Rolling Releases and Semantic Versioning - A Comparison

Torben Dury · July 21, 2023

Releasing software is hard. Building a process around the release of software can be helpful, but should happen thoughtfully.


Software development has evolved significantly over the years, giving rise to various release management strategies. Two prominent approaches are Rolling Releases and Semantic Versioning.

Each method has its distinct advantages and disadvantages, catering to different project requirements and development philosophies. This article aims to explore both concepts, highlighting their pros and cons, and presenting a comprehensive comparison between them.

Rolling Releases - A Summary

Rolling Releases is a software development and distribution strategy in which updates and improvements are continuously delivered to users. Unlike traditional release models, Rolling Releases do not have specific version numbers or fixed release dates. Instead, changes are implemented incrementally and made available to users as soon as they are ready.

Pros of Rolling Releases are:

  1. Continuous Integration: Rolling Releases ensure that users consistently receive the latest updates and improvements without having to wait for major version releases.
  2. Faster Bug Fixes: By continuously pushing updates, bug fixes can be swiftly delivered to users, enhancing software stability and user experience.
  3. Real-Time Features: Rolling Releases enable users to access new features as soon as they are implemented, facilitating a constant stream of innovation.
  4. User Feedback Integration: Frequent updates allow developers to gather real-time user feedback and implement changes accordingly, leading to a more responsive development process.
  5. Better opsec: Since users are always getting the newest possible version of the software artifact, they nearly always experience a boost in operational security.

Cons of Rolling Releases can be:

  1. Stability Concerns: Continuous updates may lead to potential instability, as new features and changes might not undergo extensive testing.

Problems with instability can be kept to an absolute minimum with unit and contract tests, integration tests and smoke tests.

  1. Compatibility Issues: Frequent updates can sometimes cause compatibility problems with third-party plugins or software integrations.

This is more of a neutral point from my perspective, as it also highlights issues that may be in the release speed and maintenance level of other integrations. These are to be investigated and minimized. Such problems can be mitigated by not explicitly forcing users to roll along, but giving them the flexible option to stay on a certain version until the fix.

  1. User Learning Curve: Users may struggle to keep up with the frequent changes and updates, resulting in a steeper learning curve.

This learning curve flattens out sharply with gained confidence about stability over the software artifact, and you are more likely to start applying the philosophies and techniques of Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery to other projects as well.

Semantic Versioning

Semantic Versioning (SemVer) is a versioning system that assigns specific version numbers to software releases based on the significance of the changes introduced. SemVer follows a structured format: MAJOR.MINOR.PATCH. Each element indicates the impact of the update on backward compatibility.

  • MAJOR version updates for incompatible API changes,
  • MINOR version updates for backward-compatible new features, and
  • PATCH version updates for backward-compatible bug fixes.

Pros of Semantic Versioning:

  1. Clear Communication: SemVer provides a standardized and transparent approach to versioning, enabling users to understand the extent of changes quickly.

This is more of a neutral point instead of a Pro for me - although SemVer is often though of as a silver bullet, you simply can not transport enough information by increasing a number. There’s a gist by Jeremy Ashkenas which perfectly sums up which problems SemVer does not solve - including that you can not quite really understand what a release provides you by reading the release number.

  1. Predictable Updates: The version number explicitly indicates the backward compatibility of an update, making it easier for users to anticipate the impact of applying the update.

This requires that developers and maintainers of a software artifact strictly adhere to SemVer and do not deviate from it. If a breaking change is accidentally (or knowingly, see npm packages) released as MINOR, it can be assumed that one will be facing very big problems.

  1. Dependency Management: Semantic Versioning simplifies dependency management for developers, ensuring that compatible software versions are used.

Cons of Semantic Versioning are:

  1. Feature Delay: In a SemVer system, new features may be delayed until the next MINOR version, leading to longer wait times for users to access new functionalities.
  2. Patch Overloading: More than often, MINOR and PATCH versions are overloaded with too many changes, making it harder to determine the significance of each update.

Contrasting Rolling Releases and Semantic Versioning

  1. Release Philosophy:
  • Rolling Releases focus on delivering continuous improvements, innovations and fixes to users as soon as they are available.
  • Semantic Versioning emphasizes providing structured and predictable updates, wanting users to understand the impact of each update before implementation.
  1. Frequency of Updates:
  • Rolling Releases offer a constant stream of updates, potentially leading to faster bug fixes and real-time feature access.
  • Semantic Versioning follows a more periodic release pattern, with updates grouped into meaningful MAJOR, MINOR, and PATCH versions.
  1. Stability and Compatibility:
  • Rolling Releases may exhibit more instability due to frequent changes, while Semantic Versioning promotes to provide more stability and backward compatibility.
  • Semantic Versioning per specification should reduce the likelihood of compatibility issues by strictly defining the implications of each version number.
  1. User Experience:
  • Rolling Releases provide users with the latest features and bug fixes in real-time, but may also cause a steeper learning curve.
  • Semantic Versioning offers a more predictable user experience, but users may need to wait for the next MINOR version to access new features.


Both Rolling Releases and Semantic Versioning offer very distinctive approaches to software development and release management.

Rolling Releases provide continuous updates and innovations, catering to users who value the latest features and bug fixes. On the other hand, Semantic Versioning tries to ensure a structured and predictable release cycle, prioritizing stability and backward compatibility.

The choice between these strategies will always depend on project requirements, development philosophy, and target audience.

Ultimately, developers must carefully weigh the pros and cons of both approaches to determine the most suitable release management strategy for their specific software projects.

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