Removing unmaintained packages from an installed system

Earlier this week, Miroslav Suchý proposed removing removing retired packages as part of Fedora upgrade (editor’s note: the proposal was withdrawn after community feedback). As it stands right now, if a package is removed in a subsequent release, it will stick around. For example, I have 34 packages on my work laptop from Fedora 28 (the version I first installed on it) through Fedora 31. The community has been discussing this, with no clear consensus.

I’m writing this post to explore my own thoughts. It represents my opinions as Ben Cotton: Fedora user and contributor, not as Ben Cotton: Fedora Program Manager.

What does it mean for a package to be “maintained”?

This question is the heart of the discussion. In theory, a maintained package means that there’s someone who can apply security and other bug fixes, update to new releases, etc. In practice, that’s not always the case. Anyone who has had a bug closed due to the end-of-life policy will attest to that.

The practical result is that as long as the package continues to compile, it may live on for a long time after the maintainer has given up on it. This doesn’t mean that it will get updates, it just means that no one has had a reason to remove it from the distribution.

On the other hand, the mere fact that a package has been dropped from the distribution doesn’t mean that something is wrong with it. If upstream hasn’t made any changes, the “unmaintained” version is just as functional as a maintained version would be.

What is the role of a Linux distribution?

Why do Linux distributions exist? After all, people could just download the software and build it themselves. That’s asking a lot of most people. Even those who have sufficient technical knowledge to compile all of the different packages in different languages with different quirks, few have the time or desire to do so.

So a distribution is, in part, a sharing of labor. By dividing the work, we reduce our own burden and democratize access.

A distribution is also a curated collection. It’s the set of software that the contributors say is worth using, configured in the “right way”. Sure there are a dozen or so web browsers in the Fedora repos, but that’s not the entirety of web browsers that exist. Just as an art museum may have several similar paintings, a distribution might have several similar packages. But they’re all there for a reason.

To remove or not to remove?

The question of whether to remove unmaintained packages then becomes a balance between the shared labor and the curation aspects of a distribution.

The shared labor perspective supports not removing packages. If the package is uninstalled at update, then someone who relies on that package now has to download and build it themselves. It may also cause user confusion if something that previously worked suddenly stops, or if a package that exists on an upgraded system can’t be installed on a new one.

On the other hand, the curation perspective supports removing the package. Although there’s no guarantee that a maintained package will get updates, there is a guarantee that an unmaintained package won’t. Removing obsolete packages at upgrade also means that the upgraded system more closely resembles a freshly-installed system.

There’s no right answer. Both options are reasonable extensions of fundamental purposes of a distribution. Both have obvious benefits and drawbacks.

Pick a side, Benjamin

If I have to pick a side, I’m inclined to side with the “remove the packages” argument. But we have to make sure we’re clearly communicating what is happening to the user. We should also offer an easy opt-out for users who want to say “I know what you’re trying to do here, but keep these packages anyway.”

2 thoughts on “Removing unmaintained packages from an installed system

  1. I think removing the packages would be a good idea, than to keep them, if they’re not actively maintained. It could result in bugs and security patches which are fixed in upstream and have not made it to the distro yet could cause some problems.

  2. I agree that it’s best to remove such packages. Systems that are upgraded rather than clean installed tend to become littered with debris from applications that were tried and later uninstalled, old cached data, unsupported applications, etc. Such debris not only wastes storage space, but can also pose an unnecessary security risk. My solution for myself and tiny group of users is to always do clean installs. We sometimes get surprised by an application that’s no longer in the distribution. However, I would rather deal with that than deal with the debris.

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