I have been running Linux Mint for 8 weeks now and I’ve been delighted with it. My desktop PC is fast and responsive and I am hugely impressed by the sheer amount and quality of software available for Linux. Printing, scanning, wireless networking, audio, DVD writing and all my USB devices just work.

I don’t have a virus scanner consuming memory and chewing clock cycles. I am no longer considering a memory upgrade as Linux works fine with my paltry 512MB.

I have all my favourite applications available (Picasa, Chrome, FileZilla, Emacs). Linux is brilliant as a development platform and installing software is easy. The Mint desktop looks great and with the addition of Microsoft TrueType fonts, my display is razor sharp and crystal clear.

Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, my wife has also embraced the change. She now uses Thunderbird instead of Outlook Express, Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Word and Excel and Nautilus instead of Windows Explorer. All of this was fairly transparent and painless.

This fulsome praise all sounds like an advert for the wonders of freedom loving, a precursor for some open source software evangelism and a concerted attempt to convert the great unwashed to Linux. However, there is an elephant sitting in the room. Right there

  • in the corner.

The Ubuntu and Linux Mint (which is based on Ubuntu) distributions have a 6 month development cycle. This means that a new release will appear twice a year which is great because users know when the next major release is due. In addition, minor fixes, security patches and improvements are continually being pushed out via automatic updates. What is not so good is the actual process of upgrading to a major release which, in my opinion, is relatively complicated and risky for an inexperienced, new user.

To be fair, Linux Mint are upfront and honest and describe the upgrade process fully, the options available and the pros and cons of each approach.

‘There is no guarantee that it will work for you. In fact, this [dist upgrade] is quite a risky process. If you’re experienced and if you know how to troubleshoot and solve common Linux problems then you’re probably OK. If you’re a novice user we recommend you perform a fresh installation of Linux Mint 8 instead.’

David Marsden is an experienced Linux user and comments that he is comfortable performing Ubuntu upgrades, quickly and reliably without losing his data. He claims that Ubuntu upgrades are quicker and easier than applying a Windows Service Pack.

Of course, David’s absolutely right. Even I managed to upgrade to Linux Mint 8 at the first attempt without losing any of my user data and even managed to preserve the configuration settings for all my favourite applications. In fact, apart from the modified login screen and wallpaper, the four people who use the Linux computer would have struggled to notice the change, it was that transparent.

In fact, all I needed to do was:

  • When originally installing Linux, create dedicated, separate partitions for user home directories and data. I use ‘/home’ (user directories) and ‘/data’ (music, photos, documents).

  • Try to stick to the default Mint (and Ubuntu) software repositories.

  • Note down the additional applications and software packages you have installed.

  • Jot down user and group id’s (copy ‘/etc/passwd’ and ‘/etc/group’).

  • Backup the home and data file systems (twice). Check the numbers of files. Check the size of the directories. Check the checksums. Check the backups are readable. Check the hidden directories. Check the backup disk isn’t full. Check everything.

  • Burn the Install CD and install the ‘upgrade’.

  • Preserve the ‘/home’ and ‘/data’ file systems, leaving all existing data intact. You did remember to jot down that ‘/home’ is ‘/dev/sda6’ and ‘/data’ is ‘/dev/sda8’, didn’t you ?

  • Move ‘/home/user’ to ‘/home/user.backup’. Repeat for each user account. This ensures that Gnome and desktop related settings are re-created.

  • Re-create the necessary user accounts and ensure the user and group identifiers are the same as before.

  • Selectively, copy the various, ‘hidden’ dot directories for applications (Rythmbox, Picasa, Pidgin) back into the user directory to preserve the application settings.

  • Reconfigure wireless networking.

  • Reconfigure the printer.

  • Remove the irritating fortune cookie from ‘Terminal’ (Mint only).

Now I am fairly technical and understand most of this. I have no problem whatsoever doing all of this. David is correct - all of this is common sense, quick to do and the whole process takes less than 2 hours. I don’t even mind repeating this process every six months because, as David points out, I have a new, shiny operating system with new features, additional applications, bug fixes and improvements.

What I have a problem with is trying to explain this whole, convoluted process to my father. Or rather, rescuing his system after he has failed to follow this process. Remotely.

Of course, my father has a few options available. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it - if Mint Gloria works fine than stick rather than twist. Alternatively, he could use a distribution that automatically performs rolling upgrades so his software is always the latest and greatest.