REVIEW: Ubuntu 12.04 LTS

Updates to the popular Ubuntu Linux distro come around, with monotonous regularity, every six months or so. The latest implementation, 12.04, however, carries the “LTS” tag, short for Long Term Support, making it just that little bit different.

LTS releases only appear every 2 years and, rather than cutting edge new technologies, are all about consolidating previous updates to create a stable platform fit for enterprise deployment. Moreover, as of the 12.04 release (also referred to as Precise Pangolin) commercial sponsor Canonical has lengthened its LTS guarantee, pledging a full 5 years of support, updates and patches, both for servers (which have always had 5) and desktops which, previously, got just 3.

That said, there are still a number of new features in this LTS release, one of the most controversial being the dropping of the Gnome desktop in favour of Canonical’s home-grown Unity interface. Launched just over a year ago Unity is both enhanced and made more stable in this release, but it’s still something you either love or loathe (mostly loathe judging by chat in the forums) making it the Ubuntu equivalent, if you will, of the Metro interface in Windows 8.

Another innovation is a so-called Heads-Up Display (HUD)—a Google-like search facility for keyboard shortcuts—with numerous other minor tweaks to be found both front of house and behind the scenes.

Everything desktop users need

Gone are the days when Linux compatibility was an issue. Ubuntu 12.04 LTS can be used on netbooks, laptops and desktop PCs and, as with previous releases, tried out on CD-ROM or USB stick without installing. After which there’s a slick graphical install routine to take care of everything needed to get it running on either 32-bit or 64-bit kit, with the latter the default choice from this release on.

As often happens the Linux kernel gets a minor upgrade, from 3.0 to 3.2, plus there’s improved support for button-less touchpads—good news for anyone installing Ubuntu on an Apple notebook (if such users exist). The bundled applications, similarly, get refreshed, among them Firefox 11 for Web browsing, Thunderbird 11 for e-mail plus LibreOffice 3.5 for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and the like. Enhanced support for the free Ubuntu One cloud service is also provided.

Elsewhere, Rhythmbox makes a return in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, replacing Banshee as the default music player. Not that business users are likely to be that concerned. In fact, for corporate buyers there’s a so-called Business Desktop Remix, which strips out, not just the music player, but other non-essentials like games, social networking and file sharing apps, developer and sysadmin tools.

These are all replaced by the Adobe Flash Plugin, VMware View, and the OpenJDK 6 Java run-time environment. The Business remix can be freely downloaded, customised and distributed, and also features support for Windows RDP 7.1 plus a Visio diagram importer for LibreOffice.

On the server trail

Although now a very usable desktop operating system with the added benefit of bundled apps that would otherwise cost extra on Windows, Ubuntu is never going to win over that many hearts and minds, especially business buyers. The same doesn’t apply when it comes to the server version of Ubuntu, however, which is already widely deployed in both small businesses and corporate datacentres.

Like the desktop version, the server distro can, again be downloaded and distributed without the need for costly licensing. Moreover, it can be installed and run on most industry-standard hardware platforms with HP recently putting its weight behind the new Ubuntu with official certification for use on ProLiant boxes. There’s even an ARM version, developed specifically for the emerging market for scalable platforms based on arrays of low-energy processors.

Installation is no harder than for the desktop version, with the fancy Unity interface dropped from the final result in favour of a command-driven management interface. But then that’s what most server buyers want and a desktop GUI can always be put back in, if wanted.

Xen virtualisation is now bundled with the Ubuntu 12.04 LTS server, alongside long-serving KVM virtualisation which makes it to version 1.0 in this release. Additionally, following Microsoft’s lead with Windows Server 2012, Canonical is keen to position its Linux server as a platform for private cloud deployment. As such Ubuntu 12.04 is the first enterprise Linux distribution to include the Essex release of the OpenStack cloud operating system, which can be used to create private IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) platforms.

Canonical is also looking to beat rivals Red Hat and SuSE, who include OpenStack in their products too, by pledging to back-port the next four releases of the OpenStack solution. The aim here is to give Ubuntu users a stable base for private cloud pilots for the life of this LTS release.

Ubuntu server owners also get Metal as a Service (MAAS) to handle the deployment of workloads onto bare metal hardware, effectively automating the powering up of physical servers on demand and recycling for use with different workloads as and when needed. They can also add Landscape, a management tool available with Canonical’s service package, Ubuntu Advantage, to provide dynamic allocation of virtual workloads plus greater control over large-scale deployments.

Onwards and upwards

When it comes to performance, the 12.04 LTS release of Ubuntu seems to be the best yet, both on servers and, quite definitely, on the desktop. Early adopters have also been impressed by its reliability, although the Unity interface has yet to be fully embraced and real Linux diehards appear to prefer the old Gnome desktop environment which can still be installed if wanted.

There are no such concerns when it comes to servers. Neither is the lack of mainstream applications a problem, as Linux servers are much better served in this respect than desktops. As a result this LTS release is most likely to follow in the path of previous versions and be adopted mostly as a server operating system rather than on the desktop. The only question mark is the imminent arrival of Windows 8 and its, similarly, contentious, Metro GUI which may give some desktop users pause for thought and prompt them to maybe give the Ubuntu alternative another chance.

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  • “Although now a very usable desktop operating system with the added benefit of bundled apps that would otherwise cost extra on Windows, Ubuntu is never going to win over that many hearts and minds, especially business buyers.”

    The term “never” is quite disturbing. How do you know the future? What is your definition of “many”? Is 20 million desktop users “many”? What about some kind of justification for this statement? It seems that you didn’t perform any serious tests, because you do not discuss any features of the desktop GUI.

    In my opinion, these kinds of statements reveal more about the reviewer than the operating system.

    In my opinion, there is no reason why a regular desktop user who mainly uses E-Mail, Internet browser and office applications couldn’t use ubuntu when presented with the option.

  • james lagerman

    it’s nice once you install gnome 3