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Server enhancements, security top Ubuntu 7.10 release

With the release of Ubuntu 7.10 and its new features, ISVs and enterprise customers are finally taking notice and using the OS in significant server deployments.

The 7.10 release of Ubuntu, a freely available Linux distribution based on Debian, will include several new server features designed to advance the application's standing among enterprise users, said its founder on Tuesday.

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Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of the Ivory Coast-based Canonical Ltd., said that enhancements to Ubuntu's security and virtualization features will go a long way toward increasing the number of major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and independent software vendors (ISVs) that now pre-install Linux on servers. (For more, see the sidebar "Ubuntu's enterprise server adoption" below.) Ubuntu 7.10, formerly known as Gutsy Gibbon, will launch Oct. 18.

In May, Dell Inc. joined a handful of other OEMs that offer pre-installed Ubuntu on x86 commodity hardware. In May 2006, Sun Microsystems became the first major vendor to announce support for Ubuntu on its UltraSparc (or "Niagara") platform. Shuttleworth said the response from other OEMs – especially in international markets like Russia and China – has been similar, and he expects the uptick among medium and large enterprise customers to continue.

On the security front, 7.10 will now feature AppArmor, a security application that isolates processes on a server so that if they are threatened by an attack, the attacker is unable to access or compromise other parts of the server or system.

Although Ubuntu has long had a strong security reputation among industry experts and users -- it does not leave any port open by default, for example -- and regularly publishes all known vulnerabilities without a paid subscription, Shuttleworth said the development team wanted to go even further with AppArmor. Novell Inc. also includes AppArmor in its commercial Linux distribution,  SUSE Enterprise Linux Server, by default.

Ubuntu hopes to capitalize on the rising server consolidation and performance trend with enhanced support for ESX Server.

Conrad Knauer, an Ubuntu user and consultant based in Canada, said AppArmor is an interesting security feature to include in Ubuntu, but it won't reach its full potential until at least the next Ubuntu release, Hardy Huron.

"It seems that they're rolling [AppArmor] out in phases; the next version of Ubuntu, Hardy, will expand its use. Hardy will also be a Long Term Support (LTS) release, and so it should be especially refined and business-friendly," he said. LTS releases include five years of server support from Canonical.

Easing virtualization overhead
With virtualization, Ubuntu and Shuttleworth hope to capitalize on the rising server consolidation and performance trend with enhanced support for  VMware ESX Server, Xen paravirtualization and kernel-based virtual machines (KVMs).

"Some folks want to run Ubuntu as a guest in an existing Red Hat or SUSE infrastructure or on Windows. On the other hand [some] are choosing a platform to deploy on metal and then run[ning] other environments as guests," he said.

With 7.10, Shuttleworth said the development team focused on using the kernel to reduce overhead associated with running multiple Ubuntu-based virtual guests. Efforts have also been made to exploit upcoming advances in Linux paravirtualization. The upcoming 3.5 release of ESX Server is scheduled to include support for paravirtualized Linux.

Knauer views Canonical as paying more than just lip service to virtualization. "The packages in main [directory] are the ones to look at closely here, since Canonical will heavily support them. The site indicates that linux-image-server has been around for quite some time, but linux-image-virtual is new with [7.10, and it] looks like Shuttleworth is betting that server virtualization is going to be the next big thing since it's so flexible," Knauer said.

Canonical will also launch JeOS this month, which stands for Just Enough Operating System. With JeOS, Canonical has ripped out several software packages to streamline Ubuntu for use in virtual appliances, although some users are wary of its potential.

For more on Ubuntu's enterprise server adoption:
Since the release of Ubuntu 6.06, the OS has experience a "fantastic level of adoption," said Canonical Ltd. CEO Mark Shuttleworth. Three studies published since that time have reinforced Shuttleworth's claim that requests for Ubuntu on the server have increased.
Independent software vendors (ISVs), especially, have led the charge for more Ubuntu. For Alfresco Software Inc., a U.K.-based open source content management vendor, Ubuntu is the second most popular platform among customers. And for Zimbra Inc, an open source collaboration vendor based in San Mateo, Calif., Ubuntu is the second most popular platform as well.
Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC found in a recent survey that among medium-sized and large enterprises, 25% actively used Ubuntu in mission-critical and network-edge applications. --J.L.

Daniel Chalef, CEO of South African collaboration appliance firm KnowledgeTree, said JeoS is still in its infancy and that the stripped-down OS doesn't have as rich a tested-for-virtualization package library as alternatives like rPath Linux and the Conary package management system.

Down-and-dirty deployment
Rounding out Ubuntu 7.10 will be a set of standard system configurations for users that want a quick way to install Ubuntu and scale it for their server environments. These standards will include domain name server, Web application server and database profiles for users that wish to deploy at volume in an efficient manner, Shuttleworth said.

Knauer is optimistic about Ubuntu's chances in the enterprise. The OS's rapid six-month release cycle could help sway uncertain IT managers, he said, because they can simply skip a release they don't like and wait to see if the next one is better.

"[Ubuntu] is free and always will be, with no software audits, no byzantine licensing schemes, no [digital rights management]," he said. "In a [Linux] market that appears to be growing, that certainly sounds tempting for businesses, especially startups."

Email Jack Loftus, News Writer, with your questions and comments on Linux distributions.

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