My plan to switch from Debian Unstable to Stable

Rolling release is not needed for all use cases

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I am currently running Debian Unstable (aka “Debian Sid”) on three machines. I think it is an excellent choice for anyone looking to use Debian while still deploying a rolling release Operating System. As my priorities are changing, I want to transition to the stable branch. With Debian Buster expected some time in mid-2019, here is my plan for enacting such change.

A bit of context first

I was an Arch Linux user prior to migrating to Debian some ~16 months ago. Debian’s unstable branch was the natural choice for making the switch as seamless as possible. I did not want to disrupt my setup. It was dependent on some of the features that were available in the newer package versions provided by Arch.

So here I am about 1.5 years later. Fully satisfied with the decision I made. Debian Sid has been excellent thus far.

That granted, I find the much-vaunted advantages of a rolling release distribution to be context-dependent. It matters what software you rely on and whether any new features are integral to your workflow.

Put simply, if you want to run a KDE Plasma or a GNOME desktop with all the new niceties, then rolling release or something closer to the bleeding edge is the way to go. If, however, you do not care about newer technologies like Wayland, and are running a custom working environment such as my BSPWM (see my dotfiles), then the maintenance overhead of a rolling distro outweighs the potential benefits of having the latest version of everything.

Most tools I rely on are CLI programs. These do not change much. For example, I use neomutt as my mail client. All the features I need are already available. If neomutt were to retain its feature set forever, I would still be happy with it. Same with newsboat, taskwarrior (executable is task), tmux… And the list goes on.

The plan for switching to Debian Buster

This is highly experimental. I am not an expert in Debian system administration. I do not recommend you try this. Especially not on mission critical systems.

Debian Buster (aka Debian 10) is expected a bit less than a year from now. This is the right moment to prepare for the transition from Unstable to the next Stable. It gives my systems enough time to gradually settle in the state of the current Debian Testing branch and keep track of it while it enters the feature freeze.

The plan hinges on APT and involves some basic pinning preferences. I want to run a mixed distribution that includes sources from both testing and unstable.

These are my apt sources:

# Security updates (stable)
deb stable/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src stable/updates main contrib non-free

# Debian Testing
deb testing main contrib non-free
deb-src testing main contrib non-free

# Debian Unstable
deb unstable main contrib non-free
deb-src unstable main contrib non-free

And here are the corresponding preferences:

Package: *
Pin: release a=testing
Pin-Priority: 500

Package: *
Pin: release a=unstable
Pin-Priority: 200

These instruct apt to keep track of packages from the testing branch and only look at unstable when requested packages are not available there. Given enough time, it will make my Debian Unstable systems indistinguishable from Debian Testing.

The inclusion of the debian-security sources is for those cases where a package has migrated directly from unstable to stable. Examples that come to mind are the latest firefox-esr and thunderbird.

When the feature freeze starts, I will effectively be running Debian Testing, which is the pre-release of the next stable distribution.

Then the idea is to follow the announcements about when Debian 10 will become available. A few days prior to its official release, I will edit my apt sources again to look like this:

deb stable main non-free contrib
deb-src stable main non-free contrib

deb stable/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src stable/updates main contrib non-free

# stable-updates, previously known as 'volatile'
deb stable-updates main contrib non-free
deb-src stable-updates main contrib non-free

Notice that I added a few more entries, which I adapted from the default options that are provided on a clean Debian 9 install. These are subject to change.

Once I have the new sources in place, I will remove the aforementioned pinning rules. I only want to track stable.

Learning by doing

Debian does not officially support any graceful move from Unstable to Stable. This is highly experimental. I have backups in place in case something goes awry.

The truth is I have had no issues whatsoever with Debian Sid. But that is partly due to my diligence with system administration. It takes time and dedication; resources that could be managed more efficiently. Given that my main tools do not need to be on the bleeding edge, such commitment offers a marginal benefit at best.

The afore-described venture would presumably fail miserably if I were running major software groups that update frequently, such as GNOME or KDE. All I now have on my systems apart from the core packages is BSPWM and related extras, my CLI tools, Firefox and Thunderbird, and Xfce as a backup Desktop Environment (before I had GNOME and MATE).

I expect the transition to the next Debian Stable to be smooth because I am not trying to rush things and downgrade packages in bulk. What is basically happening is a self imposed package freeze in anticipation of the official introduction of Debian 10. Some manual downgrades may still be required, but these should be limited in scope or at least easier to figure out.