Archive for June, 2008

A distribution occupies a very specific niche in the free software ecosystem. Among other things, we need to accept some responsibility for ALL the software defects (“bugs”) that users actually experience across the entire stack. Most users don’t install their apps from upstream source tarballs, they install them from the packages provided by their distribution. So when they experience a bug, they don’t know if it’s a bug introduced by that distribution, or a bug in the underlying upstream code. They don’t know, they don’t care, and they shouldn’t have to. More often than not they will report the issue to their distribution, and the way we respond to it is important, because it represents an opportunity to make the whole ecosystem more robust.

I had a lecturer who was very opposed to the use of the term “bugs”. He said that the term “bug” was a cute-sification for “nasty biting insect”, and similarly, software defects have potentially serious consequences, so we shouldn’t treat them lightly. Bug work is serious work, and it’s one of the most important forms of contribution to the digital commons that Ubuntu can make, so I’d like to salute the extraordinary efforts of the Ubuntu Quality Assurance Team and Bug Squad. Initiatives like five-a-day are already making a huge difference to our users. As Henrik Omma says, effective bug reporting requires a diligent and professional approach, and I’ve noticed a real improvement in our community. Hopefully, we can bring the benefits of that competence to the broader free software ecosystem.

Ubuntu gets as many bugs reported against it as OpenOffice, Mozilla, Gnome, and KDE combined.The vast majority of those bugs are issues that exist in upstream tarball releases, or in Debian. Our primary goals should be to ensure that fixes we produce, and information we generate in the QA process, make their way upstream where they will benefit the broadest cross-section of the community. Separately, we want to ensure that each Ubuntu release ships without major issues, regardless of where those issues originated. We are responsible for the user experience of every line of code, even though we don’t produce every line of code.

In the month of April 2008, I found the following bug counts for large FLOSS projects:

Upstreams:Mozilla5,334

OpenOffice 1,076
Gnome 5,364
KDE 1,335
Total: 13,109
Distributions:
Ubuntu 13,064
Debian 5,103

With hindsight, April was possibly a bad choice, because it was an Ubuntu release month so there’s usually a small spike in the number of bugs filed. It would be interesting to see the stats for other distributions, and projects, over a full year. But the general picture is clear – within our family of distributions, Ubuntu carries the brunt of the load w.r.t. bug tracking, triage and patch management – not only for our users, but for a broad cross-section of the open source stack.

When I delved into the data to see how we do with pushing bugs upstream, I found a somewhat mixed picture. In many cases, we do very well indeed. We have a very good relationship with GNOME, for example, with a very high percentage of bugs appropriately forwarded to the relevant upstream bug tracker. In other projects, it’s harder to make a definitive statement. The percentage varies based on whether the Ubuntu team members have good relationships upstream, or whether there’s a person acting as an ambassador from Ubuntu to upstream (this is a great way to make a difference if you care about a specific application in Ubuntu!) or whether upstream themselves have taken an interest.

We need to improve the tools that support these kinds of cross-project conversations. Launchpad does currently allow us to track the status of a bug in many different bug trackers, and there are quite a few distributions and upstreams that are now either using Launchpad directly or exchanging data efficiently. We’ll keep working to improve the quality of exchange across the whole ecosystem, including those projects that don’t use Launchpad themselves

Nicely handled, Thawte!

Monday, June 16th, 2008

I was delighted to see Thawte’s elegant handling of the recent OpenSSL random number generator flaw in Debian, Ubuntu and other Debian derivatives. They offered a free replacement for anyone who was affected. Years ago, when Thawte was setup, we put a lot of effort into doing things in a way which made sense for users of ApacheSSL and similar, open-source based secure servers. I’ve not kept up with the changes at the company since it became part of VeriSign in 2000, but it’s great to see that the brand has been preserved, and that more importantly some of it’s key values have, too.

Interview with Linux-Magazine Italia

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Vincenzo Ciaglia from Linux-Magazine Italia sent me a few questions related to the release of 8.04 LTS. Since he was going to translate the conversation into Italian this week, he was happy for me to blog the English version here.

1) Hi Mark, thank you for your availability. Some simple questions to introduce you to our readers to start. What’s your role at Ubuntu/Canonical and what do you do in your spare time? What are your hobbies?
My favourite sport is snowboarding, and I enjoy travel to tropical spots. But ultimately I’m happiest when I’m being a geek, reading, playing games or relaxing with friends.

2) You’re the founder of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. Why do you decided to invest a lot of dollars (10$ million) to start up the company? In which fields does it work to make its business? How do you make the company sustainable?
The vision of Ubuntu and Canonical is a symbiotic one. We believe that Linux has grown to the point where it is possible to build the platform at a low enough cost to make it sustainable purely though services around it, rather than through licensing the platform. In other words, we think that support, training, online services, and professional engineering for people who want to adapt Ubuntu commercially will earn enough money to pay for Ubuntu itself.

That means that we can fundamentally change the business model of the OS industry. Of course, it till take time to prove that we can achieve this, but we have a superb team and now that Ubuntu is well established we see increasing demand for services from Canonical, which is positive.

3) Ok, let’s talk about the latest Ubuntu 8.04. In an interview you said that “Hardy Heron is your most significant release ever”. Well, can you talk about the main improvements of this release?
First, this is an LTS (“Long Term Support”) release that was delivered on a very precise schedule. Six months ago we committed to shipping 8.04 LTS on April 24th, and we did exactly that. As far as I know, nobody has ever shipped an “enterprise class” OS release on a schedule that precise. And not only did we do that, but we have now committed to ship the next LTS in April 2010, it will be 10.04 LTS, and we’ll set the exact date six months in advance like we did with this one. It is thanks to Debian and the free software community that it is possible for us to do this. So 8.04 LTS has proven our ability to deliver not just 18-month-supported releases on time, but also LTS releases on time. We very much hope that other distributions will follow our lead on the LTS cycle with their enterprise releases, because that will make it easier for us all to collaborate, and make all the major Linux distributions better.

Second, there are very significant new developments for Ubuntu itself. On the server, we worked with HP on their Proliant range, and with Dell on their PowerEdge range, to ensure that 8.04 LTS will be compatible with their popular x86 servers. We’re not yet certified, but we are sure that it will “Just Work”. Sun Microsystems has gone further, and has actually certified 8.04 LTS on a range of their x86 servers. This is a major step forward for Ubuntu on the server. We see an amazing amount of usage now for Ubuntu on the server – it’s the most popular server platform for several ISV’s. So it’s important that we work with server vendors, and server solution vendors. We’ve also put a lot of work into the use of KVM and VMWare virtualisation, because we see people building hundreds of virtual appliances on Ubuntu.

On the desktop, we have focused on making it easier to install Ubuntu, especially on a machine which already has Windows, where you can now install Ubuntu into a file on the Windows partition instead of having to resize your Windows partition to make a new partition for Ubuntu. That makes it much easier for people to test out Ubuntu, and hence to get a taste of free software. We have also worked on many of the common things that people want to do with their PC, such as work with photos and music, and started to improve the user experience there.

4) There are still some hardware issues (especially with some wireless devices) in Ubuntu. How do you think to solve these kind of problems and improve hardware support in the next releases?
We are increasingly able to work directly with the hardware manufacturers, to try and convince them to develop free software drivers for their hardware. Our relationships with different PC companies mean that we can lobby strongly for people to embrace Linux, properly.

We also work very hard to tie together all the ugly pieces of string that are needed to make the user experience of Linux on your hardware a pleasant one. Unfortunately, for example, there are multiple different wireless stacks, for example, with different capabilities. And Ubuntu spends a lot of time integrating and debugging them to try and create a harmonious, standardised experience for end-users.

5) What kind of improvements Ubuntu 8.04 bring to server and virtualization solutions?
Ubuntu Server Edition brings all the wonderful characteristics of Debian to the front – it’s modular, efficient, has a huge package selection, and is easy to install and manage. In addition, we’ve done a lot of work with server manufacturers to ensure compatibility with their popular hardware, and have started certifying with some of them.

Our virtualisation offering is based around KVM and VMWare. Out of the box, Ubuntu should give you the best possible experience with both of them. It is optimised and rigorously tested, and Ubuntu is certified on VMWare’s ESX Server platform. KVM, the free software virtualisation option we prefer, is built in to our standard server kernel, so you can get started with virtualisation immediately. There is also a Xen kernel for folks who prefer Xen.

We have done a lot of work around the integration of Ubuntu servers and Windows networks, particularly in the field of Active Directory and SMB file sharing servers. We worked with a company called Likewise to make sure that there is a smooth process to join an Active Directory network, and can even manage Linux machines through AD using Likewise’ professional tools. All the capabilities to do the basic stuff are free software and built in to Ubuntu.

6) A dirty question from our readers: Ubuntu is really a giant now, are you trying to kill the Debian project?
Absolutely not. I’m a Debian Developer myself, and very proud of what Debian has achieved, and also proud of everything that Ubuntu contributes to the broader Debian project. We consider Ubuntu to be a member of the Debian family, that’s just purely focused on the specific use cases and platforms that our customers want.

Much of what we do in Ubuntu contributes directly to Debian. We lead the packaging of many important pieces of the desktop, and server, and toolchain, and contribute that work directly to Debian. As a result, Debian is updated much faster these days than it used to be without Ubuntu. We have lead many key transitions and always try to collaborate with the relevant people upstream AND in Debian to ensure that the work flows smoothly into those projects. Most DD’s are very happy to collaborate, but some view Ubuntu as a threat, and refuse to collaborate, or make unreasonable demands on Ubuntu because they think “you have money” when in fact most of Ubuntu is volunteer driven.

My vision is that Debian and Ubuntu both grow stronger through good collaboration. I’m trying to have a keynote accepted at DebConf to help make that vision a reality, but so far have had no luck in getting approval. Hopefully, the leadership of Debian will start to come around tot he idea that Ubuntu’s success is very good for Debian.

7) You’re working with embedded devices and electronics company. In which way? What is you work in the tight partnership with Intel?
Linux is increasingly used by embedded solution providers, and many of them want to use Ubuntu. So we are working with Intel to make sure that Ubuntu fully supports their low-power hardware (cpu’s, chipsets, graphics and so on).

8) Ubuntu surely is the most used and appreciated GNU/Linux distribution in the world. But, do you think that Ubuntu Linux will reach – one day – the success of other operating systems like OS X and Windows? In which way do you think to accomplish a similar goal?
I do believe that free software will come to be widely recognised, trusted and used by everyday computer users, as opposed to being limited to specialists as it is today. Hopefully Ubuntu will play a part in that, but I don’t think one platform will dominate that free software era like Windows dominated the proprietary software era. Ubuntu is focused on specific needs, and there are other versions of Linux or BSD that meet others.

In order to break out from the pack, we need to deliver a desktop experience that is exciting, that is easy to use, and which people are confident will be compatible with their future needs and with those of their colleagues.

9) Everybody talk about GNU/Linux but seems that not so many peoples trust Linux for now (some statistics talk about 0.xx% of the Linux world usage). What is the problem? Nevertheless Ubuntu is really a great operating system. Do you think it’s just a matter of marketing or because the lack of game packages?
I think it takes time to change the habits of hundreds of millions of people! I also think we need to deliver an experience that is simply better than the alternatives. Projects like Firefox don’t define their goal as being “a good browser”, they say “we want to be the best browser on any platform, period”, and as a result they are very popular even on Windows. We need that winning attitude everywhere.

10) Canonical was the first GNU/Linux company to make a deal with a computer vendor, Dell. How is going your business now? The curious thing is that on IdeaStorm a lot of users asked for Linux Computers but after some months seems that the sales aren’t so good, or at least not as expected. Why? Maybe GNU/Linux is not ready for the consumer market yet?
I agree that the more people actually buy systems with Linux pre-installed, the faster things like hardware support will be addressed. Fortunately, we see millions of units being shipped with Linux already, just not at the high-end of the PC business. The low-end, especially in countries like Brazil and China, is very active. Slowly, Linux is becoming a volume player.

11) Are you working with other computer vendor to sell other Ubuntu-based desktops and laptops? We’re Italians and the Ubuntu-Dell computers never arrived in our country. Why Dell, and other vendor, is so shy to sell GNU/Linux computers world wide?
That’s a simple matter of demand and the cost to meet it. Any PC manufacturer will take a firm view of the economics of an opportunity, and it’s healthy that they do. Until folks in Italy are really willing to buy computers with Linux pre-installed, there will not be a real market for them. I’m sure there are local providers who build good computers who will pre-install Ubuntu for you. You need to help them become big enough that the Dell’s and HP’s and Lenovo’s of the world are confident there is an opportunity that is worthwhile for them.

12) What is your point of view about the the Novell-Microsoft controversial deal?
There are some good intentions, and there are some bad intentions, and unfortunately they are all mixed up in that deal. On the positive side, it’s good to see Microsoft acknowledge the need for both Linux and Windows, and the need for interoperability. On the negative side, the deal only works financially because Novell and Microsoft have the same business model – licensing software for a certain price per seat.

Microsoft is in an awkward position. They very much want to stop the free use of Linux, and they would like to use patents to do so, which is why they structured the deal as a notional “IP license”. But they also know that free software engineers could probably avoid any patents they raise, so they have been unwilling to state which patents they think justify such a deal.

13) In a interview (http://mybroadband.co.za/nephp/?m=show&id=6672) you declared that “you’d love to work with Microsoft”. Do you want to make another deal following the Novell one or what?
I am very happy to work with Microsoft, or any other company, to improve the state of free software and the software industry as a whole. There are many things that we can collaborate on where we have shared interests – encouraging good telecommunications policy, for example.

But I will not agree to a deal like the Novell one, because I don’t think there is any IP issue in fact, and until Microsoft actually states what patents it is concerned about there is no need for us to take any action. Unfortunately for Novell, I think they have done a deal which gives them a short-term boost, at a very high long term cost. Time will tell.

14) And what do you think about the OOXML standard and the Microsoft Open Promise?
I don’t believe that ISO’s declaration of OOXML as a standard will actually deliver any benefit to users of Microsoft Office. They will still be using a big, bloated piece of software with no competition, that is not-quite-standards-compliant. That’s a pity. Microsoft’s customers had an opportunity to ignite real innovation in the office document space, by encouraging Microsoft to support and existing, open, well-defined document standard in ODF. But they didn’t – Microsoft managed to push enough partners and resellers into the standards process that the ISO decision did not really reflect anything other than Microsoft’s commercial interests.

15) We’re getting a GNU/Linux ultramobile-lowcost-laptop everyday. What do you think about Eee PC Linux revolution?
I think they are great!

16) Acer, HP, MSI, Asus and much more want to join the Linux-powered UMPC market. Are you making some deals to port Ubuntu on some of these laptop?
Lots of people are installing Ubuntu onto their UMPC’s, so I think it’s reasonable that some manufacturers may choose to pre-install it. It’s their decision! If you think that would be popular, then it would probably be worth encouraging them to do so.

17) A lot of analysts talks about a GNU/Linux conquer on mobile market in the next few years. From smartphone to UMPC: the future is Linux. Can you talk about Ubuntu Mobile, its concept, the present and the future?
Yes! Intel is driving a project called Moblin, which aims to produce a mobile software platform for handheld devices, and we’re basing Ubuntu Mobile on that. The first versions are out already, and the roadmap looks very exciting.

Traditionally, it was very expensive to produce software for consumer electronic devices, because they were all specialised hardware with specialised operating systems and application development environments. We are aiming to change that – to make it so that you can build a simple .deb on x86 which can be installed on any piece of consumer electronics that uses this platform. That should greatly increase the amount of innovation we see in the mobile space.

18) What do you think about your competitors? Fedora/Red Hat, openSUSE and Mandriva are doing good work as well as Ubuntu. What GNU/Linux distribution do you prefer if you couldn’t use Ubuntu?
Yes, all of the distributions make contributions to the art and industry of free software. I’m very glad that lots of companies continue to invest in Linux, it makes it a much healthier and more vibrant ecosystem than it would be if just one company dominated it. So I’m very happy with the competition. If Ubuntu didn’t exist, I would use Debian.

19) And what is your feeling about the latest Sun acquisition (MySQL)? Are you working with Sun to port the OpenJDK on Ubuntu?
MySQL is a great company and a very good fit for Sun. I hope they are happy together and that the company will continue to produce a superb free software database.

Yes, OpenJDK is part of Ubuntu 8.04 (though it is not yet at the core, and not yet the default Java environment). We hope to have 8.04 LTS fully TCK-certified in due course. And most of all we are grateful to the Sun folks for letting us package OpenJDK as a proper Ubuntu package, neatly integrated with the rest of the OS. We are aiming for a result which feels “all Java, all Ubuntu”, and I would encourage your users to try it out! Make sure “universe” is enabled on your Ubuntu machine, then type “sudo apt-get install openjdk-6-jdk”.

20) What are the next Canonical plans? Are there any interesting initiatives in progress?
Of course, but this is not the right place for a press release :-)

21) Finally, do you think that GNU/Linux is “really” ready for the desktop users? In which way could be improved?
Yes, I believe it is ready for SOME desktop users. If you really want a desktop that is web-oriented, then Linux is an excellent choice, with either Gnome or KDE (I’m really impressed with the work going on as part of KDE4, by the way). We know that there are millions of people using Linux today. And we are focused on solving the problems that prevent more and more people from adopting it.

Free software is intrinsically a better way to build software, I believe. But we should not plan to be judged on our morals, we should expect to be judged on our software. We have to deliver something that LOOKS and FEELS better, then we can expect people to embrace it fully. And once people realise they can have something that is better AND sustainable AND comes with many freedoms, the world will be a fundamentally different place. That is our goal.

22) Our interview seems to be completed. Do you have something to add for our readers? Thank you for your time and keep up the excellent work!
Please participate! There are lots of ways to get involved with upstream projects or with Ubuntu. Help spread the word, or fix a bug, or translate something from the desktop into Italian!

Netbooks pre-loaded with Ubuntu

Monday, June 9th, 2008

The Canonical OEM team has been approached by a number of OEM’s who want to sell netbooks (small, low-cost laptops with an emphasis on the web) based on Ubuntu. Almost universally, they’ve asked for standard Ubuntu packages and updates, with an app launcher that’s more suited to new users and has the feeling of a “device” more than a PC.

There are some very cool launchers out there – AWN is a current favourite of mine – but people seem to prefer the more 2-dimensional tabbed approach, so the OEM team implemented a lightweight but still very classy launcher for this use case. The work received a detailed review in Ars Technica and has been covered in Free Software Magazine and elsewhere.

The aim was to do something very simple that could be tested easily, work with touch devices and made shippable very quickly. It also needed to be efficient on lower-power devices, and work well with Intel hardware, which seems to be the preferred platform for this generation of devices and allows us to slip a few nice effects in that would be hard without the right hardware support. Here’s a screenshot of a recent version:

The Ubuntu Netbook Remix launcher is laid out for new users

The new launcher is free software – so far, everything Canonical has funded, written and published for general public use on Ubuntu has been under the GPL. Currently we use GPLv3. You can grab the relevant packages from a public PPA, just add the following entry to your /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/netbook-remix-team/ubuntu hardy main

The PPA contains a number of packages for the launcher, some GNOME panel applets, window manager tweaks and themes. These bits and pieces are small but improve the experience of Ubuntu run with the netbook launcher on screens with lower vertical resolution. There’s also some code in there specific to the Intel netbook hardware platforms, don’t install ume-config-netbook unless you are on the right hardware! This is all code produced by Canonical and published on Launchpad under free software licenses:

https://launchpad.net/netbook-remix
https://launchpad.net/netbook-remix-launcher

I’m particularly happy with the way it gives you more screen space for web browsing, which is probably the major use case on these form factors:

The screen layout is optimised for screens with fewer vertical pixels

There are still plenty of interesting corner cases, Ars calls out issues with the GiMP’s palettes, for example, so please do take the opportunity to test it with the apps you think you’d run on a small laptop (or as El Reg would say, laptot).  And feel free to push up and submit for inclusion a branch or two if you’re up to a bit of Clutter hackery!

For the rest, the netbook remix uses standard ubuntu packages from the standard ubuntu archive, with standard security updates. So it meets all of our usual commitments around security and compatibility. You can recreate the netbook remix just by installing 8.04, adding the PPA to your list of repositories, fetching the packages and configuring them appropriately for your system.

The netbook remix is not part of the “official Ubuntu editions”, it’s not like Kubuntu or Ubuntu or Ubuntu Server. It’s a separate remix published by the Canonical OEM team. It will probably get revved in October when Ubuntu 8.10 is released, but that’s up to the Canonical OEM team and their customers, and not the responsibility of the Ubuntu project team.

In working with manufacturers, the OEM team creates custom install images which are specific to hardware from those OEM’s. They have the free software packages I’ve described, and they may also include third-party software selected by OEM’s which Canonical cannot redistribute, so we can’t publish the custom installers that are produced under contract. Those images typically are hand-customised for a faster boot time, which means they will only work on the particular device for which they were intended, unlike standard Ubuntu which should auto-detect and configure itself for whatever hardware it is being booted on.

We specifically wanted to do this project as an Ubuntu Remix – based on standard Ubuntu 8.04 packages, with modified package selection and some additional code, but leaving the core platform packages unmodified. In terms of the trademark guidelines for an Ubuntu Remix companies cannot call their platform Ubuntu if they have modified packages (especially the kernel and desktop packages) but they can if they are just re-arranging standard Ubuntu packages. Canonical is in a privileged position as the Ubuntu trademark owner – we can certify a custom kernel if we believe it has been done in an appropriate way that won’t conflict with standard Ubuntu maintenance processes, and if we can keep the custom kernel up to date to the same standard as the normal Ubuntu kernel. So these are certified Ubuntu devices from Canonical, even though they are more customized than other people can within the Remix guidelines.

We’re also working with two companies that want more radical user interface innovation. Canonical is participating directly in the design and implementation of one of those UI’s, and we’re integrating someone else’s UI on an Ubuntu base for the second project. I haven’t seen either of those UI’s, for confidentiality reasons, but I’m told that the teams working on them think they have great ideas that will elevate, in different ways, the state of the art. All in all it will be exciting to see how the netbook era stimulates innovation in the Linux user experience, because there are a lot of companies wanting to build differentiated UI’s on a standard Linux base. And directly or indirectly Canonical will help to bring that innovation to KDE and GNOME and hence to the wider Linux ecosystem.