Rolling vs. Point Releases: Which Linux Distro is Right for You?

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Need help with rolling vs. point releases on Linux? We've got you covered with our comprehensive guide to help you choose the right distro.


Rolling vs. Point Releases: Which Linux Distro is Right for You?

Thanks to its open-source nature and extensive community support, Linux is a powerful and versatile operating system that has gained immense popularity over the years. However, one of the key decisions that Linux users face is whether to opt for a rolling release or a point release distribution.

Both have their pros and cons, and choosing the right one depends on various factors, such as your technical expertise, software needs, and personal preferences.
So, if you are new to Linux or looking to switch to a different distribution, navigating through the plethora of options can be overwhelming. That’s where our comprehensive guide comes in. We’ve compiled all the information you need to decide on rolling vs. point releases on Linux.
We’ll explain what rolling and point release distributions are, highlight their differences, and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each approach. In addition, we’ll also provide a list of popular rolling and point release distributions.
So, if you’re feeling confused about rolling vs. point releases on Linux, don’t worry. Our guide has got you covered. Let’s dive in and explain what this is all about.

What Is a Rolling Release Linux Distribution?​

Arch Linux - A rolling release Linux distribution.Arch Linux – A rolling release Linux distribution.

A rolling release Linux distribution is a type of Linux distribution in which software packages are continuously updated as soon as they become available, rather than being released in scheduled, versioned updates like in traditional point release distributions.
In other words, the operating system is constantly evolving and upgrading, with new software features, bug fixes, and security patches being rolled out to users as soon as they are available. This means that users can always access the latest software versions and security fixes without waiting for a new release to come out.
On top of that, with rolling release Linux distributions, you install the base OS only once and then update it endlessly. As a result, you don’t have new versions of the operating system that require reinstalling or following complicated steps to upgrade from one OS’ version to another, which constantly run the risk of something going wrong.
Some of the most established and proven representatives of rolling release Linux distributions are Arch Linux, openSUSE Tumbleweed, Manjaro, Gentoo, Void Linux, etc.

What Is a Point (Fixed) Release Linux Distribution?​

Debian 11.6 - A point release Linux distribution.Debian 11.6 – A point release Linux distribution.
Point release Linux distributions, also known as fixed, are the most common release model in the Linux world.
They are a Linux distribution that receives updates in the form of point releases. These point releases typically contain bug fixes, security updates, and minor feature enhancements, but do not introduce major changes or new features to the distribution.

Their distinctive feature is that they are released in the form of versions. For example, Fedora 36, Fedora 37, and Fedora 38. Or Ubuntu 22.04, Ubuntu 22.10, and Ubuntu 23.04. Or Rocky Linux 9.0, Rocky Linux 9.1, and so on. You get the point, don’t you?
Another characteristic feature of the point release Linux distributions is that their releases are pre-planned. In other words, they make major new releases at (more or less) regular intervals. But, of course, the spacing and regularity of the intervals vary according to distribution.
Popular examples of a point release Linux distributions are Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, openSUSE Leap, Rocky Linux, etc.

Rolling vs. Point Releases: Which One to Choose?​

Having clarified what rolling and point release Linux distributions are, we come to the essential question – which of the two release models is better? And the answer can’t be anything other than – it all depends on the purposes for which you will use the distribution and your personal preferences.
Because this sounds pretty generic, we’ll take an in-depth look at the rolling vs. point Linux releases topic below, highlighting both the advantages and disadvantages of each model.

Up-to-Date Software & Stability​

The main difference between rolling and point release Linux distributions is their approach when including software versions and updates.

Point release distributions stick to a fixed version of a software package and provide only minor and security updates throughout the life cycle for a given distribution’s version. In contrast, rolling release distributions offer users a new version of the given software, whether minor or major, as an update soon after it gets released by the upstream.
Let us illustrate it with an example. Fedora, a point release Linux distribution, in its 38 release, comes with GNOME 44. This means that for the next 13 months, the lifetime of a Fedora release, users will receive only minor updates for GNOME 44 in the form of 44.1, 44.2, and so on GNOME releases but will not receive a major upgrade to GNOME 45.
On the other hand, users of rolling release distributions such as Arch will be able to get the new major GNOME 45 version as an update shortly after its release.
And this is where many newer Linux users think things are already weighing in favor of rolling release distributions. But, while it may seem so at first glance, things are different, and the main reason for this is one crucial factor – the system’s stability and reliability.
By relying on a specific version of a piece of software and only providing updates for it ahead of time, point release distributions assure users to a large extent that it has been thoroughly tested, minimizing the risk of problems arising from incompatibilities between it and other components of the system or transitions between major versions of the software itself.

At the same time, rolling release distributions cannot ensure this seamlessness and reliability to the same level. One of the key reasons for this is the time it takes to test software until all potential faults are removed.
In other words, by relying on slightly older but time-tested versions of the software, point release distributions ensure the reliability of the software and the system itself as a whole.
On the other hand, rolling Linux distributions give users the latest innovations and features by relying on the most up-to-date versions, but this comes at a price with an added risk factor.

Rolling vs. Point Linux Releases: Desktop or Server Usage​

Here, we must draw the following significant distinction on rolling vs. point Linux distributions: whether we are talking about a desktop-focused distribution or one meant for server use.
The golden rule here is – the distributions following the rolling release model mainly apply only to the desktop Linux segment. There, users want to have the most recent versions of the desktop environment, video drivers, a given desktop application, etc.
At the same time, you will hardly find a rolling release distribution used in the Linux server segment. This is a field where the main qualities sought are reliability, stability, and security.
In this light, no business would risk a system crash as a result of an update resulting in software incompatibility due to the latest version of something that has not been thoroughly tested to see if it works well with the rest of the system software or has full backward compatibility with its previous version.

Of course, no one can stop you from using a rolling release distribution for your server needs, but most often, such attempts are limited mainly to Linux enthusiasts for their home needs.
However, everything said so far should not make you believe that rolling release Linux distributions are unstable. Of course, not! It is only that the possibility of complications is potentially higher. And the key word here is potential because, in practice, the risk is as reduced as it is for point release distributions.
Let me give you a real example from my personal experience. One of my currently used Linux desktops has been running Arch for five years without issues. At the same time, the previous installation had been in use for eight years and would still be used today if the disk I used back then hadn’t failed fatally.
So, the only big issue I recall in those years of periodically applying updates was when Arch switched to using systemd. Now, let’s get back to the point.

User Еngagement​

Continuing on the rolling vs. point Linux distributions topic, we need to stress the end user’s level of engagement. In the case of rolling releases, it is higher as a natural result of the frequent application of many updates and monitoring for system stability afterward.
In general, the point releases include significantly fewer updates, so the potential risks of problems developing are significantly reduced owing to the model’s fundamental nature. As a result, the end user is less involved in the operating system’s upkeep.

User Expertise​

Naturally, as a continuation of the above comes the point of how good technical knowledge the end user should have when working with any Linux distribution of both models.
The general rule is that rolling release distributions necessitate greater technical competence and knowledge than point release ones. So, you need to be prepared to get your hands dirty here, as often, the terminal will be where you’ll end up solving tasks of a different nature.
Of course, every rule has an exception. In this light, I wouldn’t dare to claim that Manjaro is more challenging to work with and manage while being a rolling release distribution than Debian, which adheres to the point release model.
However, in this case, other factors play a role, the most important of which is the distribution’s primary target user group. But that’s for another topic.

Bandwidth Speed​

Often underestimated, the issue of internet connection speed is also relevant. Since rolling release Linux distributions deliver many software updates at frequent intervals, not updating the system for a month can result in gigabytes of updates available for download. Therefore, this can become a problem if you have limited bandwidth.

At the same time, once installed, the point release distribution receives fewer updates in the future.
With everything said so far, we can draw the key conclusions from the rolling vs. point Linux distributions topic in the table below.

Rolling ReleasesPoint Releases
Up-to-Date SoftwareYesNo
Need to ReinstallNoYes
Desktop UsageYesYes
Server UsageNot recommendedYes
User ЕngagementHighModerate
User ExpertiseHighMedium to high
Bandwidth NeedsHighModerate

Conclusion​

We’ve reached the final part, where we’ll recap all we’ve said thus far about the rolling vs. point Linux distributions topic. As always, opting for rolling or point release distributions depends entirely on the user’s preferences and requirements.

Generally speaking, rolling releases Linux distribution offer the latest packages and features but require more involvement in the maintenance and can be less stable. On the other hand, point releases are more stable, but this comes at the cost of providing no so up-to-date versions of the software.
In addition, when choosing a Linux distribution, it is essential to consider your level of technical expertise, intended use case, and preferred software versions.
Rolling releases are suitable for users who prefer the latest software versions, can handle regular maintenance and troubleshooting, and have a good understanding of Linux. In this light, a rolling release is a better option if you are a developer or someone who enjoys receiving updates to the latest and greatest software.
Point releases, conversely, are better suited for users who prioritize stability and reliability, as they have been thoroughly tested and vetted before being released to the public. They are also generally easier to use, both for intermediate and, in some cases, for users completely new to Linux.
This concludes our article on the topic of rolling vs. point Linux releases. I hope we were of help to you. We’re sure you have something to add to the topic, so we’d love to read your comments in the section below.
 
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