Linux distributions are continually evolving, with developers releasing new versions and updates to enhance functionality, security, and user experience. However, there comes a point in the lifecycle of every Linux distribution where it is deemed "End-of-Life" (EOL). Understanding what EOL means, its associated risks, and how to navigate EOL scenarios is critical for any organization utilizing Linux-based systems.
What Does End-of-Life Mean?
In the context of software, end-of-life refers to the point where the software's developers or maintainers stop providing updates, patches, or any form of support for that particular version. This usually happens when a newer version has been released, and the developers shift their focus to the newer release, leaving the older version without further development or support. For Linux distribution vendors, supporting an outdated software version can be an unsustainable drain on resources. Consequently, vendors define end-of-life (EOL) dates, after which support, including security fixes, ceases. Every software eventually hits this EOL point.
Users still dependent on old releases face substantial risks. While functionality can cease, the significant risk is security. With no new patches, the system becomes increasingly vulnerable. Despite these risks, businesses often stick with an unsupported OS due to the cost or inconvenience of upgrading or switching.
For Linux distributions, reaching the EOL stage means there will be no more security updates, bug fixes, or feature improvements. The distribution still functions, but the lack of support exposes it to potential security risks and software incompatibility.
The Risks of Using End-of-Life Linux
Using an EOL Linux distribution poses several critical risks:
Perhaps the most significant risk is that the EOL distribution will no longer receive security patches. This leaves the system open to unpatched vulnerabilities, which hackers can exploit.
Regulations such as GDPR and HIPAA require businesses to ensure the security and privacy of their data. Running EOL software may lead to non-compliance, potentially resulting in hefty fines and reputational damage.
As technology evolves, new software versions often require up-to-date operating systems. Running an EOL distribution may prevent users from installing new software or updates to existing software.
Lack of Support
If you encounter a problem with your EOL Linux distribution, it can be difficult to find help or resources for troubleshooting, as most community and official support will focus on current versions.
Why Organizations Keep Using End-of-Life Linux Distributions
Despite the risks, some organizations continue using EOL Linux distributions. This happens for several reasons:
Some older applications may not be compatible with newer Linux distributions, leading organizations to continue using EOL distributions to keep these applications running.
Costs and Downtime
Transitioning to a new Linux distribution can be costly and time consuming. This process often involves reconfiguring systems, migrating data, and possible downtime, which businesses may want to avoid.
If staff are familiar with a specific Linux distribution, moving to a new version might require additional training, which can also be time consuming and expensive.
In a perfect world, every organization would migrate from their EOL systems to supported distributions with many years remaining in their security support lifecycles, but this isn’t always possible. For the reasons listed above, many organizations find themselves in unique situations where migrating isn’t an option in the short run.
Fortunately, they have options to continue using their EOL Linux distributions securely, which we’ll cover below.
Popular End-of-Life Distributions
Let's take a look at a few popular Linux distributions and their EOL policies and timelines.
Ubuntu releases a new Long Term Support (LTS) version every two years, with each LTS version receiving five years of updates and support. Once a version reaches its EOL, it doesn't receive any updates, including critical security patches. Fortunately, TuxCare provides extended support for Ubuntu 16.04 and Ubuntu 18.04 – providing additional years of security updates beyond the end-of-life date.
In December 2020, the CentOS project announced a shift in focus to CentOS Stream, leading to the premature EOL of CentOS 8 in December 2021. Previously, CentOS versions received up to 10 years of support. TuxCare offers extended end-of-life security support for CentOS 6, CentOS 7, and CentOS 8 – providing security coverage for up to four additional years past each version’s respective end-of-life date.
Oracle Linux also offers an extended lifecycle, with premier support for each release available for 10 years. Once a release reaches EOL, it enters Oracle's 'Extended Support' phase, which provides an additional three years of support for a fee. TuxCare also offers extended support at an affordable price for Oracle Linux 6.
How to Safely Use End-of-Life Linux
Ideally, organizations using an EOL Linux distribution should migrate to a supported distribution as soon as they can securely do so, but – as mentioned above – this is not always feasible in the short term.
Fortunately, some EOL operating systems have potential solutions to continue support so that companies can keep using them safely. One option is that vendors might offer an extended support option, a paid service that continues support and updates for an otherwise unsupported system, though it can be costly – particularly when it’s purchased from an original Linux distribution vendor.
Third-party providers may also offer extended support for operating systems. For instance, TuxCare provides Extended Lifecycle Support (ELS) for various Linux distributions, such as EOL versions of CentOS, Oracle Linux, and Ubuntu. This service covers comprehensive vulnerability patching, promptly addressing any new risks found in these end-of-life systems.
Moreover, TuxCare's support is more cost-effective than equivalent vendor support. For instance, our ELS for CentOS 6 costs significantly less than Red Hat's equivalent.
ELS provides companies the opportunity to upgrade or transition their dependent OS leisurely. It enables them to gather necessary resources, plan their migration carefully, or explore alternate solutions while ensuring security coverage for the EOL OS.
Check out TuxCare’s affordable Extended Lifecycle Support options for a variety of distros here.