Why do computers reboot multiple times during an update?

Have you every updated your operating system and your computer rebooted multiple times during the process? Why does this happen? Why isn’t one reboot enough?

In general, if you have some running computer system that wants to upgrade itself, it’s easiest to download the new version, exit, and simply restart from scratch.

This is why you usually have to reboot for OS updates to take effect. On a different level, this is also why you usually have to reboot applications for their software updates to be applied.

The alternative to rebooting is hot swapping: the running program dynamically swapping itself out with the new one โ€” while staying running the entire time. This is harder than rebooting and requires the developer to actually write code to implement this. A reboot-based update generally does not require much code beyond downloading the artifact into the place it will be looked for the next time things start.

If you opt for dynamic swapping, you need to make sure that the update applies cleanly and absolutely in memory โ€” such that there are no lingering pieces of state from the old software lurking. You don’t want to be running half old software, half new software. (Or have old data in memory, half new data)

In general, this is not a problem if you reboot. Reboots start from a clean slate, so you can be sure that after reboot, you’re running with 100% the new software, 0% the old.1

These fundamental principles apply to any update on any kind of system: an application, its dependencies, an operating system (including core userspace libraries), or firmware running on a device.

So why would a computer reboot multiple times during an update?

It’s probably because it has updates A, B, and C to make, and they each require a reboot to take effect.

If there are blocking dependencies between then (C requires B first, which requires A first), there’s no way around doing a reboot after applying each.

If there are no dependencies, then it might be technically feasible to try to apply them all at the same time, and have them all apply together on the next reboot. But even so, such mass changes with multiple things updating all at once can be riskier. So it might still be safest to sacrifice update speed and update in a slower, more controlled manner, one update & reboot at a time.

For example:

  • There is a migration to a newer, fancier update server infrastructure
  • Using this new infra requires a newer version of a core library that is in use on the running old system
  • One last update is pushed to the old infrastructure which updates the core library. Reboot once.
  • Now the system can fetch a new update ZZ that’s sitting in the new infrastructure, using its new library support. Reboot again.
  • And then maybe the version ZZ of the software has some init code that downloads a firmware update for hardware component that ZZ needs to run. This update is incompatible with the previous version and is only applied once ZZ is confirmed to be present and working. Download the firmware update and reboot a third time.

One concrete technique I’m aware of that results in multiple boots is a disk image space optimization.

When building a disk image for a device, it’s common to include a data partition for user data which is separate from the system partition. In real use, the data partition will likely be very large, but when initially building a fresh image, the data partition will be all zeros. This is wasteful and makes the disk image occupy must more space than necessary, which slows down file transfers.

An optimization would be to build the disk image with a smaller data partition โ€” just as big as necessary to hold pre-existing files on the partition. Then on the first boot, resize the partition to occupy the full available space. An easy way to apply that change to the system is to then reboot.

* The exception is persistent state. If your system leaves persistent state on disk or elsewhere, you need to be careful that those artifacts are either compatible with the new system, or migrated.

More: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-a-computer-restart-several-times-during-a-Windows-update

Update, April 2024: Another reason: the update signing keys were updated. To perform this transition one update needs to be release that embeds the new public key, but is still signed with the old private key, then future releases can be made signed with the new private key.

  1. The exception is persistent state. If your system leaves persistent state on disk or elsewhere, you need to be careful that those artifacts are either compatible with the new system, or migrated.

Any thoughts?