Linux and Updates

2009/08/24

One excellent feature of Linux that Windows needs to emulate is managing updates. Most Linux distributions have an update tool that handles updates for you, not just of the OS (whatever you take that to mean on a system that’s built from parts from many diverse suppliers) but for everything installed on your system, so long as you installed it from your distro’s package repositories. (Most users won’t ever need to go outside of the repositories.) You can even configure automatic updates if you like, but unlike Windows, the OS doesn’t pressure into turning them on. (Most of the time it doesn’t turn them on automatically, either, which Windows is known to do. I can’t say “never” because there’s been at least one instance where it did, but it was a bug, and you’d better believe it got fixed.) And while “user friendliness” is pushing more distributions to adopt “updates are available” messages, you can always turn them off, and Linux will never reboot without your permission due to updates. You might get prompted that you should reboot, but you don’t have to.

See, Linux handles updates (more specifically, in-use files) better than Windows. If you’re a Windows user, you may have seen “file in use” errors. Except for the occasional application that implements its own concurrency-prevention methods (OpenOffice.org comes to mind), you simply don’t see this on Linux. That’s because Linux has no problem deleting an in-use file. On Windows, you can’t do that. On Linux, it just detaches the file from the file system, and cleans it up when whatever had it open either closes it or goes away. This is why, on Linux, it is easy to do updates. You simply replace the old application with the new one. With a few odd exceptions (most notably Firefox), you can keep using the application because the file isn’t actually deleted immediately; you’ll get the new version when you restart the application. (The reason it sometimes doesn’t work is if an application reopens a file that has changed since the application was started.) So you never have to reboot after updates. For most applications, restarting the application is enough. Only for the kernel and a few core system services do you not see the benefit of updates until you reboot.

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