Ubuntu's 'feisty' spin on virtualization

The Linux variant is taking a different tack on the multi-OS tech as it vies with offerings from Red Hat and Novell.

The Ubuntu version of Linux is getting more virtualization-friendly, but in a different way than its top rivals.

Canonical on Thursday is releasing Ubuntu 7.04, also known as Feisty Fawn, sporting two newer virtualization technologies. First is paravirt-ops, a layer that lets Linux get along better with the dominant virtualization software today, VMware. Second is KVM, which lets Linux run other operating systems as guests.

"Both have landed very nicely in this release," said Canonical Chief Executive Mark Shuttleworth. "That was a surprise to me."

Ubuntu's current approach contrasts with the approach of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server, both of which use the Xen software but not yet paravirt-ops.

VMware and KVM use an ordinary Ubuntu kernel, but Xen currently must use a separate kernel, Shuttleworth said. That makes Xen "difficult to experiment with. I hope in the next release, the Xen guys will step up," Shuttleworth said.

Ubuntu has risen to popularity alongside better established versions of Linux such as Red Hat, Suse Linux, Mandriva and Debian. Canonical began its Ubuntu push with an emphasis on desktop computers, the latest in a long line of contenders that have attracted only a small fraction of users away from dominant Microsoft. But Canonical hopes to profit from Ubuntu's use on servers, a proven area of interest for the open-source operating system.

"I'd be happy to fund Ubuntu on pure philanthropy. I've got to get rid of the loot anyway.
--Mark Shuttleworth
CEO, Canonical

Some versions of Ubuntu come with long-term, five-year support--the first and most recent being 6.04, called Dapper Drake. Feisty Fawn won't be such a version, Shuttleworth said, nor in all likelihood will its sequel. But another long-term support version is likely to emerge in April 2008, after two of Ubuntu's six-month release cycles go by, he said.

Last week, Shuttleworth christened the next version of Ubuntu as Gutsy Gibbon. Ubuntu has a six-month release cycle, so that version is due in October.

That version will have a new variant, an as-yet unnamed version for open-source and free software purists that's free of proprietary software such as video drivers, Shuttleworth said in a mailing list announcement about Gutsy Gibbon. The Gibbon variant will take an "ultra-orthodox view of licensing: no firmware, drivers, imagery, sounds, applications, or other content which do not include full source materials and come with full rights of modification, remixing and redistribution," Shuttleworth said.

With Feisty Fawn, Canonical and Ubuntu take a more relaxed view, if not to say an enthusiastic embrace, of proprietary software. It features new software to let people download and install proprietary software that they may use but that Ubuntu doesn't have the right to distribute, Shuttleworth said.

"We have to be very conservative in what we enable Ubuntu to do by default because of this patchwork of patents," he said.

As reported last week, Feisty Fawn also sports a debugging tool that reports crash results to developers. The tool is called Apport, Shuttleworth said.

Ubuntu comes with the GNOME user interface, and about two-thirds of Ubuntu users prefer it, Shuttleworth said. The other third gravitate toward Kubuntu, which uses the KDE interface, he said.

There's some benefit to competition, but in a perfect world, software developers and users wouldn't have to worry about the dueling interfaces, he said.

"It does seem we're losing some of the eyeballs and talent. If we had the one environment, we probably would have more features and fewer bugs," Shuttleworth said. "But we live in the world we live in."

One good sign, however, is that fancy 3D interface work that had split into two variants--the Compiz and Beryl software projects--have converged again into a single effort.

"Those two have reunited. That's great news," Shuttleworth said. "We had seen a lot of innovation in Beryl, but it's easier to deal with just one of them."

Profitability is still a future hope for Canonical, but Shuttleworth--who grew wealthy by selling his security firm, Thawte Consulting, to VeriSign for $575 million in 2000--isn't worried about the current financial state.

"I'd be happy to fund Ubuntu on pure philanthropy. I've got to get rid of the loot anyway," Shuttleworth said. "But I do think it's possible to turn this into a self-sustaining infrastructure."

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