After all, one thing I said about the Tribblix philosophy of keeping current is that Tribblix is essentially a rolling release, in that new versions of applications are continuously added. You can just update and you'll get the latest version of applications.
So, what defines an upgrade is that it's when the illumos components are updated. In fact, the only way to update any of the illumos packages is via an upgrade.
This is mostly for purely practical reasons. The way a package is updated is to remove it (using pkgrm underneath) and then install the new version (using pkgadd underneath). This is problematic in several ways: you don't want a system problem half way through to leave you with a critical package uninstalled; you can't operate at all with libc removed; and you want the system packages to be updated together as a coherent unit rather than individually. It might be possible to think of a horrendously complex system to solve these problems; it's much better just to do it another easier way.
As for implementation, the illumos packages live in their own software repo, and there's one illumos repo per release. No updates ever get applied to that repo, if there are updates a new repo gets created. The process of doing an upgrade is to clone the system to a new BE (boot environment), change that BE to point to the new repo, update all the packages in the new BE, then reboot into it.
In practice, the main Tribblix repo is also versioned per-release. Originally that was because it contains the zap package, which is where the repos are defined. However, it turns out that creating a new repo is an administrative convenience as well. The new repo at the point of a release contains the most up to date version of each package. (They're just hardlinks, so don't take any space.) This provides an easy way to claim back some space when I retire an old version of a repo, as you just delete the repo and any packages that aren't duplicated in other repos get deleted with it. It also means that an upgraded system cannot see old package versions, so you naturally prevent users getting out of date and incompatible versions.
Whether this approach is viable in the longer term is another matter. If there are stable releases that get "support" long term, then I'll have to keep old package versions and old repos for longer. But it's worked well so far.
By and large, once I've cut a new release, the older releases don't get updates. This isn't completely true, security updates (openssl, for example, and bind today) do get updated in the prior release, at least for a while. This means keeping an old machine around for the build (a simple VM is fine).