Ubuntu 9.04, the Jaunty Jackalope, Sports Modest Software Improvements But Big Plans
Canonical's Ubuntu 9.04 hit the world's FTP mirrors on April 23, bearing a modest collection of software updates and enhancements and an ambitious road map for expanding the popular Linux-based operating system's reach.
The new release, which is also known as Jaunty Jackalope, contains a technology preview edition of Eucalyptus, an open-source project out of UC Santa Barbara aimed at enabling organizations to build their own in-house Amazon EC2-style compute clouds. At the same time, Ubuntu 9.04 is available in a separate remix version for running on netbook-class portable computers.
The Ubuntu 9.04 software updates revolve around the distribution's default GNOME desktop environment, now at Version 2.26. The latest GNOME revision brings with it support for Microsoft's MAPI Exchange messaging protocol. Ubuntu 9.04 also includes Version 3.0 of the OpenOffice.org productivity suite.
At its core, Ubuntu Jaunty includes Version 2.6.28 of the Linux kernel, the release in which Ext4-the successor to Linux's most common file system, Ext3-was deemed stable enough for broader use. Jaunty offers support for the Ext4 file system as an option, but sticks with Ext3 by default.
Delivering the latest in what the open-source software world has to offer, Ubuntu 9.04 can serve very well in both desktop and server roles. However, the distribution's fast-moving nature-the last Ubuntu version came out only six months ago, and the next version will arrive six months from now-means that Jaunty requires more administrative attention than do slower-moving distributions. For those who'd prefer to skate further from the edge, Ubuntu 8.04 (the distribution's current Long Term Support release) or CentOS 5.3 would be a better fit.
A Jaunty Desktop
For the past few years now, I've singled out Ubuntu as the best overall desktop Linux option, in large part due to its large catalog of ready-to-install applications and its excellent online resources for locating support information. Version 9.04 remains a very good choice for desktop deployments, but in certain circumstances, Jaunty's software enhancements come with some drawbacks.
For example, Ubuntu 9.04 includes Version 1.6 of the X.Org graphics server, which improves performance for some graphics adapters while breaking compatibility with AMD's proprietary drivers (and thereby disabling hardware-accelerated 3-D support) for other cards. I had this experience on a desktop system with an ATI RV410 X700 adapter that I upgraded to Jaunty from the previous Ubuntu release, Intrepid.
Back on the positive side, Ubuntu now does a good-enough job auto-detecting display and graphics hardware (including multimonitor setups) that Ubuntu systems typically don't require an xorg.conf configuration file. This will be welcome news to anyone who's wrestled with xorg arcana.
On the other hand, sometimes manual tweaks do need to be made, and Ubuntu's streamlined display settings utility offers few configuration options. There's a tool that's meant to fill this gap, called xorg-options-editor, available in Ubuntu's software repositories. I found it a bit rough around the edges, but it might do the trick if you have special configuration options to set.
Also along the lines of making its graphics configuration less arcane, 9.04 is the first Ubuntu release to do away with the Vulcan-death-grip Ctrl-Alt-Backspace key combination that you can use on most Linux distributions to dislodge misbehaving graphical applications by killing your X server session. Once upon a time, this came in handy fairly often, and the fact that it's become an anachronism is a mark of Linux's maturity.
In addition to support for Microsoft's MAPI Exchange protocol, the GNOME 2.26 release with which Ubuntu 9.04 ships includes a new volume control applet with a horizontal slider and an integrated interface for switching among sound themes (or silencing them), an overhauled disc burning application, and a handful of other enhancements laid out here.
While I was able to opt for Ext4 from Ubuntu's LiveCD-based installer, this installer still lacks support for building an Ubuntu system with encrypted partitions. To install a system with encrypted partitions, it's necessary to use Ubuntu's text-based alternate installer. Considering that even the buttoned-down Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.3 now includes an option for encrypting hard drives in its regular graphical installer, there isn't any reason why Ubuntu's default installer shouldn't offer users this important security option.
Ubuntu 9.04 also is available in a netbook remix edition, which sports a set of user interface components that have been designed to work well on 10-inch and smaller displays.
I used a utility available in Ubuntu's repositories, called usb-imagewriter, to turn a 1GB USB memory stick into an installer and live test environment for Jaunty's netbook remix edition.
I tried out the stick on an MSI Wind U100 with a 10-inch display, and I found that the remixed Jaunty release did indeed make the most of the small screen. The system did away with the familiar desktop, window and menu structure, and offered me instead an interface more akin to a smartphone.
When I followed one of the application or location links laid out on my home screen, the application or file manager window would fill the whole screen. A small bar atop the display contained links I could use to bring other open applications to the front or to push everything to the back and expose the home screen again.
Ubuntu is also a solid option for server implementations, but in the past Canonical hasn't done as much to set Ubuntu apart from other Linux server options as it has to distinguish its distribution on the desktop.
This appears to be changing, as Version 9.04 ships with what's meant to be a turnkey mail server role based on the dovecot IMAP server and postfix mail transport agent. These two pieces of software-which, respectively, handle mail receiving and mail sending-are developed separately and typically distributed separately, as well. In the server flavor of Ubuntu 9.04, the two components are bundled together to streamline configuration.
However, at this point, the mail server configuration is far from turnkey, and I couldn't find any official documentation available for the dovecot-postfix bundle. In the community-provided portion of the Ubuntu documentation wiki, I found several how-tos regarding these mail components, but a polished mail server role for Ubuntu remains a work in progress.
Along similar lines, I would like to see the project come up with a turnkey directory server implementation, based on LDAP, Fedora Directory Server or perhaps Red Hat's FreeIPA project. As Microsoft has demonstrated with Active Directory, well-integrated directory services can be a powerful addition to a server operating system and can make life easier when implementing other server roles, such as mail services.
Ubuntu 9.04 also includes a string of updates to the distribution's virtualization hosting stack. Like Red Hat, the Ubuntu project has trained the bulk of its virtualization focus on KVM, the hypervisor that's built directly into the Linux kernel.
As with most other Linux distributions, Ubuntu 9.04 also ships with virt-manger, a graphical virtualization management tool that comes out of Red Hat's Emerging Technology group. This tool is flagged as experimental, but it works well for basic creation and monitoring of virtual machines running atop either KVM or Xen. The tool also includes functionality for connecting to like-managed virtualization hosts on your network. During tests, I was able to see another host I'd set up on my network, but I wasn't able to connect to it.
Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.