Users of Linux Mint's Debian-based distribution are getting a couple of new options for managing updates. Instead of dealing with a continual flood of updates from Debian Testing, the Mint maintainers are going to offer monthly updates and a slightly tamer "Incoming" repository.
Linux Mint is, of course, a popular and user-friendly distribution that
started as an Ubuntu derivative. Initially a GNOME-based distribution that
offered a fairly light set of changes from Ubuntu — most notably
pre-installed multimedia codecs and proprietary drivers — the project
now offers KDE, LXDE, and Xfce-based releases as well. The Linux Mint 11
release (covered here in May) deviates even
further from Ubuntu by sticking with GNOME 2.32 rather than moving to the
Unity desktop. In September 2010, the project also started providing rolling release based on
Debian Testing, but with the same themes, codecs, drivers, and
management tools it offers with the main Mint edition.
While the rolling release model has the advantage of providing faster
updates for packages as they land in Debian Testing, the model has its
headaches as well. In the post announcing the Update Packs for Linux Mint
Debian Edition (LMDE), Clement Lefebvre points out that LMDE requires more
work and experience on the part of its users:
When the updates are significant and affect large or sensitive parts of the
system, some experience is needed from the user. The new updates might ask
you something you're not familiar with, some post-configuration might be
required for things to work as they did, and if you make a mistake and you
don't have the knowledge to fix things up, you might very well end up with
a partly or completely broken system.
What's worse, users often encounter a situation that other LMDE users
are not having problems with. "Because things change constantly and
people don't update at the same time or as frequently, it's hard to find
people with the same problem and so it's hard to talk about workarounds and
find solutions." For now, Lefebvre says that users are depending on a thread in the Linux Mint forums to support one another, but says that it's "chaotic" and "far from ideal."
Problems with rolling updates might account for the LMDE release losing
users. According to the stats from the Linux Mint folks, the Debian Edition has been losing popularity for the last few months. The statistics from April showed LMDE with 8.7% of Mint users (according to statistics from package updates). The numbers for May had dropped to 6.03%, and in June the Debian Edition claimed only 3.47% of users. There are no raw numbers available, so it's not entirely clear
that the drop in LMDE percentages aren't a result of increased popularity
in the other
Mint versions. Note that you need to scroll to the bottom of the pages past the donor information to find the user statistics.
To cope with the continual updates from Debian, the Mint folks are introducing two new repositories and a different version of the Linux Mint Update Manager.
For users who want rolling updates but without having to suffer system breakage, there's the new Linux Mint Debian Latest repository. This is a repository that should have monthly updates that have been tested and will be delivered to users in batches. As an example, Lefebvre points out that GNOME 3 should be entering Debian Testing soon. However, if users point their repository to the Latest repository instead of the upstream Debian Testing repository, they'll get updates "after the Linux Mint team has tested the update and gathered precious information on it." Note that this doesn't promise that the Mint team will fix broken packages or otherwise smooth over problems in Testing — they'll simply be making an effort to ensure the packages in the Latest repository won't cause problems when users run updates. If a package or set of packages has an issue of some kind, whether that's package conflicts, missing dependencies, or bugs that keep the updates from being useful, then they'll be held back.
How will they know that a package or set of packages have problems? The Mint team is also providing a Linux Mint Debian Incoming repository, which will be a speed bump between Debian's Testing repositories and the Latest repository. The team will test the Update Packs in the Incoming repository before putting them into Latest. More adventurous users can use the Incoming repository and report problems before they're released into the Latest repository for more users.
Once the team is satisfied that the repository is stable and ready for updates, it will be released as an "update pack," into the Latest repository for users to grab via the new Update Manager. Each Update Pack will come with information on the updates carried in the pack, such as potential problems with the update. For example, the current update pack has warnings that it may cause problems with Flash, and some of the packages that start Debian's transition to GNOME 3 may cause some applications to ignore a user's GTK theme. Where applicable, users are given advice on how to fix or bypass the problems — and users will still have the option of ignoring or blocking package updates.
With the update, users now have three choices of repositories for LMDE; the Latest repository, the Incoming repository, and the upstream Debian Testing repository. For users who want to stick with Debian Testing, nothing changes.
Users who want to test out the two new repositories are warned that they
are brand new, and should wait a month or two for the LMDE images to be
respun. The LMDE with GNOME image was last updated in December, 2010 and
the image for LMDE with Xfce was last updated in April. But for the brave souls willing to try the new system before it's part of the respins, it's a fairly simple set of steps. All that's required is to install the
mintupdate-debian package, and switch out the Debian Testing repository in
/etc/apt/sources.list with the Incoming or Latest repository. Mint is asking users to report problems with packages in Incoming in the forums.
Note that this puts Mint in a position of hosting a much larger package archive than before, when they only needed to point users to the Debian repositories for most of the packages. The new repository is made possible by an agreement with AYKsolutions to provide an additional server with 1Gbps output to handle Linux Mint's Debian repository.
KDE and LXDE changes
In a separate post, Lefebvre announced some changes for the LXDE and KDE Mint releases. Linux Mint 11 LXDE is getting closer, but the project is replacing the LXDM login manager with GDM, due to problems loading X from the live CD with the first Mint 11 LXDE release candidate.
The KDE release of Mint may be getting a much bigger overhaul —
namely, a switch to Debian away from Kubuntu as its base. Lefebvre says
that "lack of performance and the amount of resources needed by the
Kubuntu base" has resulted in discussions about delaying the Linux
Mint 11 KDE release and switching to Debian Testing for KDE as
well. "Although we're close to a release in terms of quality, a
discussion is ongoing about the possibility of switching the KDE edition to
LMDE. This would give it the performance it needs and make KDE a viable
alternative on mid-spec computers." Depending on the outcome of those discussions, the KDE release could be out by the end of July, or users may get a release candidate for an LMDE-based KDE distribution some time in August.
It's worth noting that Mint seems to be adopting a model that's similar to openSUSE Tumbleweed. That is, both seek to provide a rolling release that provides users with software at a faster clip but without as many broken packages as they'd encounter running a rolling release tied to package updates immediately as they enter development distributions.
Though Lefebvre pointed out how the project will be able to scale
technically thanks to the new server, what's unclear is if Mint
has enough manpower. As was explored in the Linux Mint 11 piece in May, the
Mint team is a very small operation — and Mint seems to be taking on
quite a lot of new work. It will be interesting to see if the monthly update schedule boosts LMDE's popularity and smooths over the problems users have had with LMDE so far. For desktop Linux users who want quick access to newer software, this might be a good option once the Mint team gets the process nailed down.
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