Are Rolling Release Linux Distributions Suitable For Your Server?

Rolling ReleaseThe vast majority of web hosting companies base their hosting plans on CentOS, which is essentially a free clone of Red Hat’s hugely successful Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Web hosts choose CentOS because it provides a stable and secure platform. CentOS is a conservative distribution, with major releases happening only once every few years.

CentOS is a stable foundation for web and application hosting, and much of that stability is the result of the glacially slow — or sensibly cautious, depending on your perspective — rate at which new software versions are incorporated into the distribution’s repositories.

CentOS’s maintainers include new software with considerable circumspection. Apart from minor releases to fix security vulnerabilities and bugs, new CentOS releases come along only every few years, and they’re typically large updates with more modern versions of dozens or even hundreds of packages included.

What is a Rolling Release Linux Distro

But the fixed release strategy isn’t the only way to handle updates. Many Linux distributions opt for what’s known as a rolling release strategy. With rolling releases, new software versions are incorporated into the distribution’s repositories as soon as possible after release. If a new version of a library or application is released, rolling distributions will typically have it available for end users within a few days. Rolling release distributions don’t have OS versions in the same way as a distro like CentOS. Instead, they are updated continuously whenever new software is available.

In comparison to conservative stable release distributions like CentOS and Debian, where users can wait years for new versions of software, rolling releases make new software available very quickly.

Distributions that make stable releases include:

  • RHEL
  • CentOS
  • Debian
  • Ubuntu

Whereas the following Linux distros fall under a rolling release system:

  • Arch Linux
  • Gentoo

Rolling Release vs. Stable Release For Web Hosting

Rolling releases are appealing because they provide the latest and greatest software versions. Most of the time that works out fine for the user, but sometimes it introduces problems. New software will almost certainly contain bugs and software vulnerabilities that older, battle-tested software does not.

For most enterprise applications, including web hosting, having the latest and greatest software is much less important than having stable and secure software. Ideally, a web hosting platform is highly stable over the long term — it should be able to run for years without significant problems. Linux distributions like CentOS provide that stability and security.

Rolling release distributions are not necessarily insecure or buggy, and for many purposes — especially as a desktop operating system — a rolling release distribution like Arch is an excellent choice. But rolling release distributions are inherently less stable and tested than fixed release distributions.

In Conclusion: Should You Choose Rolling or Stable Release Linux Distros?

It’s important to note that I’m not claiming that distributions like CentOS are necessarily secure and reliable — there’s no such thing as completely secure and reliable in the software world. However, the longer software is tested, the more likely it is for bugs to be discovered and fixed.

Which you choose depends on which factors you consider most important. If cutting-edge software is most important to you, then a rolling release distribution is a good choice. If stability, security, and predictability are important, then a conservative distribution like CentOS is probably the better choice — you really don’t want surprises from your operating system.

Matthew Davis is a technical writer and Linux geek for Future Hosting.

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  • Emil Cataranciuc

    Your view on rolling release distributions isn’t entirely correct. The difference between stable and rolling is that you don’t have to upgrade between distro releases (for example from CentOS 6 to 7). You can still pack a rolling release distribution with stable, non cutting edge software.