5 Reasons Why You Should Update Your Kernel Often [Linux]

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update kernel linuxIf you’re using a Linux distribution like Ubuntu or Fedora, you’re also using the Linux kernel, the core that actually makes your distribution a Linux distribution. Windows also has its own kernel that its operating systems use, but Linux is highly modular and therefore the kernel is more commonly discussed as a lot can be done with it. For example, you could take the kernel, patch it up with lots of fixes, tweak other settings, strip out everything you won’t need, and then replace your original kernel with your final product, and it will run just fine (assuming it was done right). Being able to simply replace a part with something else without issue is what makes Linux great.

But your distribution constantly asks you to update your kernel. Why should you do this when it’s been running just fine?

Security Fixes

update kernel linux
Virtually every single kernel update will have some sort of security fixes that close up holes that have been discovered. This is probably one of the most important reasons to update your kernel, as you’ll always be safer with a patched kernel. If a hacker manages to get into the kernel, a lot of damage can be done or the system simply crashes. Those are inconveniences that are easily avoided with up-to-date kernels.

Stability Improvements

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Not only do kernel updates bring with it security fixes, but it can fix other issues that could possibly make the system crash through regular use. Some people argue that constantly updating the kernel actually decreases the overall system stability because you’ll be running on a kernel that you’ve never used, so you cannot assume that it will work as well as the kernel you were previously running on. While this is also true, that margin is rather slim, and only people who run servers or other important systems really need to be cautious. For most normal consumer-type users, updating your kernel outweighs those issues by a lot.

Updated Drivers

update linux kernel
While those were the updates you get with minor kernel updates (say 3.2.0 to 3.2.1), let’s check out some improvements you can commonly see with major updates (think 3.2 to 3.3). First of all, every major kernel update is guaranteed to include the latest open source drivers for all of your devices. Out of all the drivers being updated, the graphics drivers are probably those that you’ll notice the most, as every refresh usually adds a bit more performance. While it’s always possible to go the proprietary route, knowing that the open source drivers keep getting better and better is good too.

New Kernel Functions

Occasionally, major updates to the kernel in Linux also brings some new functions. These functions are basically parts of the kernel that programs can use to do some sort of task or operation. Additionally, other functions may have also changed. You most likely won’t break your system if you don’t update your kernel for this exact reason, but sooner or later you’ll find programs and other packages that require a certain version of the kernel. It’s best to have the latest one so you know you won’t come across that issue.

Increased Speed

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Last but not least, many major updates to the kernel improve the overall speed of the system. While some changes can be very subtle, others aren’t and can make a big difference, such as the famed 200-line patch that increased the overall productivity of a Linux machine by quite a bit. There are even some crazier changes such as this, where Linux can run off of zero CPU cores. If you’re a speed demon (and I know many of you who use Google Chrome are), this is a good way to get a bit more juice out of your hardware.

Conclusion

In the end, it’s very worthwhile to update your kernel for Linux whenever you can. For consumer-type users, the benefits that come along with it far outweigh the risks. Additionally, each kernel that you update to will have been tested for at least a couple of days by developers and test users to ensure that it runs without a hitch. In case your system does have a problem with it, you should be able to choose a previous kernel from the boot menu so you can get back into your system. Then you can delete the offending kernel and make a choice of staying with your current kernel or waiting until a working update appears.

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Do you have your own policies for updating the Linux kernel? Do you think distributions should always use the absolute latest or should they lag a bit for stability reasons? Should there be major kernel updates during a release (like Fedora does, or used to do) or only minor updates (like Ubuntu does)? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credit: maistora, Human hand put last stone at the pyramid via Shutterstock, Forrestal_PL, Express Monorail

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Comments (20)
  • Igor Rizvi?

    I had to admit i didnt know that one .thanks

  • Pete

    Good article and I agree one should upgrade the Kernel but I have found that not all upgrades go without a hitch. So it is good to be able to revert back to an earlier version, as you can in Ubuntu. So Ubuntu’s option of minor updates are a good solution.

  • vignesh

    In my point of view ,we should update a kernel.because we are using server Os , so we must have a security, Because nowadays so many hackers are world.lot of data ‘s are corrupted.So many MNC firms are faith the linux Os.So we should update a kernel

    • Danny Stieben

      I think server admins always have to ask themselves the “stability vs. security” question whenever there’s a possible kernel update available. A lot of times, if the security issue being fixed isn’t severe enough, they’ll choose stability and not update.

  • jediafr

    @Danny Stieben.
    I may be the unluckiest man on the southern hemisphere, but i learnt my lesson.
    Once i installed Nvidia / Virtualbox , i lock down the kernel upgrades until the end of life of my distro…

    • jediafr

      Sorry for my shoddy “learnt”, i meant “learned”…

      One final word : At very few occasions i’ve ever felt compelled to upgrade the kernel (maybe when cgroups were all the rage…)…

  • jediafr

    Nice article that only describes positive effects… for the Negative effects, please try to update your kernel often and see how dkms bails out, drivers introduces regressions (intel anyone?), filesystems reacts strangely not to mention the infernal duo soundcard/PulseIdiot (TM).

    • Danny Stieben

      I actually haven’t had those problems yet. I also don’t change a whole lot on a system-wide level, so maybe that’s why I haven’t had those problems? I know servers should try to resist updating often, but usually desktops don’t have issues.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.