Canonical Embeds Ubuntu Linux Into Devices to Secure IoT

The new effort will extend Ubuntu's Snappy Linux technology to help enable the Internet of things.

IoT security

Canonical, the lead commercial sponsor behind the open-source Ubuntu Linux operating system, is getting into the embedded device market in a bid to help secure the Internet of things (IoT).

Ubuntu is best known as a popular Linux operating system for servers, cloud and desktops. Now Canonical is positioning Ubuntu to be relevant for embedded devices and IoT by taking advantage of the Snappy Ubuntu Core technology. Snappy Ubuntu Core was first announced on Dec. 10, 2014, as a minimal version of Ubuntu, with the optimized Snappy system that can improve security and application updates.

Snappy, initially positioned as a technology for the cloud, is now being brought to embedded devices.

"We identified some time ago that for mobile devices we really had to raise the bar on the reliability, efficiency and security of the update mechanisms, as well as the isolation of apps from one another," Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu and Canonical, told eWEEK.

Shuttleworth explained that with Snappy, updates can be delivered as smaller, more efficient transactional updates. Snappy also has an update rollback feature, which can enable an application to be reverted (or rolled back) if the update is unsuccessful for some reason. Snappy has very efficient bandwidth usage, making it ideal for IoT embedded devices, according to Shuttleworth. With Snappy there is also a division of responsibilities for updating that can also help protect IoT devices and users.

"So we could deliver an update for a Heartbleed or Shellshock vulnerability, completely independently of the lawnmower control app that would come from the lawnmower company," he said.

Heartbleed and Shellshock are two open-source technology vulnerabilities that were disclosed in 2014. Both issues left embedded devices running Linux exposed to risk, as the impacted vendors had to roll out patches for users. With IoT, anything and everything can be connected to the Internet, even potentially a lawnmower, and it is usually up to the vendor to provide patches for any security issues.


To help capitalize on the IoT opportunity, Canonical now has an entire Internet of things division within the company.

"While it sounds grandiose that we have a whole Internet of things division, this is an extremely efficient repurposing of the technology we already have," Shuttleworth said.

The embedded Linux market is not new, and is one in which Cavium's MontaVista and Intel's Wind River have led with their embedded Linux technologies. Shuttleworth is now directly targeting MontaVista and Wind River, with the Snappy updating technology as a key differentiator.

"If you go around your house and look at all the devices that are still vulnerable to Heartbleed or Shellshock, it's embarrassing," he said. "By adopting Snappy Ubuntu Core, that problem gets solved."

Another effort in the embedded Linux space is the Yocto Project which is a Linux Foundation Collaboration project. Shuttleworth commented that Intel largely leads the Yocto Project and there is no relationship between Snappy Ubuntu Core and Yocto.
"Yocto is aimed at the world where people roll their own operating system," he said. "It provides tools that let developers create an entire operating system from scratch."

Shuttleworth explained that Yocto is a way for a device vendor to build a single operating system image for a device, while Snappy Ubuntu Core enables a vendor to compose a device's operating system out of a set of images from different parties.

From a product perspective, the plan for Snappy Ubuntu Core and IoT vendors is to have a commercial offering that provides legal indemnification as well as update management services and support. Shuttleworth said Canonical will disclose more information on its commercial IoT efforts in the run-up to Mobile World Congress (MWC) in March.

While x86 has long been the standard silicon architecture on servers and desktops, Canonical also has a history of working with ARM, which is increasingly becoming the standard for IoT.

"We have been working with ARM for five years now," Shuttleworth said. "We will be announcing a set of major SoC [system-on-chip] and board vendors that have signed contracts with us for the update stream and the optimization of the platform."

Ubuntu 15.04

Ubuntu has two major Linux distribution releases in any given year, with the most recent release being the Ubuntu 14.10 platform that debuted in October 2014. The next major update is the Ubuntu 15.10 milestone, which is not set to be generally available until April of this year.

"What people are installing in the cloud and on devices for Snappy Ubuntu Core is in fact the rolling development of Ubuntu 15.04," Shuttleworth said. "There will be an Ubuntu 15.04 stable release, and you can expect to see devices shipping that, and the release after that will be the 16.04 LTS [Long Term Support]."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.