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Canonical's new Ubuntu paves way for server push

Version 7.10, "Gutsy Gibbon," finally brings a flashy 3D interface to the desktop edition of Ubuntu. Meanwhile, Canonical is staffing up its server effort for 2008.

Canonical plans on Thursday to release "Gutsy Gibbon," the Ubuntu Linux version 7.10 that the company hopes will lay the foundation for a serious push into the server and other markets six months from now.

That's when Gutsy Gibbon's sequel, "Hardy Heron," is scheduled to arrive. Gutsy Gibbon will have the usual Ubuntu support life span--18 months--but Hardy Heron will be the company's second version to feature long-term support, which lasts three years for the desktop product and five years for the server.

Gutsy Gibbon

Some of the Gutsy Gibbon work involved introducing new features Canonical hopes to stabilize for Hardy Heron, said Canonical's chief executive and founder, Mark Shuttleworth. Take, for example, the "tickless" kernel, which is designed to reduce power consumption and improve server virtualization performance by letting the processor enter a somnolent state more often.

"I'm quite glad we're not trying to make the decision between tickless and long-term support. This is a fairly radical piece of surgery on the kernel," Shuttleworth said.

Among other Gutsy Gibbon developments are snazzy 3D graphics for the desktop version, desktop search called Tracker and the first incarnation of a Ubuntu Mobile version for portable gadgets.

Building a server team
At the same time, Canonical also is expanding support and development staff for the server push, which as with Linux leaders Red Hat and Novell is where the vast majority of money is made in the Linux business.

"The team has grown quite a bit. That's in preparation for our LTS (long-term support) release, which will be based on the April 2007 release," Shuttleworth said. To lead the server team, currently at about eight employees and counting, Canonical hired Rich Clark, whose financial services background gave him experience with high performance, reliability and virtualization.

The team also has begun working directly with server makers to ensure the software works on their x86-based machines--not just the ones available when Hardy Heron launches, but the new servers that will also arrive during the software's five-year lifespan.

"There will be a fair amount of hardware enablement after the release. That's not something that's been done in the past," Shuttleworth said. Although the work will stop short of full-on certification, Shuttleworth said, "We're confident we can do all the engineering required to make it just work."

Canonical has focused on desktop computing as a way to get programmers and enthusiasts interested in Ubuntu, hoping that ultimately will lead to use in the server market. Shuttleworth, who grew rich off his sales of Thawte Consulting to VeriSign for $575 million in 2000, is willing to be patient in the transition from Ubuntu popularity to Canonical profitability.

"The transformation we're trying to bring about will take years," he said. "What we're trying to achieve is very substantial shift in the operating system landscape. It's a huge, entrenched industry, where one shouldn't expect it to turn on its head."

Canonical has made some inroads, including a certification deal with online e-mail software maker Zimbra and a partnership to power Linux laptops from Dell.

Zeev Suraski and Andi Gutmans, co-founders of Zend, provide a useful view of Ubuntu's spread: their commercially supported open-source PHP software, which lets programmers at sites such as Facebook and Fiat create dynamic Web pages, is most often used on Linux. Debian is still used more often than Ubuntu, but the latter is used by programmers and is spreading, Suraski said.

Canonical is growing. It now has about 120 employees, of whom 70 are programmers.

New features
The new 3D desktop interface is the "most visible" new feature in Gutsy Gibbon. "It's also the most risky," Shuttleworth said, and deciding whether to include it triggered "a lot of debate at highest levels of the board."

Compiz software enables flashy 3D effects, such as this 'wobbly windows' plug-in. Compiz.org

But Canonical wanted to get it settled before releasing Hardy Heron with its long-term support requirements. "We think this really is a hotbed of innovation," Shuttleworth said. "Ultimately we took the decision to take the risk and enable this functionality by default."

One problem with the interface stems from its use of the OpenGL 3D graphics standard. That breaks other applications, such as computer-aided design software, that also use OpenGL. Those computer users will have to disable the interface, Shuttleworth said.

Advanced Micro Devices' decision to help Novell and others create an open-source driver for its ATI line of video cards helped push Ubuntu programmers to adopt the to 3D interface, Shuttleworth said. Currently, 3D acceleration typically requires proprietary video driver software, which is hard to support on Linux and distasteful to many.

Among other Gutsy Gibbon desktop features are plug-and-play function to more easily install proprietary or missing software to play audio and video files; easy support for multiple monitors; the ability to read and write from hard drive partitions using Microsoft Windows' NTFS file system using the Fuse software.

Ubuntu is based on Debian, a distribution of the Linux kernel and higher-level packages that's been around for years. Canonical releases new versions every six months, but versions with long-term support arrive only every two years under current plans.

Shuttleworth established it with a major difference over what leaders Red Hat and Novell have done: the free product and the supported product are the same. The rivals sell support subscriptions only to their for-fee version, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Suse Linux Enterprise Server.

Shuttleworth wants Ubuntu to grow as fast as possible, but he won't follow in Red Hat's footsteps by shifting to a fee-only supported version after gaining market share with a free product.

"I don't think we would survive a transition like that," Shuttleworth said. "The industry already effectively has got proprietary free-software providers. We wouldn't add anything."