Thursday, May 04, 2006

Linux 103, Updates?

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As we continue wandering along, looking at all the Linux Distros parked on the lot, kicking a tire or two, and test driving a few, there is one area of Linux operation you need to know about and consider before taking the plunge and installing one of them. Oh, there are many things you will need to learn and we will get to those later, that is a promise. The one area we need to talk about, though, is Updates and the Update process.

Thanks to Microsoft's repeated issuance of Critical Updates over the years, I am sure you have a bad taste in your mouth at the very mention of the word. However, an update in Linux does not need to be either as scary or as confusing as a Windows update.

Because of the nature of Windows, the updates you download from Microsoft tend to be huge and complicated. They also occur frequently and do not always 'fix' the problems they are intended to address. The reason for this is that Windows is considered by Microsoft to be a single massive application. A change in one area of the software can affect another as well as having additional errors raising their ugly heads. You also see patches on top of patches, which can cause other strange and unwanted problems. As a result, changes in behavior of the whole package can be expected and, I suspect, are desired by Microsoft. There have been times where a MS Update has actually broken Windows to the extent that it needed to be reinstalled from scratch. It is no wonder we look upon the word 'update' with a jaundiced eye.

Updating Linux, however, is a very different situation. Since Linux is a collection of programs, the update process is highly selective. Updating also does not address the whole of the Linux installation. Rather, it addresses the various modules and components that make up the Linux system as individual programs. This approach to software tends to make updating far more accurate and complete since, frequently, the entire updated program is replaced, not patched. Another benefit of Linux updates is that software developers can provide you with new features and improved operation by giving you the latest version of a software package. One last thing to mention before we look at the tools used and that is that you can choose which programs you want to update. Unlike Windows where an update is a wholesale change that happens all at once, you have the choice to apply or not any part of the update. You have total control of the process. Moreover, if part of the update breaks something, the part that caused the problem can be removed and functionality restored without affecting the rest of the system except in the specific case of the kernel and even then, restoring your system to functionality can be done without too much difficulty. If you absolutely cannot restore it, you only need to reinstall the broken program and not the entire system.

The tools used for updating have, over the years, evolved to the point that controlling the process is easy. With names like 'apt' (intended for Debian based distribution installs), 'yum' (Yellowdog Update Manager for RPM), 'yumex' (Yellowdog Update Manager EXtended), and 'update' (Which is Redhat's update tool), each provides you with the ability to select the specific program or module to update or install. Of the group, 'yumex' is my choice for RPM based installations because it provides a Graphical User Interface (GUI) for the update/installation process and is simple to use.

Although you change Operating Systems from Windows to Linux, updating your system will still be a part of your regular activities. However, it will not be as 'hidden' a process as it is with Windows. You will have far more control over what is updated and when, as well as keeping your system functioning with the latest new software available. You will also get to know your system.
Running Linux can be a positive experience but, just to make sure, it is not Windows, so do not expect to see 'the same stuff' on the screen. But, hey! That is part of the fun of computing. Linux will challenge you, or be simply a platform for writing, email, and web browsing. One thing is sure; you do not have the constant worry about 'Malware' you have with Windows now.

Have fun!