openSUSE Tumbleweed: a Linux Distro review

I chronicled my Windows-to-Linux transition in early 2016, posted a mid-2017 update, today describe adoption of a new-to-me Linux variant.

Two warnings! This post is:

() Inexcusably geeky. Inexcusably! I had something to say in 2016 and 2017, today only wallow shamelessly in a long-dormant computer nerd’s streak rekindled by the switch from Windows.

Other geeks may read my ravings with interest. No one else will. I am not a computer writer, have no business pitching the blog 4×4 into the bush for a wild-eyed hobbyist detour. No editor would accept this.

openSUSE Linux gecko | CC-BY-SA 3.0, https://github.com/openSUSE/artwork/
openSUSE Linux gecko | CC-BY-SA 3.0, https://github.com/openSUSE/artwork/

() Potentially dangerous. Casual new Linux tinkerers should be shooed away posthaste from the variant to be described, may monkey wrench functional machinery, tempt rage, bankruptcy! madness! death!

Fellow nerds may be curious anyway. So were ancient Greek mariners, about those sweetly-crooning sirens in Odyssey. Read on! You’ve been warned.

* * * * *

Since Windows NT begot Windows 2000 and Windows 2000 begot Windows XP, I have dreamed of freedom from the operating system release cycle. I understood the “why” of the release cycle. Software developers couldn’t kick powerful new features out the door willy-nilly; they had to test, tune, package, test again, fuss over scripts to transition clueless hunt-and-peckers from superseded Platform A to latest-and-greatest Platform B.

The “what” rankled. I didn’t want to buy another box, another license, a new disc, another bloated manual. As Windows matured, I bitterly suspected Redmond of issuing new editions largely to extort license fee income from defenseless users.

Might there be an alternative? What if I could install an OS once, only once, and thereafter let the binary thing nurture itself online; consume patches and upgrades as needed; sip, feed and excrete without regularly demanding new licenses, boxes and disks from weary ol’ Tim? Did I dream idly? Might such an OS exist?

Not in the Windows world, and I saw no hope from Cupertino, either; MacOS users trudged from Lion to Yosemite to Sierra, as I had slogged from NT to XP to 7. Most free Linux “distros” also evolved via the release cycle model.

(Which should have told me plenty. A whole lot of plenty. I risk getting ahead of myself.)

But: the anarchic Linux world also offered a few tantalizing exceptions: “rolling release” distros. I read details of these hybrids, blinked, rubbed disbelieving eyes. My dream made real!

The user might install a “rolling release” distro once, only once. The OS could thereafter slurp limitlessly from an online fountain of youth, forever make itself fresh, current, up to date, whole. A rolling release is versionless.

Reddit contributors claimed that Arch Linux rollers installed in 2008 and 2010 still tickety-tocked smoothly in 2016. These did not limp along on patch-swaddled last legs, like an obsolete Windows install in the twilight of an extended support cycle. No: the 2008 Arch install had rejuvenated itself time and time again, could declare itself equal to an Arch install downloaded and configured this morning. It may continue to emit that new OS smell in 2025, 2030, beyond.

I studied, prowled Linux bulletin boards, identified rolling distros, compared. I could try Gentoo, which powers Nasdaq (or did in 2011), but glimpsed signs of a fading star. Arch is certainly the best known roller, but is notoriously opaque to newcomers, won’t install without mechanicking. Worse, for me: Arch seemed far more willing to frisbee bleeding edge software to users without adequate testing. Variants Antergos and Manjaro would be easier to use, but hadn’t been around that long, at least by my standards.

I turned to openSUSE Tumbleweed. A post by openSUSE chair Richard Brown averred that Tumbleweed tested far more thoroughly than Arch or Gentoo, thanks to the Open Build Service. I contemplated praise from Linux writers J.A. Watson and Swapnil Bhartiya, judged the praise as credible. No less a light than Linux Foundation fellow Greg Kroah-Hartman had conjured up the Tumbleweed model. How wrong could I go? And I felt like tinkering.

I bid adieu to the already-excellent Linux Mint distro, installed Tumbleweed in the summer of ’17, write with my verdict a year later.

Do I like it?

I do! Very much! I hunt and peck these very words on a computer directed by Tumbleweed.

Should I have adopted it in the first place?

Probably not. openSUSE, sure. The Tumbleweed rolling distro, well …

Do I recommend it to most other users? To Linux newcomers?

NO! NO! NO! NO!

NO! NO! NO! NO!

Only to enthusiasts. If you enjoy computer configuration and can cope with inevitable related bumps and scrapes, join me as I plunge into the gory details:

* * * * *

The Tumbleweed distro is issued in snapshots. Subscribers to the online open-suse factory mailing list receive automated messages declaring issuance of snapshot 20180626, or 20181030, or, if all goes well, 20850105. Each snapshot incorporates whatever whiz-bang software cleared testing after the release of the predecessor snapshot days earlier.

Users may see seven snapshots in a week, or three, or, rarely, none. It depends. One may ignore their issuance, compute merrily along with a snapshot from months before, but may not always compute safely; the fresh snapshots also tend to security concerns.

How does one upgrade a snapshot? As I write in mid 2018: via one occult command, and one command only, issued from the root user terminal prompt:

zypper dup

Will Tumbleweed harangue the new user to use this command, and this command only? No! Worse: the freshly-installed Tumbleweed OS is likely to include a cute icon in the system tray, brightly informing the clueless newbie that XX updates are available for download.

The newbie is supposed to ignore this cute icon. (And may finally be abetted in this ignoring by a long overdue distro change, according to a recent post on the support forum.) The icon would invoke changes afield of the sacroscant zypper dup, could monkey wrench Tumbleweed’s innards. He is just supposed to know that, as one knows how to squirm, lick lips, drool.

The user willing to overlook this idiosyncrasy shall greet an otherwise first rate, state-of-the-art Linux operating system. Eventually she shall want to invoke the almighty zypper dup, to see if anything has changed since installation.

Usually, something has. A lot of somethings. Rolling releases like Tumbleweed strive to offer the latest and greatest. If program author A tweaks two lines of code to issue version 0.97.6.7.5.3b of her pride and joy, superseding version 0.97.6.7.5.3a, you’re going to get it after it clears testing, whether you needed 0.97.6.7.5.3b or not.

I judged my old Linux Mint installation to be busy if it downloaded a half dozen patches in a day. A single zypper dup may announce availability of hundreds of new packages, editions, kernels, patches. If you’ve let the computer sit for a month, ‘hundreds’ may swell to ‘thousands.’

Everything new, current, up-to-date. I run the latest and greatest Linux kernel, or close to it; the latest and greatest browsers, email clients, office suites, utilities. I don’t download programs from hither and yon, as in my Windows days; my software is tested, verified, hails straight from the openSUSE repositories. I compute more safely.

Tumbleweed feels zippy, polished, expert, tight, more so than Linux Mint, far more so than Windows 7. The above-mentioned repositories host most everything I could hope to install while using any Linux distro. I have escaped the release cycle, as I dreamed, and have done so aboard one of Linux’s most professional, respected distros.

What’s not to like?

Two negatives, one trivial, one not trivial at all.

() Zypper dup can consume thirty minutes, even with an SSD.

And the potential deal breaker:

() On five occasions since my summer-of-2017 adoption of Tumbleweed, zypper dup either Chernobyled my computer or rendered some essential program inoperable.

Get that, please, grok it; put it in your pipe, smoke it. Innocent, unsuspecting moi ran zypper dup to update like a good Tumbleweeder, as a Windows user would update on Patch Tuesday, and found myself afterward with an unusable machine. Zypper dup had blackjacked my box, without warning, through no fault of my own.

(The culprit in two of the five Chernobyls was Tumbleweed’s temperamental relationship with the proprietary Nvidia graphics card driver, warned about in the J.A. Watson article. I could have swapped cards, or used the open-source driver. The other three blow-ups had nothing to do with Nvidia.)

So life goes with a rolling distro. Self-reliance is presumed, a frontier spirit. New point releases are fine tuned, fretted about, fussed over, presented on sparkling silver cloche platters. Additions to rolling distros are heaved brusquely over transoms. No one forced me to compute alongside the experts who run rollers. They can fix the occasional mess made by a Tumbleweed or Arch update. I’m supposed to be able to fix it, too.

So far, I have managed. An update that KOs my computer invariably KOs others. The experts gripe, on the mailing list and in the openSUSE forums; they troubleshoot, offer tips, solutions. I keep Clonezilla disk image back-ups of my Tumbleweed installation, can fall back on an older snapshot until the problem is fixed.

The bittersweet result: I may be free of the operating system release cycle, but have spent far more time fussing over my rolling distro than I ever would have fussed to upgrade from point release A to point release B. openSUSE impresses, but I probably should have (sigh …) adopted their point release distro Leap instead, or stood pat with Mint. (Although I’ll likely Tumble from here on in, now that I’ve hacked my way through the worst of the Tumbleweed learning curve.)

If also tempted by the Tumbleweed bleeding edge: Dost thou know how to make and restore a disk image, either via the fabulous free Clonezilla or a commercial equivalent? Canst thou partition a disk, and, perhaps, fix a broken boot loader? I’ll dare to name these skills as entry bars for Tumbleweed adoption, especially the first one. I figured out how to do this stuff, still judge my knowledge as barely adequate to drive Tumbleweed daily. (Although one can install the Tumbleweed ISO in a virtual machine, fiddle to one’s heart’s content.)

* * * * *

Mostly nerd-only notes:

() I’ve got lots of ram, installed Tumbleweed without swap in a single ext4 partition, immediately disabled Snapper. Clonezilla likes ext4, hasn’t played well with the default btrfs file format.

() I installed the Nvidia driver “the hard way,” was unimpressed by experiments with the Tumbleweed Nvidia repository and DKMS.

() Expect freely-given expert advice in the user forums, a strong openSUSE plus.

() Thank you, openSUSErs Simon Lees, Doug DeMaio, Jimmy Berry and unknown others, for graciously fielding my ignoramus questions at the annual conference this May in Prague.

() Amiable openSUSE chair Richard Brown told me at this conference that Greg Kroah-Hartman gets credit for that fat Weltschmerz of a distro name: Tumbleweed. Think about it. It doesn’t roll; it tumbles, like a rusty TV clattering off the back of a dump truck. What opinion does its own inventor hold of that which tumbles? Did he call it a TumbleDiamond, or a TumbleBlossom? Success despite pessimism!


Update, 4/2/2020

I remain a faithful user some twenty months after publishing this post, but will add a tip that would have saved me some grief:

If inexpert, consider favoring core software components that are widely used by other openSUSErs. You may successfully configure an exotic, but also may be stranded if the maintainers of that exotic lose interest and walk away from it.

Unfortunately, I can offer a personal example:

In Linux parlance, the terms desktop” or “desktop environment” refer to the software suite that dictate how the distro looks onscreen after boot-up. On installation, a Tumbleweeder may choose between (edit, 4/3/20) two three popular, tried-and-true offerings: KDE PlasmaGnome or Xfce.  But the tinkerer also can jigger settings to layer in something more unusual.

As I had done in 2017. I wanted to stick with Cinnamon, the standard desktop in my first distro, Mint. Cinnamon is a rare choice for Tumbleweed, but I figured out how to wedge it in, thanks to tips on the user forums.

While wedging, I did not pause to think that a desktop includes many software packages, that behind-the-scenes-experts had configured these packages, that these experts would have to remain on hand to tweak, update and reconfigure as both Tumbleweed and Cinnamon evolved, and that I might be stranded if they weren’t.

For a time, all was well. But then the key Cinnamon maintainer for Tumbleweed disappeared, and, like a boomerang kid, the related packages returned to the doorstep of a maintainer who had ceded Cinnamon duties years before. She sought a replacement; no one volunteered.

My maverick desktop choice has given me more grief during and since this disappearance than all other Tumbleweed issues combined. I have had to painstakingly lock down all Cinnamon files to successfully zypper dup, have restored Clonezilla’d partition copies after Cinnamon updates booted into looping desktop crashes. Other Cinnamon-in-Tumbleweed users have suffered similarly, but we are a minority, command little attention. We’re lucky that the packages are still tended to at all.

I finally bailed, and invested a chunk of my locked-indoors-for-the-coronavirus-quarantine weeks to configure my rig with KDE Plasma.(Which is at least the equal of Cinnamon, and which I should have chosen in the first place.) My bet is that this standard choice is too popular to be orphaned. Bugs will crop up, but they usually will affect too many users to be ignored.

“Tumbleweed appeals to Power Users, Software Developers and openSUSE Contributors,” says the blurb at the top of the download page. That’s not me. I pilot Tumbleweed like a tenderfoot rider astride a temperamental race horse. Others may master it; I’m often just trying to hold on. I’m likelier to hold on successfully if I aim for the middle and configure with the mainstream. The mainstream, other-than-Cinnamon Tumbleweed components have been remarkably reliable since this post went online in mid-2018.

I doubt I would have dealt with these Cinnamon issues with the stable Leap edition of openSUSE. That said, I was impressed by former openSUSE chair Richard Brown’s explanation of why he now uses rolling distros exclusively.

1 comment / Add your comment below

  1. KDE on Tumbleweed + Propreitary NVIDIA is a sure-fire to die. I had it on my main workstation at home and lo and behold – died as expected after a zypper dup. So dar I am good with XFCE on Tumbleweed on my main notebook. Lesser downloads per upgrade compared if I have installed either GNOME or KDE. Am loving it and am seriously keeping this installation as I leave for the Middle East on assignment. Cheers from Sunny Malaysia.

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