What LTS Really Means…

In the business world we love to see software that has a lifecycle that is clearly defined. In relation to this, we typically go for Linux distributions that have long term support (LTS) such as Ubuntu, et cetera al. The reasons why we like these LTS releases is fairly simple: we want to know that our servers are going to have updates, or more specifically security updates, for a few years. What we don’t want is to have an operating system that has few or no updates between releases that leaves us vulnerable. Furthermore, we don’t want an operating system that has new releases frequently. So LTS releases sound great right? Not really…

What LTS releases really do is delay things. They put off updates and upgrades by keeping stale software patched against security vulnerabilities. Maybe we don’t care about the newest features in software x, y, or z – that’s pretty normal in production. However, backporting fixes is not always the best choice either. The problem we run into at the end of an LTS lifecycle is that the step to the next release is bigger – much, much, bigger! There have been LTS to LTS upgrades that have broken so much that a fresh install is either the only option left or it is often faster than trying to muddle through the upgrade. If you skip an LTS upgrade because the currently installed release is still supported, you are going to be in a world of hurt when you finally decide to pull the trigger on that dist-upgrade. The opposite end of the spectrum isn’t always ideal for production either: rolling releases will have the latest features, bug fixes, and security patches, but they also have less time in the oven and sometimes come out half-baked.

There is no easy solution here, no quick fixes. The best use of LTS I’ve seen is when the servers they are installed on have a short lifecycle themselves. If the servers are going to be replaced inside of 5 years then LTS might just be a good fit because you’ll be replacing the while kittle kaboodle before you reach end of life. For the reast of us, I feel like LTS really stands for long term stress – stress that builds up over the lifecycle and then gets dumped on you all at once.

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