Fedora, GNOME

Silverblue: pretty good family OS

I’m the go-to IT guy in the family, so my relatives rely on me when it comes to computers and software on them. In the past I also helped them with computers with Windows and macOS, but at some point I just gave up. I don’t know those systems well enough to effectively administer them and I don’t even have much interest in them. So I asked them to decide: you either use Linux which I know and can effectively help you with or ask someone else for help.

Long story short: I (mostly remotely) support quite a few Fedora (Linux of my choice) users in my family now. It’s a fairly easy task. Usually after I set up the machine I don’t hear from the user very often. Just once 6 months and a year typically when I visit them I upgrade the machine to the new release and check whether everything works. But Fedora upgrades became so easy and reliable that recently I usually just found out that they had already done it by themselves.

But there was still one recurring problem: even though they performed upgrades because it was probably a big enough thing to catch their attention they didn’t act on normal updates and I often found them with outdated applications such as Firefox.

I could set up automated DNF updates running in the background, but it’s really not the safest option. And that’s where Fedora Silverblue comes to rescue. Applications run as flatpaks which can be and in fact are by default updated automatically in the background. And it’s pretty safe because the updates are atomic and the app is not affected until you restart it.

The same goes for system updates. rpm-ostree can prepare the update in the background and the user switches to it once the computer is restarted.

So I thought: the user base of Silverblue typically consists of developers and power users used to the container-based workflow, but hey, it could actually be a pretty good system for the users I support in my family.

I got an opportunity to try it out some time ago. I visited my mom and decided to upgrade her laptop to Fedora 32. Everything would have gone well if my son hadn’t pulled the power cord out during the process. The laptop is old and has a dead battery, so it resulted in an immediate shutdown. And that’s never good during a system upgrade. Instead of manually fixing broken packages which is a lengthy process I decided to install Silverblue.

The fruits of it came a week later. My mom called me that she was experiencing some graphical glitches and hangs with Fedora 32. Probably some regression in drivers/mesa. It’s a T400s from 2009 and neither Intel nor anyone else does any thorough regression testing on such old models I suppose. On the standard Fedora Workstation my mom would have been screwed because there is no easy way back.

But it’s a different story on Silverblue. I just sent her one command over Telegram:

rpm-ostree rebase fedora/31/x86_64/silverblue

She copy-pasted it to Terminal, pressed Enter and 5 minutes later she was booting into Fedora 31.

And the best thing about it is not that it’s so easy to upgrade and rollback in Silverblue, but that the apps are not affected by that. I know that if I let my mom rollback to Fedora 31 she will find her applications there just like she left them in Fedora 32. The same versions, same settings…

P.S. my mom’s laptop is from 2009, but Fedora Workstation/Silverblue flies on it. Who would have thought that GNOME Shell animations could be smooth on an 11-year-old laptop. Kudos to everyone who helped to land all the performance optimizations in the last several releases!