Feeds

Linux patch becomes terminal pain

Update malaise spreads

The essential guide to IT transformation

Many users of the increasingly popular Ubuntu Linux distribution found themselves thrown back to mid-1990s on Tuesday, when a botched update to the graphical X Window subsystem brought them face-to-face with the command-line terminal.

The update, pushed out to Ubuntu users Monday night, aimed to fix some hardware issues to the X Window software used by almost all Linux systems, but instead caused the graphical user interface (GUI) to fail to initialise, leaving users to deal with issuing text commands through the terminal.

By Thursday, more than 700 comments had been posted to the Ubuntu forums by affected users looking for answers, and the Linux project - managed by software and service firm Canonical - issued an apology.

"When we learned of the problem, the patch was immediately withdrawn," the group said in the mea culpa posted to its website. "Mirrors have also been disabled to ensure that the faulty patch isn't available from them. We have launched an investigation and formal quality process review to understand exactly how this happened and what corrective actions to take."

Instructions posted to the Ubuntu website allow affected users to roll back the problematic update with a few commands. The project withdrew the faulty patch early Tuesday, after about 17 hours.

"It was not clear how many people were affected," Matt Zimmerman, chief technology officer for Ubuntu, said in an interview with SecurityFocus. "The bug seems to be hardware specific."

Ironically, the incident occurred as Linux competitor Microsoft had update problems of its own. A cumulative patch to Internet Explorer published by the software giant over a week ago fixed eight vulnerabilities but introduced an exploitable security flaw into the web browser. On Thursday, Microsoft pushed out an upgrade patch that fixed the problem.

Earlier this year, Ubuntu fixed a security hole in its Linux distribution caused by the installer storing the user's main password without first encrypting the data.

Many users were willing to give a pass to the Ubuntu project, which has generally garnered rave reviews among Linux users, for the rare update issue.

"This fix worked perfectly for me," wrote a member of the Ubuntu forums identified as "Moephan." "I had no GUI for about five minutes total. Also, I didn't lose any data or anything...Stuff like this happens, even to big companies like Sun and Microsoft."

Others users criticised the project for missing the problem during quality control and predicted that the mistake would cost the project future users.

"Overall, this was an eight hour exercise, eight hours that I could afford to take out of my day, but how many others have that luxury?" wrote a forum member with the handle "Dale61". "I'm wondering how many others, particularly those in business, are still trying to find a solution to a problem that should never have happened in the first place."

Despite the distributed programming model of open source projects, catastrophic errors in patches are rare. The companies and groups behind most Linux distributions extensively test software updates, said Holger Dyroff, vice president of marketing for Novell's SUSE Linux group.

"What you try to do as a business - and this is true for Microsoft as well as the enterprise Linux distributions - you try to make sure that these issues don't happen," Dyroff said. "With thousands of customers out there - many paying for the product - it's important to invest in quality assurance."

As a project, Ubuntu checks any updates from internal and external sources and requires that a member of the team sign off on the changes. Ubuntu's Zimmerman remained hopeful that the incident would not cause users or administrators to delay patching their systems - or at least, delay any more than they already do.

"I think it is a common practice among administrators of large networks to wait before applying patches," he said. "Those administrators are very conservative and don't apply updates right away no matter who the vendor is."

The project is currently reviewing its quality checking procedures, and in the end, the incident will serve to make Ubuntu's update process better, Zimmerman said.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
The Return of BSOD: Does ANYONE trust Microsoft patches?
Sysadmins, you're either fighting fires or seen as incompetents now
Munich considers dumping Linux for ... GULP ... Windows!
Give a penguinista a hug, the Outlook's not good for open source's poster child
Intel's Raspberry Pi rival Galileo can now run Windows
Behold the Internet of Things. Wintel Things
Linux Foundation says many Linux admins and engineers are certifiable
Floats exam program to help IT employers lock up talent
Microsoft cries UNINSTALL in the wake of Blue Screens of Death™
Cache crash causes contained choloric calamity
Eat up Martha! Microsoft slings handwriting recog into OneNote on Android
Freehand input on non-Windows kit for the first time
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 10 endpoint backup mistakes
Avoid the ten endpoint backup mistakes to ensure that your critical corporate data is protected and end user productivity is improved.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.