[tex-live] Stable vs. Unstable/Testing Update Repositories?

C.M. Connelly cmc at math.hmc.edu
Wed Feb 24 01:12:51 CET 2010

"KB" == Karl Berry <karl at freefriends.org>

    KB> 1) People on deadlines shouldn't update.  

Of course not, but updating is a great way to procrastinate, plus
it gives you the warm glow of having all the latest and greatest
features.  Saying that people should use common sense doesn't
really help us, as all humans do dumb things sometimes, especially
when it's made easy for us.

    KB> The only combination of packages that is or can be tested
    KB> is the one that ships as the yearly release.  Personally,
    KB> I keep an installation of that on my machine, and never
    KB> update it.

That's a reasonable policy, but it's not the policy that's
suggested by the easy access to the updating features (which are
also used for installing additional packages) in the current TeX
Live.  If updating is something that only the most hardcore,
living-on-the-edge folks should be doing, it should be hard(er) to

With TeX Live 2008, there was no updater, so I installed the
current MacTeX on our Macs or the current TeX Live 2008 on the
servers.  If there was a major update (to MacTeX), I'd install
that on my machine and use it for a while before I'd consider
installing it anywhere else.

Near the end of 2009, tlmgr came out for TL 2008, and I installed
it and used it on my machine.  There weren't many updates, and I
(possibly wrongly) assumed that the updates were ``safe'' and

But TeX Live 2009 includes tlmgr as part of the base distribution,
and talks about it in the docs as if it's something ordinary
people should use.  MacTeX 2009 goes further by installing TeX
Live Utility.app right next to TeXShop.app along with a nice
document telling them how to use it.  Curious users are going to
try that app out to see what it does.

    KB> 2) There is no feasible way for anyone involved (authors,
    KB> CTAN, TL) to know what a given update breaks and what
    KB> doesn't.  So there's no feasible way to have branches (in
    KB> addition, it would be a huge amount of work and a huge
    KB> additional complication).

The same argument could be made about any of the Linux
distributions, which have thousands of potentially interacting
packages from hundreds of upstream developers.  Yet they manage by
implementing some system to handle the testing stage -- Debian has
sid (unstable) and testing in addition to the stable release;
Fedora has its releases as well as rawhide for development (and is
moving towards having a separate prerelease testing repository,
too).  Even better -- these distros typically have stable releases
that only get security updates or occasional feature updates.

The same options could be used for TeX Live.  There could be a
time-based progression, where new packages come in from CTAN and
are added to a bleeding-edge TL repo for people to play with, and
after some amount of time, those packages would qualify to be
moved into the main TL repo that's considered safe to update from.
New versions of a package reset the clock.  Adding some active
testing would make that system even safer, of course, but would
make things more complex.

An even easier (and arguably better) option is to simply have a
stable release repository, that only gets bugfixes or well-tested
feature changes, and a second development repository where the
newest stuff comes directly in from CTAN, and publicize the stable
repositories.  An added advantage here is that you can continue to
maintain that release for as long as you want, and even keep it
around for people who aren't ready to update to the next year's

    KB> 3) I don't know what the problem is with the new beamer
    KB> not making it to mirrors, or if that's really what's
    KB> happening.  The new package was posted in the tlnet
    KB> repository on Feb 19 (file size of beamer.tar.xz=94756).
    KB> I haven't checked the mirrors to see which don't have it.
    KB> In any event, I will attach the new file to this file.  It
    KB> differs only in comments from the patch that was posted
    KB> (thanks, Vladimir and Ulrike).  At least I hope so.

The beamer issue is just an example of the problems that can
happen when you're dumping brand-new untested code into a update
stream that's easily accessed by naive users.

I'm happy with the policy being ``updating is for elite TeX
hackers only; ordinary users should install the released version
and never update until next year's release'', but it would be nice
if the tools to subvert that policy weren't prominently included
with the distributions and used to provide other attractive

I'd be even happier if there was a stable repository for each TL
release that only had bugfixes added to it and could be used by
ordinary users without fear of breaking their systems.


  Claire Connelly                              cmc at math.hmc.edu
  System Administrator                           (909) 621-8754
  Department of Mathematics                 Harvey Mudd College
  For System News: http://www.math.hmc.edu/computing/news/
                   or http://twitter.com/hmcmathcomp/.

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