Sliding Back the Support Scale

The amount of time a given release of a Linux distribution is supported is of paramount interest to its users. After all, large-scale deployments depend on stability, and stability means support. Some users of openSUSE are liable to be feeling a bit shaken this week, after the project announced that the support period for its releases has been cut by a fourth.

On Tuesday, SUSE Security Team Lead Marcus Meissner posted an end-of-life notice to the opensuse-announce mailing list, announcing that updates for openSUSE 10.3 updates would be discontinued after October 31, 2009, just over two months from now. Meissner wrote that, having supported the release for two years, the support period had run its course, and that discontinuing support would allow developers to focus on newer releases, providing the level of quality users have come to expect. The email also included an end-of-life schedule for the 11.0 and 11.1 releases, as well as for the current development version, 11.2. It was this last item that raised concerns, as it read:

openSUSE 11.2 (currently in development, to be released November 12th 2009) for the next two openSUSE releases plus two months overlap period.

openSUSE releases occur every eight months, so two releases plus two months works out to eighteen months — six months less than the current twenty-four months, a twenty-five percent reduction. While individual users experience relatively little disruption from a distribution upgrade — particularly if it only occurs every eighteen months — for enterprise users it is a significant undertaking, one requiring large amounts of time and even larger amounts of money, and the support-period can be the deciding factor between two distributions. (Even if the software is free, the man-hours to perform the upgrade are not, nor is the time lost to problems that arise, and businesses don't like to lose money.) This is the rationale behind the update schedule for Ubuntu: regular distribution releases occur every six months, with an eighteen month support cycle, but at regular intervals, a release is designated as Long Term Support or LTS, promising three years of support on the desktop, and five years on the server.

Following the announcement, Novell's Michael Loeffler posted a follow-up to clarify the change. Loeffler wrote:

with regards to the discontinuation mail for openSUSE 10.3 [1] sent out by
Marcus the other day I'd like to clarify the changes in the maintenance period
of openSUSE.

openSUSE will shorten the maintenance period to 2 versions plus 2 months
which translates with the current release cycle of 8 months to 18 months
instead of 24 months we had with openSUSE 11.1 and previous releases.

With that we now can guarantee an overlap time from a maintenance perspective
which gives enough time to update machines to newer versions.

How users will ultimately respond to the change, and how it will affect enterprise deployment of openSUSE remains to be seen, as it has been just three days since the announcement. What is most certain, however, is that it will receive thorough and spirited discussion — that is, after all, a hallmark and one of the great strengths of Open Source.

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