Upgrading Ubuntu Linux is Risky

Hear me, Ubuntu-using brothers and sisters! Never use the on-line upgrade option to switch to a newer version of the operating system! In little more than two years, it has trashed my setup twice, once killing the machine outright, and the last time (yesterday) making it impossible to boot from the linux partition.

When the time comes to upgrade, copy all your files to somewhere else, re-format the linux partition and install the new Ubuntu version from scratch. Then copy all your stuff back onto the partition. There is no safe way to upgrade an existing installation.

A corollary of this is that you should either use an on-line e-mail service that stores your mail off-site, or local e-mail software that makes it really easy to export all your mail to another disk and then re-import it into the software after the upgrade (if any such e-mail software does in fact exist). In other words, do not run Mozilla Thunderbird like I did.

Comments

  1. #1 karthik
    November 14, 2009

    Ofcourse when I upgraded from 7.10 Gutsy to Hardy heron after 5 hours of online upgrade left my system useless :(

    Now Im with 9.10 with normal re-format thing

    Nice help to Ubuntu users Martin

  2. #2 Thomas
    November 14, 2009

    This is sad to hear. I run Debian (on which Ubuntu is based) and never reinstalled in 9 years. Still the same installation, upgraded over five major versions, without too much hassle. I wonder why Ubuntu messes this up.

  3. #3 Rhesa
    November 14, 2009

    Sorry to hear that. I’ve been upgrading in-place since Dapper without issues, on several machines. The only issues with 9.10 I have are that the darkbrown is too dark, and the that default bold font is too bold. Absolutely trivial concerns, in other words.

  4. #4 Bob Carlson
    November 14, 2009

    Not a user of Ubuntu but rather openSUSE. I see that openSUSE has a new procedure for upgrading versions over the web, but I think I’ll just opt for copying my home folder to my USB hard drive, wiping my disk, and copying the folder back as I did the last time. This process gave me no trouble whatsoever with my Thunderbird email, so I can’t understand why you had a problem.

  5. #5 Indian Art
    November 14, 2009

    Isolated incidents!

    Sorry to hear some guys have a problem upgrading.

    I believe the problems upgrading are the exception rather than the norm. For example, when I was upgrading from 8.10 to 9.04 via the update manager, I forgot to turn off the ‘Power Manager’.

    Even though the computer was suspended during the upgrade, I could successfully upgrade keeping all my files, favorites etc.

    All I can say is, I wish you have better luck next time.

  6. #6 MRW
    November 14, 2009

    Glad to hear it’s not just me. The one time I tried the upgrade route it f’d things up badly enough that I actually had trouble reformating.

  7. #7 Michael White
    November 14, 2009

    Even better, create a separate home partition so you don’t have to backup and restore your data – you only upgrade the system partition, and your documents and application configurations remain. Also, Thunderbird can be easily backed up by making a copy of the .mozilla-thunderbird directory in your home directory.

  8. #8 David
    November 14, 2009

    Did you actually lose any data? That has never happened to me.

    The upgrade route should be given more love though. It’s the natural way to bring an old work horse up to date.

    FWIW I’m mostly running Fedora, and upgrading by CD (booting from a CD and selecting the upgrade option) usually works quite fine, but sometimes it unearths some weird bugs.

    Debian seems to be one of the few distributions that can handle online upgrades ok. Then again the debian crowd are usually full-on nerds :)

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    November 14, 2009

    There is a better way. Your system should be on one partition, your “home drive” on another. Then, simply upgrade using a downloaded iso and everything will work fine. If it does not, you can reformat your system partition if you want to.

    I agree that the online “click here to upgrade your system” has been a problem, at least for me. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because we tend to add repositories that were not in the original upgrade or something.

    The one time I tried the upgrade route it f’d things up badly enough that I actually had trouble reformating.

    That is impossible to imagine. This must be something else going wrong. That’s like saying “I couldn’t get my car started and that caused the bus to be late.” I think.

  10. #10 Ceri
    November 14, 2009

    You’re not doing something right. When you say “linux partition,” are you dual booting? I’ve used the online upgrade for every upgrade since Dapper Drake on several machines and so has my girlfriend and we have never had a single issue. Smooth as silk every time. Never lost a byte or any sleep over it.

  11. #11 Pär
    November 14, 2009

    Buy a Mac.

    (I’ll get me coat)

  12. #12 Nomen Nescio
    November 14, 2009

    i’ve gone from 6.06 to 8.04, all online, with no trouble.

    then again, i’ve also online-upgraded a Fedora Core system from Fedora 2 through Fedora 9 (and currently planning/researching taking it to 12) without even having physical access to it. well, okay, that one did screw up a little bit, but just the once.

  13. #13 Lassi Hippeläinen
    November 14, 2009

    This may be a special case with 9.10. I’ve heard some bad rap about it. Even claims that it should be called a beta. I’ll wait a month to see what happens.

    Ubuntu usually upgrades fine, but you should do all intermediate steps, e.g. from 8.04 upgrade to 8.10 and 9.04 before going to 9.10. It’s probably easier to do a clean install, if you have skipped several releases.

    About making backups: it should be routine anyway, not just between upgrades. To back up the Thunderbird mail archive, just copy the folder to a USB stick. It’s in your home directory: .mozilla-thunderbird/*.default/Mail/Local Folders, where * is a mystery sequence you don’t have to worry about. (Hit ctrl-H in the file browser to see the hidden names that start with a period.) To restore, copy it back and restart Thunderbird.

    Once you are there, you could also copy your Firefox bookmarks. First export them (Bookmarks->manage->backup) and then copy to a safe place the file .mozilla/firefox/*.default/bookmarkbackups/bookmarks-yyyy-mm-dd.json.

  14. #14 haikala
    November 14, 2009

    Have also heard, that there are problems with 9.10 upgrade, but have to admit that the 4 machines I have done the upgrade to are behaving just fine and I encountered no setbacks. Did you file the bugs? (ubuntu-bug update-manager)

    It can be that the problem lies in the hardware conf you are using.

  15. #15 Matt
    November 14, 2009

    Funny, that doesn’t happen when I upgrade my Mac.

  16. #16 Ian Tindale
    November 14, 2009

    I do this all the time with no problems. Of course, there’s only the linux partition on the linux machine. On the proper computer, I use VirtualBox inside OS X to run ubuntu.

    The other day I even did something one is definitely not recommended to do: I did a total install of the new ubuntu 9.10 from a liveusbstick on top of the existing install without formatting the existing partitions (on which was an older 9.10 beta that I’d knackered the grub2 boot on – although that fault turned out to be something else in the end, hardware related). The install over the top of the existing one worked ok – I ended up with what appears to be a ‘fresh install’ but with my existing account and home and docs and stuff all still there. Just needed to reinstall all my apps (which admittedly were all probably still there from previously but not hooked up to menus).

  17. #17 Johannes
    November 14, 2009

    I, too, am sorry to hear that.

    I have been running Ubuntu on my laptop since the Breezy Badger (5.10) release. I always used the online update to upgrade to the next version. I never had any big problems. But I normally always waited up to a month before I upgraded to the new version. I guess that help the release to mature a bit.

  18. #18 Peter Lund
    November 14, 2009

    Yes, it does go wrong sometimes on some machines :(

    Greg Laden’s suggestion of having a separate partition for the home directories is a very good one that has served me well for almost a decade when upgrading/downgrading/sidegrading Linux distributions. If the online upgrade works, great, otherwise use a fresh install; your data will still be there.

    That said, the only problems I’ve had with the automated Ubuntu upgrade had to do with the X server (the graphics) where it didn’t quite know how to upgrade the X configuration file correctly and use the right drivers. Not a big problem for me (I know how to fix it) but a huge problem for most people.

    I also was dumb enough to use the alpha and beta versions of 9.10 so I suffered through a couple of months were things broke and unbroke seemingly at random at each upgrade until shortly before the final release where everything suddenly worked again. I’ll never make that mistake twice!

  19. #19 Martin R
    November 14, 2009

    Thanks everybody for suggestions on how to migrate my T-bird mail data. I’ll try it if it turns out that I can still access my home directory.

  20. #20 David
    November 14, 2009

    Mac people, we’re talking online upgrades here. As far as I know Apple doesn’t even give you that option.

    Updates, OTOH, are seldom any problems with Linux, so take that smugness elsewhere :)

  21. #21 Rorschach
    November 14, 2009

    Never had an issue upgrading.Did a reinstall this time around just because I had already done 4 or 5 upgrades on that system previously.
    It is advisable to have a separate partition for /home with all your bookmarks,files etc, that one does not get touched when you upgrade.

    Ubuntu 9.10 has had a few glitches, however I suspect the problem you experienced has more to do with your setup.

  22. #22 caerbannog
    November 14, 2009

    I’ve installed Karmic on several laptops (my personal machine and three work machines). Direct install on two, upgrade on two. Everything went (mostly) smoothly. Had a couple of small hiccups that were trivial for me to fix, but would have been near “showstopper” problems for someone new to Linux.

    One thing that I would like to see the Ubuntu installer to do is by default offer to set up *two* filesystem partitions (/ and /home). That way, a wipe-and-reinstall could be done easily without any loss of personal data/files. If an upgrade goes south (as it appears to do with folks in some cases), a “2nd-try” fresh reinstall won’t wipe out your personal stuff.

    Ubuntu’s 99 percent of the way there in terms of user-friendliness. But the remaining 1 percent will stymie non-computer-savvy folks. Nailing down that last one percent will require OEM participation. The easiest operating system to install and configure is one that has already been installed and configured for you.

  23. #23 Allan
    November 14, 2009

    I feel your pain. been there, did that.

    Get a decent, inexpensive drive, doesn’t have to be large, sata is fine if you have sata, eide, whatever works on your pc. install it, format it appropriately, cd to the new drive then “sudo cp -pr /home .” Read man cp first.

    Check the new drive, you should have a /home living there with all your files preserved. You can do this with a partition as well, I use a different drive because of past experience with drive failures.

    Set up your fstab to reflect the new /home directory. Read the man fstab page. my entry is:

    UUID=7e450277-d15e-4f02-a6ba-c08408e3146f /home ext3 relatime 0 2

    sudo mount that new directory. reboot to test your fstab entry. enjoy. Only problem I’ve had with ubuntu this way is getting that damn UUID number, google has the answer though.

  24. #24 Allan
    November 14, 2009

    oh, I have 4 drives on my pc at the moment, 1st is ubuntu, 2nd has winxp (so I can play wow mainly) the third has my /home and the 4th is for backup of my /home.

    and I have an external drive we use to back up all 3 computers in the house, mainly in case we have to get out of the way of a hurricane or something.

    Drives are cheap compared to the cost of lost pictures and email and stuff.

  25. #25 Allan
    November 14, 2009

    argh, forgot to add:

    if you have a custom xorg.conf or any other fancy setup, put that in your back-up as well.

  26. #26 I.E. Soderblom
    November 14, 2009

    Well, having UPGRADET (If it’s given as an option…, THE OPTION in Updatemanager, then it’s supposed to work !!!) 32 pc’s (5 different models), not ONE came up with a working installation !
    Oldest hardware is about 3 years old, newest hardware is a Samsung NC10, 6 months old…
    It’s ATI and Nvidia and different network adaptors, wired and wireless.
    Black screen of flickering death on some, no wired connection on others, no wireless and/or no 3G connetivity…
    Two machines wouldn’t install via USB.
    All in all, I’ve never seen it this bad from Ubuntu.
    And the timing sucks, with all the publicity thats being given to Ubuntu and with Windows 7 launching as a major succes.
    My advice:
    Stay with 9.04, and admit that 9.10 is a ME/Vista – produkt and then wait for 10.04.
    But wait until June 2010, just in case…

  27. #27 zoopster
    November 14, 2009

    Hogwash. I’ve been upgrading via dist-upgrade since 8.04 with NO problems on my Intel based Macbook Pro. Completely isolated incidents.

    I see this happen when users install software outside of the repository or do not upgrade prior to the dist-upgrade.

    Ubuntu as with Debian and other debian variants is the ONLY distribution that is upgradeable. NEVER try to upgrade a RPM based distribution…it will fail spectacularly.

    JP

  28. #28 trentreviso
    November 14, 2009

    I hear you, Dr. Rundkvist. I used the update manager tool to upgrade my Dell from Ubuntu 9.04 to 9.10, and it completely trashed my system.

    I can no longer boot the computer. I am going to have to reformat and reinstall, at which point I will probably go back to Ubuntu 9.04.

    This is my first and only experience with upgrading the version number from inside update manager, rather than doing a fresh installation from a disk.

    I will not try that again. The three “R”s of Windows (Reboot, Reformat, and Reinstall) have come to Ubuntu.

  29. #29 Claire Binkley
    November 14, 2009

    Interesting to read others with a similar story.

    I tried to install Ubuntu myself onto my Windows XP near the start of 2009 since I had been reading about how much better Ubuntu and the other Linux systems were than the Windows.

    Long story short, I’m now on a MacBook, which I now adore. About time I switched anyway, a number of my keys were missing from my having pulled them off to clean the crumbs off the inside and not being able to return the keys to their proper positions.

  30. #30 D Roque
    November 14, 2009

    I’m sorry that you are having issues with updating ubuntu 9.04 jaunty. I have been using Ubuntu since 6.10 Edgy and have not experienced problems in upgrades. However, I much prefer to do a fresh install myself. I do it without hassles. I download the ISO and burn it in a cd. Boot my computer using the cd and choose install. After 30 minutes, I have an upgraded system. I have my home directory in a separate partition.

  31. #31 Janne
    November 14, 2009

    I’m doing a fresh install of 9.10 as I write.

    Online upgrades mostly work BUT: the more you’re tweaked the system, the more likely it is that things will break. Especially if you’ve ever added drivers or other hardware-related stuff from outside the repositories, but also if you like to play with prereleases or “non-official” packages of things.

    Also, doing it once may be fine. But the more times you do it online the greater the risk that you end up with problems, as the amassed cruft from earlier versions keep piling up in dusty corners of your file system.

    And when you’re doing an upgrade rather than a reinstall you usually end up missing some of the new functionality. For instance, if you upgrade, your machine will stay with the ext3 filesystem, rather than ext4 (this may of course be a good thing). Some software will fall back to some kind of compatibility-mode or another when they detect the traces of an earlier version.

    So in my case I generally do a one-upgrade, one-reinstall cycle over a year. That way seems to mostly work out fine.

  32. #32 not_a_n00b
    November 14, 2009

    I’ve upgraded hundreds of times (sys admin) and have not *once* had a single problem. But then again I make sure to get rid of crap packages/sources users have installed from various veneral repositories and n00b compilations. I am willing to bet that many, if not, most upgrade failures are due to users breaking their own systems by installing corrupt or poorly packages binaries.

    I have far more problems with fresh installs (kernel bugs…sigh). Once you have ubuntu installed you should never have to wipe and reinstall (unless you want to change the bootloader of fs).

    And you gotta love the smug mactard chiming in. Dude, your mac can’t upgrade. You have to get a frigging disk. And besides macs use the dumbest fat binary package system ever created. Its guaranteed to crash and burn eventually. I’m always fixing macs by using the command line (ooooh scary) to find and delete corrupt binaries that get scattered around their systems and slow them to a crawl.

  33. #33 Deepesh
    November 15, 2009

    FUD?
    Updating an operating system is always risky. Backing up data is always a good thing.
    Thing about Ubuntu is that most of the times it would work as you expect. For those very few times, restoring your data is as easy as copy your home folder. Can’t say the same for some other OS I know (Which use something called registry to store magic configuration which is hard to backup and restore).

  34. #34 aussiebear
    November 15, 2009

    Martin R, just use a rolling release distro…Something like Arch Linux, Gentoo, or even Sidux.

    Point releases like Ubuntu are a pain in the butt. (I went from 8.04 LTS to 9.10…Lost Power Manager, Network Manager went nuts, etc…Not doing that again!)

    I switched to Arch Linux. Always with the latest and greatest of apps and components! :D

  35. #35 Dr. Falken
    November 15, 2009

    I have upgrade with the online update every time since 6.04. The only thing I have ever run into as an issue is having to wait on the packages to download. I have never had any major issue other than impatience. Sorry to hear you have had rough upgrades.

    I find it funny though that there are people in your comments saying to buy a Mac. Mac’s releases are more like our security updates, not actual OS upgrades. Not to mention running a Mac is like running an appliance, it will only let you do what its designers will allow you to do. I like a lot more control over my system then that, thanks.

  36. #36 a. c. censi
    November 15, 2009

    I usually upgrade for the next version during development, just after the kernel change that happens around the alpha stage. In one of my desktops (home one) I’ve been updating since first Ubuntu release, HW was changed, new motherboard, new disk, new CPU, AMD -> Intel, but the system remains the same. With Windows it is a reinstall or at least a repair.
    During this time, perhaps two or three times, I have the system available partially for a day or hours. For me this is a plus of the Debian way, inherited by Ubuntu.

  37. #37 Nitbuntu
    November 15, 2009

    I’m 90% of the time on Arch Linux, but I would only ever suggest it for those who’ve been using Linux based distros for at least a year or two. The rolling updates can mess up the network settings or graphics on the odd occasion. But thankfully its only ever been 2-3 times in the year (out of 100s of updates), and the community is very helpful.

  38. #38 Andrey Ivanov
    November 16, 2009

    I agree with the author. The last two times I tried to made upgrade (which takes almost half nigh) and both times I have to install operating system from scratch. Upgrade just put my computer in non working state.

  39. #39 MiCkbuntu
    November 16, 2009

    simple go here and follow the instructions for “upgrading using the alternative cd/dvd”

    or mount the iso and then run update manager making sure the “cdrom” upgrade option is checked. it will upgrade via your mounted “cdrom”

    works EVERYTIME for me

  40. #40 MiCkbuntu
    November 16, 2009

    ALSO it took a mere 14 mins from start to finished it upgrade via the .iso!!!

  41. #41 tor
    November 16, 2009

    I’ll second what several commenters already said about the wisdom of keeping your system and your data on different hard-disk partitions. It makes life with flaky Linux distros considerably less stressful.

  42. #42 Delan Azabani
    December 30, 2009

    I make simple backups of Ubuntu frequently, and I would do so before an online upgrade, which I think would work more often than not. Here’s a bunch of commands you can use.

    Backing up:
    sudo tar cvpf /path/to/backup.tar –exclude=/media –exclude=/mnt –exclude=/proc –exclude=/sys –exclude=/path/to/backup.tar /

    Restoring:
    cd /
    sudo mkdir media mnt proc sys
    sudo tar xvpf /path/to/backup.tar

    Restoring the boot loader:
    sudo grub
    grub> root (hd0,1)
    grub> setup (hd0)

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