Saturday, December 9, 2023

Immutable Linux: what is an immutable system and what is it for?

One of the trends that is attracting the most attention if we talk about free operating systems and, especially, Linux, has to do with the immutable systems. The immutability of software. Such is the popularity of Immutable Linux distributions that Ubuntu, a benchmark in the sector, has announced that it will launch its own immutable version.

But what does a immutable system? Why is it becoming fashionable and what are its main advantages? Is it something that should concern us all or is it only intended for a few? Because it is one thing that immutable Linux systems are designed for servers and another is that home desktop versions also begin to offer the possibility of making a immutable installation.

What is an immutable Linux system?

In a single sentence. An immutable Linux system is a read-only system. That is, you cannot make changes to the operating system. Once installed, everything remains as it was. Yes indeed. As a user you can install applications, create and save documents, etc. But the Linux core components They are immutable. It’s more. There are distributions that, directly, delete the changes made after restarting the computer.

The philosophy of Linux and other free operating systems has been to have the absolute software control. For the average user it also has its advantages, such as being able install what you want and make certain changes, even with the help of a tutorial. And for advanced users, Linux has always been a software to which make any changes that you could do, in all its components.

But the philosophy behind a Immutable Linux change this. The purpose of making a system immutable is that the most important system files They don’t need changes. Maybe some security updates, but little else. So, to avoid problems, why allow the user to make changes? Hence that part of Linux be read-only. If you want to install apps, create files or edit them, for that there are already specific folders with read and write permissions.

What is an immutable system for?

The main argument in favor of an immutable Linux system is that gives more security. That is, if the basic components are read-only, nothing and no one will be able to change them. Neither a user nor a malicious program. Certainly, they already exist user policies and privileges that prevent anyone from installing a patch without permission or making tweaks to Linux that cause problems, but a bad permissions policy or a security hole they can be a problem.

Another added advantage is that an immutable Linux should be more stable. By not changing any of the parts that make this system work on your computer, its performance should be the same as the first day. Granted, you can continue installing applications, games, downloading files and creating your own content. But by not adding files to the most delicate part of Linuxthere is less risk of making changes that slow or hinder system performance.

The third great advantage of an immutable Linux is the ease of maintenance. Both to update it and to restore backup copies. Especially if we are talking about five or more teams to maintain. The main part of an immutable system is based on an image, a simple file. This makes things easier in case you have to upgrade one or more computers or if you need to make a backup copy of the rest of the files or the main system itself.

Endless OS is an immutable Linux focused on education

Advantages and disadvantages

As usual, everything has its advantages but also its disadvantages. An immutable Linux system can be more secure, easier to manage, and more stable. But it also has its weaknesses.

The main disadvantage has to do with the philosophy that has always prevailed in Linux: flexibility or freedom of access. An immutable system prevents the user from accessing certain files and parts of the system, which takes away some freedom. For most users it may not be a problem. But many, especially developers, will find this a drawback. Especially those who came to Linux dissatisfied with the immutability of Windows or macOS.

Another drawback has to do with the software compatibility. There are applications that need to make changes to system files that are prohibited in an immutable Linux. So those applications have to adapt to packaging systems like Flatpack or Snap that minimize that dependency. But not all applications have a dedicated package.

And finally, an immutable Linux ends up take up more disk space. Updates are carried out using complete images instead of downloading individual files. In the long run, this increases the occupied storage space. Temporarily and in the medium term.

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Immutable Linux distributions

Ubuntu has been the latest to announce its own version of immutable Linux, but the list is extensive. There are already known names and others that are new. But as always, the result is that you have where to choose and according to the needs you want to solve.

Vanilla OS is an immutable Linux that stands out for its careful interface

Why have they become fashionable?

The concept of immutable system is not new. In part, proprietary operating systems such as Windows or macOS already have an immutable part which the user cannot access unless it is based on tweaks and changes that require very advanced knowledge. But focusing on Linux, there have also been immutable distributions for years. specific uses.

The change has occurred in recent years with the presence of immutable Linux distributions not just niche but also for the home desk. The reason for immutable systems was to perform software development tests and all kinds of tests in a controlled, secure and quick to restore environment.

And in large part, one of the reasons why there are more and more immutable systems for home use is the growing popularity of cloud systems and, especially, of the software containers. These are solutions that optimize the use of network resources and simplify the management of servers and machines for professional use.

And although they are not very popular in the domestic sphere, sooner rather than later they will make an appearance. Some of the immutable Linux distributions are specialized in facilitate the use of containers. So you don’t need to hire an external server. You can use a dedicated computer that will require minimal maintenance and that you will have under your control.

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Do you need an immutable system on your PC?

Let something be available It doesn’t mean you have to have it.. And common sense is good advice in situations like this. Increase the number of immutable Linux distributions It does not mean that the classic distros are going to disappear. If something characterizes Linux, it is that there are distributions for all types of audiences. The question is, should you take the step to immutability?

The answer is that an immutable Linux is useful if you need a high level of security, beyond what a normal and ordinary Linux already offers by default. In reality, immutability is practical in testing environmentssoftware development or in special facilities such as cloud computing, embedded systems or servers used for run containers.

The introduction of immutable Linux distributions for home computers does not imply that you should use them if your purpose is to have a computer for personal use or for office work. The immutability of the system is going to give you little. And if you depend on install games, applications and update themyou will probably have more problems than in a standard Linux.

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