Why You Need to Keep Package Managers Updated

Package managers are a collection of software tools designed to automate a myriad of computing tasks. They can be incredibly useful, but if you don’t keep them updated, you could run into some serious issues.

Fortunately, updating most package managers like—updating npm packages—is a fairly straightforward process, though if you have many software dependencies, you may have to comb through your work manually or employ the help of an automated tool to ensure all your dependencies remain functional.

So why is it so important to keep your package managers updated?

Motivations for Updates

Generally, updates are issued for one of two reasons:

  • A new feature was added. Here, the motivation is a new feature that makes the package manager easier to use, or allows it to do more than it originally did. Depending on how you’re using your package manager, this may or may not be of interest to you. In a major release, many features may be deployed simultaneously. However, in a minor release, these features may emerge one at a time.
  • A bug was patched. More commonly, updates are issued in the form of patches to fix bugs or known issues. These flaws in the code may be related to performance, or security. The patch changes the code in a way that restores functionality, or eliminates the flaw.

Accordingly, you can update proactively to keep your package manager working as efficiently as possible. If you don’t update, you may be missing out on the latest features, or worse, you could be introducing security vulnerabilities into your system. If there’s a known security flaw in older versions of the software, a skilled hacker could gain access to your system until you patch it to the latest version.

Additionally, while documentation for past versions of package managers typically exists, most contemporary documentation and conversations around a package manager will focus on the most recent release. If you find the need to troubleshoot a problem, or if you encounter any issues with your use of the package manager, you’ll find it much harder to get the information you need if you’re on an older version. This is especially important if you’re using a package manager that’s open source, since open source software users depend on community support when resolving issues.

Because your package manager will be used in installing a number of other packages in the future, and those packages will have complex dependencies to deal with, any flaw or issue with your package manager could affect the rest of your work in the future.

Manual or Automatic?

One of the biggest decisions you’ll face is whether to rely on manual or automatic updates for your package manager.

Manual updates allow you to remain in control. You get to decide when and how to update your system, and you can review the patch notes (if any) before you apply them. This is especially important if your package manager has a history of unstable initial releases.

Alternatively, you could enable automatic updates. This is, in some ways, a superior option since you won’t have to make time to update your package manager manually. However, you’ll be entirely reliant on each new update being stable and appropriate for your system.

Considerations for Different Types of Package Managers

There are several types of package managers that exist, and you’ll need to keep some additional considerations in mind when updating them:

  • Universal package managers. Universal package managers, sometimes called binary repository managers, are used to optimize downloading and storage of packages, binary files, and artifacts used for software development. They’re frequently at the center of the DevOps toolchain, and are therefore vital to keep updated at all times. Fortunately, it’s easy to stay on top of new releases.
  • Free/open source package managers. Open source software and components are becoming more commonplace, and are enormously beneficial. However, open source components can be difficult to manage; for example, sometimes open source package managers are comprised of many individual open source components. Even small updates can have a ripple effect, impacting direct and indirect dependencies throughout the application.
  • Application-level package managers. Application-level package managers focus on one small part of the software system, and reside within a directory tree not controlled by a system-level package manager. These are often treated as add-on package managers, and can easily be neglected.

There are a few different ways to approach package manager updates, but no matter what, you’ll need to make those updates a priority. With the latest updates, your package manager will be more stable, more reliable, and perhaps most importantly, more secure. Whether you want to continue updating everything by hand or whether you employ automatic updates, you’ll be much better off staying vigilant.