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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 ubuntuforums.org 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?

61 comments:

  1. I agree - just do a fresh install. In addition to a separate /home partition, I also set up my drives with an extra OS partition. That way, if the new install is borked you can just go back to using what previously worked.

    The only adjustment I make to /home before upgrading is to move the desktop settings directory ($HOME/.kde in my case) out of the way.

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  2. That's great if it works for you, but I've never been a fan of separate home partitions. Like I said in the article, I just save the "important" config files like .mozilla/.thunderbird and such. Any other configuring I need to do after installing can be done rather quickly.

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  3. You're right. I had problems upgrading from Jaunty to Karmic, and upgrading from Karmic to Lucid completely toasted grub. After fiddling with grub command line with no success, i downloaded Lucid alternate install on another computer, burned to cd and just did repair grub.

    Next time, doing a wipe-and-install.

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  4. It depends on what you use the box for, for my server I have to go the upgrade route, but for my desktops upgrade or clean install whichever works with a particular distro.

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  5. Ironically, the most stable I've found is to run Debian testing ... there's no mass upgrade of your distro. You just get new versions of packages as they trickle into the testing repository. My experience is that you see very few bugs in debian testing, and that packages are pretty solid by the time they get there.

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  6. His-Curmudoness is correct. I've had similar experience, but I'm more curmudgoney than anyone.

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  7. Just compress the /home directory into a rar and unpack if you do a fresh install...then you'll have to set the permissions of course.

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  8. Fully agree. I always tell users to do a clean install of an operating system - whether it is Ubuntu 9.10 to 10.04 or Windows Xp to Windows 7

    ~Jeff Hoogland

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  9. Jeff's sentiments hit it on the head. It's not just a linux issue, but an OS issue. I have also seen windows upgrades go bad.

    And yeah, using Debian testing can alleviate some issues, but linux noobs barely know of ubuntu, much less other distros.

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  10. I choose another option: never touch a running system. Personally, I find the benefits a bit thin compared to the risks and the time involved. If there is an application I really want, I'll compile it from scratch. Problem solved. Installing is not something I really like to do, it takes just too much time until I got "my" system back. I especially "like" manually installing the cross compilers I need for development. Takes most part of a day.

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  11. Never touching a running system is another option. However, that's not possible for those of us that report bugs and try new things, so that people like you can sit back and "never touch a running system".

    But that' OK. I enjoy doing it.

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  12. I found myself incredibly lucky this time around. The "upgrade install" appeared to be working right up until it just quite, and I suddenly had no GUI (nor much no how).

    This added about 2 hours of me simply trying to "fix broken packages" in GRUB so that I could then do what I should have done in the first place: back up my files before the upgrade.

    I wont make that mistake again.

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  13. Mmm, Debian.

    I had many failed *buntu upgrades in the past, but never a failed Debian upgrade. Once you're done with the *buntu, the next 'fresh install' that you do should be to Debian Testing (or Debian Sid, for the more experienced users).

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  14. My kind of thinking! :-) I'm an avid proponent of testing out new distros in their own partition (and, while in alpha/beta, in their own virtual machine!!). It's grand to know there are other people who feel the same way, because I tell other people to avoid the upgrade path when they are trying out new distros... with limited success :-(

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  15. fuck it, I just hit the upgrade button. Always have, always will. And always put home on a separate partition, that way when you get tired of one OS you can lay down another one right in its place and still have all your data. I've done it many times.

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  16. tripple boot and a storage partition
    this work bench computer has 8.04 and 10.04
    10.04 should be settled when 10.10 arrives
    then 8.04 partition becomes the playground.

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  17. I always upgrade, and haven't had an upgrade borked so bad I couldn't fix it in place in a long time, since the first year or so I used linux (switched in '98). But then again, I write operating system code for a living.

    Also, it's possible to do a clean install that preserves your home directory without a separate home partition, it's just tricky and not supported in "automatic" mode.

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  18. Ubuntu upgrades have *always* been frought with difficulty and danger =D. IMO Ubuntu is a buggy and badly patched version of Debian and the purer waters lie upstream for those that are willing to climb the mountain.

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  19. btrfs system roll backs straight from grub are being considered as one future solution to your problem.

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  20. Your tips about ubuntu are so helpful you're a genius guy, in the other hand I hate Microsoft too.

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