Linux Kernel Long-Term Support Cut
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Monday, 02 October 2023

News from the recent Open Source Summit Europe is that long term support for the Linux kernel is being reduced from 6 years to 2 years. How disruptive is this likely to be?

With Windows 11 demanding a serious investment in new hardware more and more computer users, developers included are turning to Linux as an alternative operating system.

Mostly they will be immune to this change as they will choose a Linux distribution such as Debian, Red Hat etc with the kernel, generally the most recent LTS version, included as standard. Among those who don't rely on a Linux distro, but instead use "raw" Linux, most will be keen to use the latest version of the kernel.  

The Linux kernel is updated on a regular basis, with new releases, including bug fixes, security patches, and new features.arriving approximately every 9-10 weeks. The Mainline tree is maintained by Linus Torvalds. According to The Linux Kernel Archives it's where all new features are introduced and where all the exciting new development happens.

There are another three flavors of active kernal releases:

  • Prepatch or "RC" kernels are mainline kernel pre-releases  mostly aimed at other kernel developers and Linux enthusiasts. They must be compiled from source and usually contain new features that must be tested before they can be put into a stable release. Prepatch kernels are maintained and released by Linus Torvalds.

  • Stable After each mainline kernel is released, it is considered "stable." Any bug fixes for a stable kernel are backported from the mainline tree and applied by a designated stable kernel maintainer. There are usually only a few bugfix kernel releases, released on as-needed basis, usually once a week, until next mainline kernel becomes available.

  • Longterm Several "longterm maintenance" kernel releases are provided for the purposes of backporting bugfixes for older kernel trees. Only important bugfixes are applied to such kernels and they don't usually see very frequent releases, especially for older trees.

Currently there are six versions as shown in this table:

Longterm release kernels 
VersionReleasedProjected EOL
6.1 2022-12-11 Dec, 2026
5.15 2021-10-31 Oct, 2026
5.10 2020-12-13 Dec, 2026
5.4 2019-11-24 Dec, 2025
4.19 2018-10-22 Dec, 2024
4.14 2017-11-12 Jan, 2024

 

The FAQ's on the Archives includes:

Why are some longterm versions supported longer than others?
The "projected EOL" dates are not set in stone. Each new longterm kernel usually starts with only a 2-year projected EOL that can be extended further if there is enough interest from the industry at large to help support it for a longer period of time.

Now it seems that future long term versions won't have the original EOL deadline extended. However, this could lead to some short term anomalies as Version 5.15 and 6.1 have 3 years left to run and it is unlikely that any change would be imposed retrospectively and so Version 5.15 might still be being maintained beyond the next LTS release.

According to the FAQs:

Longterm kernels are picked based on various factors major new features, popular commercial distribution needs, device manufacturer demand, maintainer workload and availability, etc. You can roughly estimate when the new longterm version will become available based on how much time has elapsed since the last longterm version was chosen.

The existing pattern for long-term releases would lead us to expect a new one in December 2023. We are already at Version 6.5 as the Stable release and there's a rumor that Version 7.1 could be the next LTS - although this conflicts with the information that:

"The major version number is incremented when the number after the dot starts looking "too big." There is literally no other reason."

Beyond 2026 the effect of the decision to reduce support from 6 years to 2 is that there should be no more than three LTS releases to maintain. The main reason suggested for this change is to reduce the burden on the maintainers. Given that the Archives lists Greg Kroah-Hartman and Sasha Levin as the only maintainers of all six of the LTS versions, it seems high time for the change to be introduced.

More Information

The Linux Kernel Archives

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