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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Linux Version Numbering

Version numbering
The version number of the Linux kernel currently consists of four numbers, following a recent change in the long-standing policy of a three-number versioning scheme. For illustration, let it be assumed that the version number is composed thus: A.B.C[.D] (e.g. 2.2.1, 2.4.13 or
The A number denotes the kernel version. It is changed least frequently, and only when major changes in the code and the concept of the kernel occur. It has been changed twice in the history of the kernel: In 1994 (version 1.0) and in 1996 (version 2.0). The B number denotes the major revision of the kernel. Prior to the Linux 2.6.x series, even numbers indicate a stable release, i.e. one that is deemed fit for production use, such as 1.2, 2.4 or 2.6. Odd numbers have historically been development releases, such as 1.1 or 2.5. They were for testing new features and drivers until they became sufficiently stable to be included in a stable release. Starting with the Linux 2.6.x series, there is no significance to even or odd numbers, with new feature development going on in the same kernel series. Linus Torvalds has stated that this will be the model for the foreseeable future. The C number indicates the minor revision of the kernel. In the old three-number versioning scheme, this was changed when security patches, bugfixes, new features or drivers were implemented in the kernel. With the new policy, however, it is only changed when new drivers or features are introduced; minor fixes are handled by the D number. A D number first occurred when a grave error, which required immediate fixing, was encountered in 2.6.8's NFS code. However, there were not enough other changes to legitimize the release of a new minor revision (which would have been 2.6.9). So, was released, with the only change being the fix of that error. With 2.6.11, this was adopted as the new official versioning policy. Bug-fixes and security patches are now managed by the fourth number, whereas bigger changes are only implemented in minor revision changes (the C number). Also, sometimes after the version there will be some more letters such as 'rc1' or 'mm2'. The 'rc' refers to release candidate and indicates a non-official release. Other letters are usually (but not always) the initials of a person. This indicates a development branch of the kernel by that person. e.g. ck stands for Con Kolivas, ac stands for Alan Cox, whereas mm stands for Andrew Morton.
The development model for Linux 2.6 was a significant change from the development model for Linux 2.5. Previously there was a stable branch (2.4) where only relatively minor and safe changes were merged, and an unstable branch (2.5), where bigger changes and cleanups were allowed. This meant that users would always have a well-tested 2.4 version with the latest security and bug fixes to use, though they would have to wait for the features which went into the 2.5 branch. The 2.5 branch was then eventually declared stable and renamed to 2.6. But instead of opening an unstable 2.7 branch, the kernel developers elected to continue putting major changes into the 2.6 "stable" branch. This had the desirable effect of not having to maintain an old stable branch, making new features quickly available, and getting more testing of the latest code.
However, the new 2.6 development model also meant that there was no stable branch for people just wanting security and bug fixes, and not needing the latest features. Fixes were only put into the latest version, so if a user wanted a version with all known bugs fixed they would also get all the latest features, which had not been well tested, and risked breaking things which had previously worked. A partial fix for this was the previously mentioned fourth version number digit (y in 2.6.x.y), which are series of point releases created by the stable team (Greg Kroah-Hartman, Chris Wright, maybe others). The stable team only released updates for the most recent kernel however, so this did not solve the problem of the missing stable kernel series. Linux distribution vendors, such as Red Hat and Debian, maintain the kernels which ship with their releases, so a solution for some people is to just follow a vendor kernel.
As a response to the lack of a stable kernel tree where people could coordinate the collection of bugfixes, in December of 2005 Adrian Bunk announced that he would keep releasing 2.6.16.y kernels when the stable team moved on to 2.6.17 [2]. He also plans to include driver updates, making the maintenance of the 2.6.16 series very similar to the old rules for maintenance of a stable series such as 2.4 [3].
As of June 14th, 2007, the latest stable kernel version is