What's new in Ubuntu 9.10
Dr. Oliver Diedrich
It's been a long time since the developers made so many changes in Ubuntu: With Karmic Koala, they have unleashed a whole host of innovations on Ubuntu users.
While recent Ubuntu releases have been more about careful enhancement and distribution maintenance, the current version 9.10 offers a new look as well as a whole range of new technical features – the developers have restructured the distribution's standard filesystem, boot system and hardware maintenance, and they have introduced new software. Not everything is completely new; many changes were introduced into Ubuntu as part of a gradual development process and have now reached the maturity required for general use.
Changes start at the filesystem level: Ubuntu 9.10 now installs itself on Ext4 by default; in previous versions, users still had to access the text-based installer on the Alternate Installation CD and partition manually to use the Ext3 successor. A tip for those who like to experiment: While Btrfs is available in Ubuntu 9.10, it hasn't yet made it into the installer – if you want to play around with the "next generation filesystem" for Linux, you have to install it manually.
With the switch to Ext4, the Ubuntu developers also updated the default boot manager, which is now Grub2. The new boot manager in Ubuntu 9.10 is visually the same, but offers several extended features: For instance, it can start the Linux kernel not only from Ext4, but also from LVM and RAID partitions. However, the installation of the latter two is still not supported in the graphic installation wizard of the standard desktop CD, and has to be done via the text-based installer on the Alternate CD.
A topical development of the latest kernel versions – Kernel-based Mode Setting, or KMS – has arrived in Ubuntu: The kernel now takes over the task of switching between graphics modes with Intel and (dated) radeon chips. While this doesn't sound all that exciting, it has a number of important consequences: Suspend to Disk and Suspend to RAM now work more reliably because the kernel reinitialises the graphics hardware after waking up. The system boots a little faster and more smoothly, as now there is no graphics re-initialisation to cause flickering when starting the X Server. On systems with Intel graphics, for instance, Ubuntu 9.10 softly fades out the boot screen, which is also much more presentable than that of the previous version, when starting the desktop.
Thanks to KMS and the switch to the current version of the Intel graphics driver, the performance issues with Intel graphics many Ubuntu 9.04 users complained about have finally been overcome; A Thinkpad with GM965 chipset (X3100 graphics) no longer exhibited any graphics problems under Ubuntu 9.10.
The new kernel version 2.6.31 also improves the distribution's hardware support in other areas. Ubuntu 9.10 supports a range of new WiFi and network chips; the Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) is now said to work smoothly on almost any netbook. A range of new drivers has also been added in the multimedia area. Suspend to Disk and Suspend to RAM now work more reliably and with more devices; in addition, the current kernel makes better use of the power saving mechanisms offered in modern hardware. You can find all the kernel-related improvements since Ubuntu 9.04's kernel version 2.6.28 in The H Open's article "The new features of Linux 2.6.31".
In Ubuntu 9.10, the developers have vigorously started to replace the Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL) interface between desktop, system and hardware. They now use Udev for hardware detection, providing hardware information, and the creation of events like adding a Flash drive or switching from mains to battery power. Mass storage integration and power management are handled by DeviceKit-disk and DeviceKit-power, and PolicyKit takes care of access privilege management. While none of these changes are brand new, the developers have upgraded most applications to the new subsystems – HAL has officially been "deprecated" and will probably disappear completely in the near future.
In Ubuntu 9.10, the boot process has finally been changed over to Upstart from the classic System V init. While Upstart has been part of Ubuntu for the past two years, it never used to be much more than a fig leaf behind which the old SysV init scripts continued to operate without really utilising the Upstart functionality. As a result, the advantages of the new boot system – event-driven starting of the init scripts and extensive system start parallelisation – remained more or less unused.
The developers already considerably sped up the boot process in Ubuntu 9.04 (test report) by optimising the hardware detection and partially parallelising the start scripts – as far as SysV init allowed this. The switch to Upstart in Ubuntu 9.10 further speeds up the boot process by up to 30 per cent: On a notebook with SSD, the complete system start-up from the boot manager to the graphical log-in screen only took twelve seconds, which is same as the time required by the BIOS to self test.
Upstart has an impact on the management of the init system. The /etc/inittab file has disappeared; it is now up to the /etc/init configuration file to determine when an init job becomes active. A central boot management role is played by the
initctl tool, which starts and stops init jobs, sends signals, and queries the status of jobs. For instance, the command
returns a list of all the init jobs including status information.
During installation, Ubuntu 9.10 now offers the option of setting up an encrypted home directory. The technology required for this – eCryptfs, a stackable, encrypted file system that is placed on top of the home directory – has been part of Ubuntu for some time. However, the users of the distribution's desktop version previously had to set it up themselves on the command line; now, a simple mouse click during installation is all that is required. In existing installations, however, the encrypted home directory can only be activated on the command line and the system admin tool for adding new users also fails to offer the relevant option.
Although the Ubuntu 9.10 standard installation still doesn't include a firewall – the ufs Uncomplicated Firewall is installed, but not started, during installation –, the developers have tightened a different security screw in version 9.10: A number of applications like the Cups print server, the Evince document viewer and various network tools as well as the guest session (top right in the log-out menu) to set up a temporary work environment for guest users are now protected with AppArmor profiles by default.
The AppArmor profiles determine the privilege details of a process: Whether and where the process is allowed to read and write files, whether and how it is allowed to access the network, and so on. For instance, they immunise Evince against malicious code contained in crafted PDF files. While a profile for Firefox 3.5 is included, it is not activated by default.
AppArmor has also been part of Ubuntu for some time, but only version 9.10 utilises the security extension on a large scale. Further application profiles can be added via the apparmor-profiles package.
Ubuntu One is a new Canonical service for all Ubuntu users: It offers 2GB of free internet storage which can be used for tasks like synchronising data across multiple Ubuntu installations, making files available to other users, or simply backing up information. To take advantage of Ubuntu One, users need a Launchpad account – those who don't have one already can set up an account when first accessing Ubuntu One (under Applications/Internet in the start menu).
Once the account is set up, you can register your various Ubuntu computers and upload data – either using your web browser or the Ubuntu One tab in the Places menu. Ubuntu One makes sure that the data is distributed across all the registered computers. Some applications like the email client or PIM Evolution and the Tomboy note-taking application directly synchronise their data with Ubuntu One. The service is based on CouchDB, a distributed non-relational database. A local installation of CouchDB updates the user's data.
When testing the release candidate, however, we couldn't get the system to synchronise files between two different Ubuntu computers. Neither did the workaround recommended in the Ubuntu One FAQ – disconnecting and reconnecting to the server – solve things, as the Ubuntu One client now complained about a conflict of resources with the Ubuntu One server. Despite this, at least the data continued to be available via the web browser.
Another new feature is the Software Center, which replaces the previous "add/remove applications" tool and organises the software available for Ubuntu in an app store format. To do so, the tool accesses all the Ubuntu repositories: Although the dialog talks about "free software", the Software Center includes proprietary drivers, various multimedia codecs and a Flash driver. Those who use Synaptic or Aptitude to manage their software packages will continue to find additional ways of interacting with the package manager; for new Linux users, however, the Software Center is a good way of familiarising themselves with the multitude of programs that is available in Ubuntu.
Otherwise, the software has been updated to the current editions. The Gnome desktop 2.28 already allows the installation of Gnome Shell and Zeitgeist, which are due to introduce new interactive concepts with Gnome 3.0 in March 2010 (see also the interview with Gnome's Release Manager, Vincent Untz The Path to Gnome 3.0). With Firefox 3.5.3, OpenOffice 3.1.1 and various internet and multimedia applications, Ubuntu 9.10 already comes with a comprehensive and current software selection on the Live CD and the installation CD; further software is available to install from the internet.
Installation and updating
As always, Ubuntu 9.10 is available in several variants. The desktop CD starts a live system for testing and checking hardware compatibility, and includes a convenient installation wizard which installs Ubuntu on a hard disk with just a few mouse clicks. If necessary, the wizard will resize an existing (Windows) partition to make room for Ubuntu and set up a boot manager.
The Alternate Install CD starts the text-based Debian installer, which runs smoothly, even with less than 256 Mbytes of RAM, and offers several additional options such as installing RAID disks or a logical volume manager. The Server CD installs a system without graphical desktop. All three variants are available for 32-bit and 64-bit systems. The Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) is optimised for devices with small displays.
Ubuntu 9.04 installations can be updated to the new version during operation. In our tests, even a much-used system with various added software packages was upgraded without problems.
It seems that with Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala), the Ubuntu developers are getting ready for the next version with long term support: Ubuntu 10.04 is scheduled to be an LTS version with a three-year support window for the desktop version and a five year support window for the server version. Traditionally, LTS versions offer few new features and focus on optimising system stability. With version 9.10, the makers of Ubuntu have taken up many developments of the past two years and prepared them for production use.
Given its host of advancements, Ubuntu 9.10 is remarkably stable: This article was written on a computer that has run the distribution without major problems since the release of the beta version at beginning of October.