. "That is a huge task to take on from a distribution standpoint, making sure everything works well together on a daily basis," Ogasawara said. "But I think we're getting there already in having daily quality from our QA (quality assurance) team. They're running daily boot tests and smoke tests."
Canonical must also consider that there would be "impacts on users of Ubuntu, and are they going to be satisfied with only having a major release every two years and only having a rolling release between," she said.
ExtremeTech weighed in with some good analysis of this possible change today. "A major disadvantage of a rolling release is that they tend to be less stable than a standard release, as standard releases have more time to be inspected and tested before they are released into the wild," ExtremeTech wrote. "Rolling releases are ever-changing, potentially creating new problems, but also providing the most current security updates, software fixes, and really whatever else is included in the updates."