Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Upgrading your distro should come with a warning

It's that time of year again when a lot of the major distros are putting out new releases, and people are clambering to get the new versions installed. But there are two camps of people in this rush to get the latest and greatest. The upgraders, who prefer to leave their computer as is, and hit the "upgrade" button, hoping to come back to their computers in a couple hours and revel in their shiny new OS. Then there are those who prefer the "clean install" by backing up any important stuff, wiping the drive, and starting from scratch. But is the upgrade method really worth it?

After years of hanging out in various linux forums, I have come to the conclusion that upgrading is not worth it. Time after time, I see tons of posts after a release, such as: "sound/video/network/boot/application no longer works after upgrade. If you don't believe me, just head over to and see for yourself. But this is by no means limited to ubuntu, but am just using them as an example because of their recent release.

Sure, there are people who have not done a clean install in years, and have upgraded successfully release after release. But I tend to think they are the exception, and not the norm. But why is upgrading such a risky business? I do not have the answer to this, as I am not a developer or programmer. All I know is the end result.

What can be done about this? I strongly believe that upgrading should come with a warning such as: "Please backup any important data before upgrading distro X, as sometimes the upgrade process can lead to instability of your system. It is recommended that you do a clean install at this time." Or something along those lines. The linux communities being inundated with cries for help after upgrades gone bad is simply unacceptable. It leaves a bad taste in people's mouths, and they tend to blame the new OS for being bad, rather than blaming the upgrade process itself.

When you think about it, it's really not surprising that upgrades go bad so easily. The new OS has to overwrite system files, settings, put in new drivers, config files and deal with mild fragmentation. To me, it makes absolute sense to wipe the drive and start over fresh. This way, you are all but guaranteed better results.

But, as you may be thinking, "I have too many files to backup, and too many apps and tweaks to the system. I do not want to go through setting it up again." Lack of planning is why people don't want to clean install. Why keep all your valuable data on the same partition as your OS? Simply by making a storage partition and keeping all important data there will keep you from having to backup before reinstalling. Mind you, it is still important to backup your stuff to an external source such as hard drive or flash drive.

Also, do you really need every config file in /home to be transferred to the new install? Simply by choosing the most important ones such as .mozilla/.thunderbird/.opera etc. you will save a lot of time and hassle. I never make a separate /home directory. Ask any linux guru who's been around, and they will tell you about config files in /home messing with a new version of application X.

You could also make a text file with all of your apps you need and run it in the terminal:

sudo apt-get install vlc gecko-mediaplyer gthumb glabels k3b seamonkey

You get the idea.

With a little bit of planning, you will actually find that clean installing can be quicker and less painful than upgrading. Thoughts and experiences with this?