This post is based on a whitepaper I wrote at the beginning of 2016 to be used
to help many different companies understand the Linux kernel release model and
encourage them to start taking the LTS stable updates more often. I then used
it as a basis of a presentation I gave at the
Linux Recipes conference in September 2017
which can be seen here.
recent craziness of Meltdown and Spectre
, I’ve seen lots of things written about how Linux is released and how
we handle handles security patches that are totally incorrect, so I
figured it is
time to dust off the text, update it in a few places, and publish this here for
everyone to benefit from.
I would like to thank the reviewers who helped shape the original whitepaper,
which has helped many companies understand that they need to stop
“cherry picking” random patches into their device kernels. Without their help,
this post would be a total mess. All problems and mistakes in here are, of
course, all mine. If you notice any, or have any questions about this, please
let me know.
This post describes how the Linux kernel development model works, what a long
term supported kernel is, how the kernel developers approach security bugs, and
why all systems that use Linux should be using all of the stable releases and
not attempting to pick and choose random patches.
Linux Kernel development model
The Linux kernel is the largest collaborative software project ever. In 2017,
over 4,300 different developers from over 530 different companies contributed
to the project. There were 5 different releases in 2017, with each release
containing between 12,000 and 14,500 different changes. On average, 8.5 changes
are accepted into the Linux kernel every hour, every hour of the day. A
non-scientific study (i.e. Greg’s mailbox) shows that each change needs to be
submitted 2-3 times before it is accepted into the kernel source tree due to
the rigorous review and testing process that all kernel changes are put
through, so the engineering effort happening is much larger than the 8 changes
At the end of 2017 the size of the Linux kernel was just over 61 thousand files
consisting of 25 million lines of code, build scripts, and documentation
(kernel release 4.14). The Linux kernel contains the code for all of the
different chip architectures and hardware drivers that it supports. Because of
this, an individual system only runs a fraction of the whole codebase. An
average laptop uses around 2 million lines of kernel code from 5 thousand files
to function properly, while the Pixel phone uses 3.2 million lines of kernel
code from 6 thousand files due to the increased complexity of a SoC.
Kernel release model
With the release of the 2.6 kernel in December of 2003, the kernel developer
community switched from the previous model of having a separate development and
stable kernel branch, and moved to a “stable only” branch model. A new release
happened every 2 to 3 months, and that release was declared “stable” and
recommended for all users to run. This change in development model was due to
the very long release cycle prior to the 2.6 kernel (almost 3 years), and the
struggle to maintain two different branches of the codebase at the same time.
The numbering of the kernel releases started out being 2.6.x, where x was an
incrementing number that changed on every release The value of the number has
no meaning, other than it is newer than the previous kernel release. In July
2011, Linus Torvalds changed the version number to 3.x after the 2.6.39 kernel
was released. This was done because the higher numbers were starting to cause
confusion among users, and because Greg Kroah-Hartman, the stable kernel
maintainer, was getting tired of the large numbers and bribed Linus with a
fine bottle of Japanese whisky.
The change to the 3.x numbering series did not mean anything other than a
change of the major release number, and this happened again in April 2015 with
the movement from the 3.19 release to the 4.0 release number. It is not
remembered if any whisky exchanged hands when this happened. At the current
kernel release rate, the number will change to 5.x sometime in 2018.
Stable kernel releases
The Linux kernel stable release model started in 2005, when the existing
development model of the kernel (a new release every 2-3 months) was determined
to not be meeting the needs of most users. Users wanted bugfixes that were made
during those 2-3 months, and the Linux distributions were getting tired of
trying to keep their kernels up to date without any feedback from the kernel
community. Trying to keep individual kernels secure and with the latest
bugfixes was a large and confusing effort by lots of different individuals.
Because of this, the stable kernel releases were started. These releases are
based directly on Linus’s releases, and are released every week or so,
depending on various external factors (time of year, available patches,
maintainer workload, etc.)
The numbering of the stable releases starts with the number of the kernel
release, and an additional number is added to the end of it.
For example, the 4.9 kernel is released by Linus, and then the stable kernel
releases based on this kernel are numbered 4.9.1, 4.9.2, 4.9.3, and so on. This
sequence is usually shortened with the number “4.9.y” when referring to a
stable kernel release tree. Each stable kernel release tree is maintained by a
single kernel developer, who is responsible for picking the needed patches for
the release, and doing the review/release process. Where these changes are
found is described below.
Stable kernels are maintained for as long as the current development cycle is
happening. After Linus releases a new kernel, the previous stable kernel
release tree is stopped and users must move to the newer released kernel.
Long-Term Stable kernels
After a year of this new stable release process, it was determined that many
different users of Linux wanted a kernel to be supported for longer than just a
few months. Because of this, the Long Term Supported (LTS) kernel release came
about. The first LTS kernel was 2.6.16, released in 2006. Since then, a new LTS
kernel has been picked once a year. That kernel will be maintained by the
kernel community for at least 2 years. See the next section for how a kernel is
chosen to be a LTS release.
Currently the LTS kernels are the 4.4.y, 4.9.y, and 4.14.y releases, and a new
kernel is released on average, once a week. Along with these three kernel
releases, a few older kernels are still being maintained by some kernel
developers at a slower release cycle due to the needs of some users and
Information about all long-term stable kernels, who is in charge of them, and
how long they will be maintained, can be found on the
kernel.org release page.
LTS kernel releases average 9-10 patches accepted per day, while the normal
stable kernel releases contain 10-15 patches per day. The number of patches
fluctuates per release given the current time of the corresponding development
kernel release, and other external variables. The older a LTS kernel is, the
less patches are applicable to it, because many recent bugfixes are not
relevant to older kernels. However, the older a kernel is, the harder it is to
backport the changes that are needed to be applied, due to the changes in the
codebase. So while there might be a lower number of overall patches being
applied, the effort involved in maintaining a LTS kernel is greater than
maintaining the normal stable kernel.
Choosing the LTS kernel
The method of picking which kernel the LTS release will be, and who will
maintain it, has changed over the years from an semi-random method, to
something that is hopefully more reliable.
Originally it was merely based on what kernel the stable maintainer’s employer
was using for their product (2.6.16.y and 2.6.27.y) in order to make the effort
of maintaining that kernel easier. Other distribution maintainers saw the
benefit of this model and got together and colluded to get their companies to
all release a product based on the same kernel version without realizing it
(2.6.32.y). After that was very successful, and allowed developers to share
work across companies, those companies decided to not do that anymore, so
future LTS kernels were picked on an individual distribution’s needs and
maintained by different developers (3.0.y, 3.2.y, 3.12.y, 3.16.y, and 3.18.y)
creating more work and confusion for everyone involved.
This ad-hoc method of catering to only specific Linux distributions was not
beneficial to the millions of devices that used Linux in an embedded system and
were not based on a traditional Linux distribution. Because of this, Greg
Kroah-Hartman decided that the choice of the LTS kernel needed to change to a
method in which companies can plan on using the LTS kernel in their products.
The rule became “one kernel will be picked each year, and will be maintained
for two years.” With that rule, the 3.4.y, 3.10.y, and 3.14.y kernels were
Due to a large number of different LTS kernels being released all in the same
year, causing lots of confusion for vendors and users, the rule of no new LTS
kernels being based on an individual distribution’s needs was created. This was
agreed upon at the annual Linux kernel summit and started with the 4.1.y LTS
During this process, the LTS kernel would only be announced after the release
happened, making it hard for companies to plan ahead of time what to use in
their new product, causing lots of guessing and misinformation to be spread
around. This was done on purpose as previously, when companies and kernel
developers knew ahead of time what the next LTS kernel was going to be, they
relaxed their normal stringent review process and allowed lots of untested code
to be merged (2.6.32.y). The fallout of that mess took many months to unwind
and stabilize the kernel to a proper level.
The kernel community discussed this issue at its annual meeting and decided to
mark the 4.4.y kernel as a LTS kernel release, much to the surprise of everyone
involved, with the goal that the next LTS kernel would be planned ahead of time
to be based on the last kernel release of 2016 in order to provide enough time
for companies to release products based on it in the next holiday season
(2017). This is how the 4.9.y and 4.14.y kernels were picked as the LTS kernel
This process seems to have worked out well, without many problems being
reported against the 4.9.y tree, despite it containing over 16,000 changes,
making it the largest kernel to ever be released.
Future LTS kernels should be planned based on this release cycle (the last
kernel of the year). This should allow SoC vendors to plan ahead on their
development cycle to not release new chipsets based on older, and soon to be
obsolete, LTS kernel versions.
Stable kernel patch rules
The rules for what can be added to a stable kernel release have remained almost
identical for the past 12 years. The full list of the rules for patches to be
accepted into a stable kernel release can be found in the
kernel file and are summarized here. A stable kernel change:
- must be obviously correct and tested.
- must not be bigger than 100 lines.
- must fix only one thing.
- must fix something that has been reported to be an issue.
- can be a new device id or quirk for hardware, but not add major new functionality
- must already be merged into Linus’s tree
The last rule, “a change must be in Linus’s tree”, prevents the kernel
community from losing fixes. The community never wants a fix to go into a
stable kernel release that is not already in Linus’s tree so that anyone who
upgrades should never see a regression. This prevents many problems that other
projects who maintain a stable and development branch can have.
The Linux kernel community has promised its userbase that no upgrade will ever
break anything that is currently working in a previous release. That promise
was made in 2007 at the annual Kernel developer summit in Cambridge, England,
and still holds true today. Regressions do happen, but those are the highest
priority bugs and are either quickly fixed, or the change that caused the
regression is quickly reverted from the Linux kernel tree.
This promise holds true for both the incremental stable kernel updates, as
well as the larger “major” updates that happen every three months.
The kernel community can only make this promise for the code that is merged
into the Linux kernel tree. Any code that is merged into a device’s kernel
that is not in the kernel.org releases is unknown and interactions with it can
never be planned for, or even considered. Devices based on Linux that have
large patchsets can have major issues when updating to newer kernels, because
of the huge number of changes between each release. SoC patchsets are
especially known to have issues with updating to newer kernels due to their
large size and heavy modification of architecture specific, and sometimes
core, kernel code.
Most SoC vendors do want to get their code merged upstream before their chips
are released, but the reality of project-planning cycles and ultimately the
business priorities of these companies prevent them from dedicating sufficient
resources to the task. This, combined with the historical difficulty of
pushing updates to embedded devices, results in almost all of them being stuck
on a specific kernel release for the entire lifespan of the device.
Because of the large out-of-tree patchsets, most SoC vendors are starting to
standardize on using the LTS releases for their devices. This allows devices
to receive bug and security updates directly from the Linux kernel community,
without having to rely on the SoC vendor’s backporting efforts, which
traditionally are very slow to respond to problems.
It is encouraging to see that the Android project has standardized on the LTS
kernels as a “minimum kernel version requirement”. Hopefully that will allow
the SoC vendors to continue to update their device kernels in order to provide
more secure devices for their users.
When doing kernel releases, the Linux kernel community almost never declares
specific changes as “security fixes”. This is due to the basic problem of the
difficulty in determining if a bugfix is a security fix or not at the time of
creation. Also, many bugfixes are only determined to be security related after
much time has passed, so to keep users from getting a false sense of security
by not taking patches, the kernel community strongly recommends always taking
all bugfixes that are released.
Linus summarized the reasoning behind this behavior in an email to the Linux Kernel
mailing list in 2008:
On Wed, 16 Jul 2008, email@example.com wrote:
> you should check out the last few -stable releases then and see how
> the announcement doesn't ever mention the word 'security' while fixing
> security bugs
Umm. What part of "they are just normal bugs" did you have issues with?
I expressly told you that security bugs should not be marked as such,
because bugs are bugs.
> in other words, it's all the more reason to have the commit say it's
> fixing a security issue.
> > I'm just saying that why mark things, when the marking have no meaning?
> > People who believe in them are just _wrong_.
> what is wrong in particular?
You have two cases:
- people think the marking is somehow trustworthy.
People are WRONG, and are misled by the partial markings, thinking that
unmarked bugfixes are "less important". They aren't.
- People don't think it matters
People are right, and the marking is pointless.
In either case it's just stupid to mark them. I don't want to do it,
because I don't want to perpetuate the myth of "security fixes" as a
separate thing from "plain regular bug fixes".
They're all fixes. They're all important. As are new features, for that
> when you know that you're about to commit a patch that fixes a security
> bug, why is it wrong to say so in the commit?
It's pointless and wrong because it makes people think that other bugs
aren't potential security fixes.
What was unclear about that?
This email can be found
is recommended reading for anyone who is curious about this topic.
When security problems are reported to the kernel community, they are fixed as
soon as possible and pushed out publicly to the development tree and the
stable releases. As described above, the changes are almost never described as
a “security fix”, but rather look like any other bugfix for the kernel. This is
done to allow affected parties the ability to update their systems before the
reporter of the problem announces it.
this method of development in the same email thread:
On Wed, 16 Jul 2008, firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
> we went through this and you yourself said that security bugs are *not*
> treated as normal bugs because you do omit relevant information from such
Actually, we disagree on one fundamental thing. We disagree on
that single word: "relevant".
I do not think it's helpful _or_ relevant to explicitly point out how to
tigger a bug. It's very helpful and relevant when we're trying to chase
the bug down, but once it is fixed, it becomes irrelevant.
You think that explicitly pointing something out as a security issue is
really important, so you think it's always "relevant". And I take mostly
the opposite view. I think pointing it out is actually likely to be
For example, the way I prefer to work is to have people send me and the
kernel list a patch for a fix, and then in the very next email send (in
private) an example exploit of the problem to the security mailing list
(and that one goes to the private security list just because we don't want
all the people at universities rushing in to test it). THAT is how things
Should I document the exploit in the commit message? Hell no. It's
private for a reason, even if it's real information. It was real
information for the developers to explain why a patch is needed, but once
explained, it shouldn't be spread around unnecessarily.
Full details of how security bugs can be reported to the kernel community in
order to get them resolved and fixed as soon as possible can be found in the
Because security bugs are not announced to the public by the kernel team, CVE
numbers for Linux kernel-related issues are usually released weeks, months, and
sometimes years after the fix was merged into the stable and development
branches, if at all.
Keeping a secure system
When deploying a device that uses Linux, it is strongly recommended that all
LTS kernel updates be taken by the manufacturer and pushed out to their users
after proper testing shows the update works well. As was described above, it is
not wise to try to pick and choose various patches from the LTS releases
- The releases have been reviewed by the kernel developers as a whole, not in
- It is hard, if not impossible, to determine which patches fix “security”
issues and which do not. Almost every LTS release contains at least one
known security fix, and many yet “unknown”.
- If testing shows a problem, the kernel developer community will react
quickly to resolve the issue. If you wait months or years to do an update,
the kernel developer community will not be able to even remember what the
updates were given the long delay.
- Changes to parts of the kernel that you do not build/run are fine and can
cause no problems to your system. To try to filter out only the changes you
run will cause a kernel tree that will be impossible to merge correctly
with future upstream releases.
Note, this author has audited many SoC kernel trees that attempt to
cherry-pick random patches from the upstream LTS releases. In every case,
severe security fixes have been ignored and not applied.
As proof of this, I demoed at the Kernel Recipes talk referenced above how
trivial it was to crash all of the latest flagship Android phones on the
market with a tiny userspace program. The fix for this issue was released 6
months prior in the LTS kernel that the devices were based on, however none of
the devices had upgraded or fixed their kernels for this problem. As of this
writing (5 months later) only two devices have fixed their kernel and are now
not vulnerable to that specific bug.