Ubuntu reflects current state of Linux art

The month of October has been, at least to this writer, one of discovery.

The technical one was by far the easier of the two: changing Linux distributions. While I’ve done my best to keep tabs on the literally hundreds of different versions of Linux available, at the end of the day one needs to settle down and pick one for everyday use. Operating systems are (and rightfully should be) the boring means-to-an-end part of one’s IT needs. But that doesn’t mean that the OS should be taken for granted – some are more useful than others.

I ended up installing a version of Ubuntu, the Linux distribution that was almost unknown two years ago but has become the downloader’s favourite. Started by South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth and now supported by a massive worldwide community, Ubuntu offers me the best combination of quality, support and understanding of the needs of both business and community. For instance, unlike both Red Hat and Novell, Ubuntu has promised it will never make one version for commercial customers and a different version for downloaders. The same Ubuntu one can download is the same one that is commercially supported.

They handled certification right, partnering with the community-led, vendor-neutral LPI rather than rolling their own.

There’s a sane way to choose between bleeding-edge and stable releases. Through the U.K.-based company Canonical, a global network is evolving to provide enterprise-level commercial support. And, yes, there’s a Canadian presence at www.ubuntu.ca, where local members of the worldwide Ubuntu support and development community can be found.

My learning curve, in moving from Mandriva to Ubuntu’s “Edgy” release, was not without hiccups, but all has been manageable. Any questions I had were quickly and accurately answered with a few questions to the Toronto Linux User Group mailing list.

The biggest questions dealt with some of the differences between Mandriva’s software-packaging system (which is based on Red Hat’s RPM system) and Ubuntu’s (which is based on Debian’s). Meanwhile, I’ve been using pre-release versions of Firefox 2 without problems; the Ubuntu community has been great at keeping current with new releases of open source packages.

Of course, if you don’t want bleeding edge, there’s the LTS (long term support) release that most people will prefer. Lest anyone think this is just another community project, consider that IBM has blessed Ubuntu as a platform for its DB2 database along with Red Hat and Novell. Yet if you want to maintain a system that is 100 per cent open source without proprietary add-ons, Ubuntu makes that easy.

Because of the sheer size of its community, Ubuntu has been able to produce variants of its distribution for special use. The Xubuntu package uses the lightweight XFCE window system, tailored for running current software on old or slow hardware. Edubuntu is a version tailored for use in educational environments, Kubuntu is for those who like the KDE desktop instead of the default GNOME system, and a server version is available for those who don’t want any graphic desktop at all. These variants are considered integral parts of the Ubuntu project, supported and released alongside the base system. Oh, and by the way, did I mention most of this is available for PowerPC-based Macs, 64-bit architectures, and is available in dozens of languages?

It’s no surprise that according to Distrowatch, more people are downloading Ubuntu than Red Hat and Novell products combined. As the Vista release approaches, yet another opportunity arises for companies to consider an upgrade to Linux as their vendors try to convince them they can’t live with their ancient NT or W2000 or even XP systems. I read with amusement about the problems that third-party vendors such as Symantec are having with Vista’s 64-bit version, and the hubris with which Microsoft has treated European Union concerns about its business practice.

As users and VARs alike ponder Vista, the best homework they can do is look at Ubuntu, the current state of Linux art.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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