Ubuntu 14.04: Is Canonical Taking on Too Much?

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Some hits and some misses as Canonical tries to cover everything from the smartphone to the desktop to the cloud.

The recent release of Ubuntu 14.04 Long Term Support/LTS (Trusty Tahr) proves to us once again that it doesn’t matter if you’re Oracle, Microsoft, or Canonical: Bringing a fleet of products into new release revision synch is tough.

Canonical’s twice-a-year Ubuntu releases are boldly trying to cover the bases of cloud, server, desktop, smartphone/tablet, plus management and support and services add-ons specific to each platform.

In this release, Cloud and Server get much attention; Desktop not so much. And the Ubuntu smartphone/tablet bits aren’t reviewed here as there are no “production” versions in the wild. Cross-CPU family support between x86/x64 and ARM processors appears to be complete and level, although this is difficult to test.

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Teaserware

Canonical isn’t shy about including teaserware in its releases — not ready for production apps that attempt to give a lift to features Canonical supports in Ubuntu. In this round, the big one is Docker, and the great hope that LinuX Containers (LXC) might put a serious dent into Type 1 virtualization schemes. Like prior Canonical teaserware initiatives, this wasn’t ready for production at product release time, and even Docker.IO warned that it wasn’t ready for production. Magically, Docker went from 0.6 to 1.0 in one rapid leap, about the time Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7 (Red Hat is a major Docker supporter) went live.

The reality is that the new 14.04 Ubuntu cloud, server, and desktop editions are highly evolved and ready for work, albeit with only a handful of new features rewarding a download and install for mere casual observation. Roll-up features from 12.10-13.10 are included.

There may be more Ubuntu instances in public clouds than anywhere else, some living for a very short amount of time, others much longer, as is the nature of transience in public cloud offerings. Certainly in this release, the highest amount of attention Canonical has paid is visible in the Cloud and Server Editions.

The smartphone/tablet offering moves into the category of “looking for partners,” in an era when Google, Microsoft, and even Mozilla are breathing down Canonical’s neck. The names of partners for Ubuntu Cloud/Server is impressive. Smartphone/tablet partnerships seem to be lagging. And as before, Canonical has added “trialware” balloons to most editions.

Canonical faces very tough competition from its principal rival, Red Hat (and its burgeoning community), and the ever-stodgy SUSE—not to mention its desktop rivals, Microsoft and Apple. We believe, however, that promoting applications that are clearly non-production quality (Docker) is dangerous, even if they’re “revolutionary”.

Cloud v. Server

If you blinked a few times, you wouldn’t see much change in the 13.10 to 14.04 server releases, as most items are software updates to existing packages — but as a group they receive Long Term Support. These deploy using the Metal-as-a-Service (MAAS) app we’ve described in prior Ubuntu Server edition reviews.

There are some additional components that now allow somewhat incredible scale-out potential for Ubuntu server instances, like those seen in the public cloud at Amazon Web Services, Joyent, Rackspace, and others that employ OpenStack.

Ubuntu net results

There are updates to several key packages. Ubuntu 14.04 supports via LTS, Apache Tomcat v7, Postgresql v9.3, Qemu 2.0, Libvirt v1.2, LXC v1, and MySQL v5.5. Open vSwitch 2.0 is also available as a virtual switch, but has also been available for platforms like Xen, VirtualBox, and KVM. Its inclusion is largely poised towards cloud support in this edition.

The Linux 3.13 kernel update most notably has a change in Linux firewall security, as the old-in-the-tooth iptables firewall has been updated to nftables, a firewalling methodology that’s backward-compatible with iptables via translation utilities.

The translation utilities allow updates via translation tools so that the new firewalling can be scripted, although we sense that admins needn’t fear it-- all pretty simple to manage, we found. Nftables creates a virtualized kernel space where packets can be inspected in ways that permit more fine-tuned acceptance/rejection criteria. The kernel also has updated memory handling, and better multi-core CPU handling.

The Cloud versions of 14.04 are based on “certified” images that are ready to host internally, or port to specific cloud vendors. OpenStack is the preferred provisioning methodology, and Canonical has updated their Juju bus-communications apps with Juju charms that allow tailored deployments with rapid deployment, teardown, configuration, and management components. Here, the role of Juju charms has expanded, and can also be used with private clouds using the Eucalyptus framework.

Canonical supplies a cloud image and Juju charms that enable the OpenStack 2014.1 “Icehouse” release, one that includes more framework/stack elements for rapid deployment and control of spawned instances of Ubuntu Server 14.04. Canonical’s optional Landscape management service is available, too.

We used and deployed Cloud Edition (AWS), bare metal and virtualized Server Edition, and virtualized instances of both editions (which aren’t very different from each other) successfully and without drama.

Performance is difficult to measure, although the Linux 3.13 kernel has been specifically designed to remove performance roadblocks and manage memory better. There are no comprehensive or empirical methods to quantitatively measure performance, because there are so many possible instance deployment profiles.

The aforementioned Docker app manages an emerging application construction: LXC containers. Already long popular via Davlik in the Android app world (and conceptualized by Sun), the methods used by Docker forms a framework that manages application container resource, content, and network isolation for applications. It’s more than just sandboxing.

In theory, applications then become objects and are portable in and among hosting platforms. In this case, the hosting platform is Ubuntu Server. It’s high-level CLI implementation makes execution of apps compiled to use Docker as easy as: docker run (myapplication) to execute the container atomization process.

Ubuntu 14.04 Cloud images are available for trial, rent, or other agreement on public clouds including Microsoft’s Azure, Rackspace, Amazon Web Services, Joyent, the HP Cloud, IBM’s “Smart Cloud” and others.

Overall, Cloud and Server Trusty Tahr editions have been designed with LTS in mind, and claims of support for OpenStack for the full five years. We believe them.

Desktop Client

Most of the Ubuntu 14.04 desktop changes are under the hood, and little has changed with the Unity UI. Canonical released Ubuntu Desktop 14.04 without the graphics stack they’ve been hoping to employ, Mir.

This means that cross-device graphics are still currently in modest revision sync, and also means that if Ubuntu’s usual LTS schedule holds, a five-year supported Mir won’t emerge for perhaps two years, which is forever at the pace set by competition.

Graphics stacks weren’t built in a day, and achieving the lofty goals of Mir—retiring an X-windows framework that goes back to the near-Dark Ages of computing (the greybeards will remember Motif and SmallTalk) isn’t easy.

A lack of a finished Mir means that the next version of the Mir Ubuntu Unity user interface also lags, and so what we said about Ubuntu 13.10 still holds, with the same LTS implications.

And while this is the first LTS using the Dash search experience that we noted in Ubuntu 13.10, users won’t have to worry about buying and storing media in the Ubuntu One Cloud. Canonical has announced it’ll be closed at the end of May, with content evaporated into the ether by the end of July, ostensibly a victim of economics.

The Dash (dashboard) search functionality can still be switched off, to the cheers of organizational admins watching their traffic go berserk. Like the prior versions going to 12.04 LTS, Canonical makes itself the parser for search queries, and as prior editions, one can turn this NSA-like privacy abomination off.

Unity, however, has UI and windowing behavioral changes that we found odd, if consistent. There is a default Global windowing policy that spawns child windows that are subsidiary windows of the parent, but the child windows don’t behave like the parent.

We found we could turn this behavior off just before we opened a window and threw the notebook through it. Foreground and background behavior cause a busy UI, and we feel that especially new users may have difficulty with the changes.

Underneath various Web apps is Ubuntu’s own browser, one that’s comparatively immature compared to Chromium or Firefox, whose engines were the tugboat under web apps in prior releases. We were able to bog it, especially under the load of heavy scrolled graphics pages. Firefox, Chrome, or other browsers are otherwise easily installed. We wonder if it’s part of Mir that this change has been made, or if Canonical is eschewing perceived competition in this choice.

Away from our privacy criticisms—which also impact network traffic—the Desktop edition is good and needs only browser behavior maturation or change-out. No one seems to borrow Unity for their use on the desktop, but the underpinnings of the desktop edition are used quite successfully for other desktop-focused distributions, like LinuxMint, and have remained otherwise solid in this Desktop release.

Overall

Canonical champions new components, but also wrestles with industrial elephants in their quest to add value and adoption desirability. This has allowed them to achieve status as the most popular plug cloud instance in the world. It has also hamstrung development in what was once its most crucial success — small systems/client devices.

Canonical is stressed in this release, although Ubuntu is solid in many respects, and has little to apologize for --- with the possible exception of the demise of its Ubuntu One services in a way that only Google usually gets “away with”. The Cloud and Server editions are polished, if with the recommendation of trialware that distracts from a highly optimized and popular distribution of Linux.

Henderson is principal researcher for ExtremeLabs, of Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at kitchen-sink@extremelabs.com.

How We Tested

We tested Ubuntu 14.04 editions in our lab and network operations center network at Expedient/nFrame on Lenovo Thinkserver RD430 and a Lenovo Thinkpad T530, HP DL-360 Gen8, and in virtual machines (VMware 5.5, Hyper-V3, Parallels for Mac V7, VirtualBox 2.4, XenServer 6.2. In turn, these hosts were connected via Gigabit Ethernet and/or 10GB to our core backbone, and then to our SAN.

We tested multi-CPU support, apps installed, and UI behavior. We also installed Docker and LXC on Ubuntu Server 14.04.

We also found the OpenSSL version recently cited as the vulnerable edition with the Heartbleed bug, but after testing, determined that it was compiled with a switch that rendered the bug inoperable, although there is no reasonable annotation that cites this — we had to compile it ourselves and bitwise diff/compare the editions and test them to prove the fix.

This story, "Ubuntu 14.04: Is Canonical Taking on Too Much?" was originally published by NetworkWorld .

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