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Meet The Hardy Heron: What's New in Ubuntu 8.04

by Brian DeLacey
05/06/2008

Ubuntu 8.04 Launches

Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (long-term support) launched on April 24th for desktops and servers. There is something for everyone in this version, but the LTS release will have particular appeal to enterprises. As one corporate user said to me, "I have been waiting for the release of Ubuntu 8.04, because I am using Ubuntu 6.06 on my company laptop and we have to install exclusively long term support releases." The LTS release assures a reliable upgrade paths twice a year with security updates maintained for a full five years.

This newest version was developed under the codename "Hardy Heron". The previous version, 7.10 (once known by the code name of "Gutsy Gibbon") was a rock-solid release that launched in October 2007. Numerous incremental improvements have appeared since – with all the updates freely available and automatically installable. Ubuntu has continued to develop momentum as a reliable, fun to use operating system.

For new users or existing users considering an upgrade, it's easy to try Ubuntu 8.04. Simply download the software from ubuntu.com and burn it onto a CD. From there, you have three options to try it out. If you have an old, unused PC, dust it off and install Ubuntu. This is a great way to bring new life to old computers.

Another approach is to use the Ubuntu "Live" CD without installing onto your computer – simply boot off the CD. Select the startup option that says "Try Ubuntu without any change to your computer". You should be running Ubuntu in no time without reconfiguring your system.

A third trial option is to run Ubuntu on an existing Windows PC using a feature called Wubi. This installs Ubuntu as a Windows application without taking over or reconfiguring the PC. It takes a while to install, but I was surprised by how good the performance was once it got running. Wubi can be easily uninstalled.

For existing Ubuntu users, the 8.04 release looks better than ever and is a logical step forward as an upgrade path. To insure you have no installation incompatibilities with this release (I encountered several), I suggest downloading the full CD from ubuntu.com first. Try the "Live CD" approach prior to upgrading your production configuration. Another practical tip is to maintain your data files on a separate physical or logical drive from your installed operating system, thus reducing your risks and giving you more options during any upgrade installation.

Who built all this great software? Planning Ubuntu 8.04

Soon after the launch of Ubuntu 7.10, in October 2007, developers met at the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts to plan the next release. The UDS is held after each major release, moving from geography to geography in order to spend time with developers from all over the world.

Wall of Photos
Wall of Photos (Click to enlarge.)

Rob Savoye
Rob Savoye (Click to enlarge.)

Jono Bacon, Community Manager
Jono Bacon, Community Manager (Click to enlarge.)

Photographs were posted on a wall behind the registration desk. By the end of the first day, many UDS attendees could match online names to real-world faces, perhaps for the first time.

Canonical organized and funded the UDS. Canonical's entire staff seemed present and ran a number of the sessions. There was a packed schedule of well-organized meetings with plenty of opportunity for spontaneous discussions. Meetings moved forward at a fast pace with decisions being made on the spot. Discussion roadblocks were rare in the meetings I attended. Priorities were quickly agreed upon. Remote attendees could participate through phone lines and online chat sessions.

The UDS was packed with expert developers and key contributors, like Rob Savoye the lead developer of the Gnash project.

Rob traveled to Cambridge from Colorado, in order to make sure Gnash fit right in Ubuntu's 8.04 plans. According to Rob, "Ubuntu was the first GNU/Linux distribution to ship Gnash, and although Gnash runs on dozens of other distributions, it usually runs best on Ubuntu."

Gnash is a GPL'd SWF movie player as a GPL alternative to Adobe's Flash player. Gnash works as a browser plugin for Firefox, Mozilla, and Konqueror or a stand-alone program. The first official Gnash beta was released on March 29, 2008. According to Savoye, "Gnash supports many SWF v7 features and ActionScript 2 classes with growing support for SWF v8 and v9. Now all we need to do is increase our funding so we can get as close to 100% compatible as possible in a reasonable amount of time."

Rob's life as a traveling developer reads like an excerpt from Jack Kerouac's "On The Road." He recently wrote to me from FISL in Brazil - Fórum Internacional de Software Livre – where he was giving a talk on Gnash. (The International Free Software Forum attracts more than 7,400 attendees.) Now that Ubuntu 8.04 has shipped, the next version is being planned at the UDS in Prague. Rob will be there too!

What's new in Ubuntu 8.04?

With the desktop edition, individuals will find numerous new features to make their user experience more enjoyable. An excellent recap of the 8.04 features appears on the Ubuntu website.

Ubuntu 8.04 now displays a cleaner graphical user interface, thanks to a newer version of GNOME (now 2.22.1). You can expect greater reliability and security with an updated Linux kernel (updated to version 2.6.24). Improved video compatibility should lead to more successful installations, thanks to a newer version of the X window system (and Xorg 7.3) Dynamic and multi-screen setups are also easier than ever.

Ubuntu 8.04 is the first major distribution to ship with Firefox 3 Beta 5, and it's generally worked well for me. Brasero, a powerful but easy-to-use CD/DVD burning application, is also included. In my view, Ubuntu has always had the simplest and best free tools for burning CDs and handling ISO formatted files. For photo viewing, Ubuntu now installs F-Spot manager as a default. (Personally, I prefer Picasa2 – which is free from Google's website.) Open Office is included as a complete suite of applications for all your word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet needs.

One of my favorite default applications is the handy note-taking application called TomBoy. Another favorite is Vinagre – a Virtual Network Client (VNC). Vinagre allows remote access and operation between networked computers. One Ubuntu machine acts as a server and multiple VNC clients (even from different platforms, as long as they are running a VNC client) can be connected and share desktops and applications. If you want to establish a remote game of Chess or Bridge, this is a simple way to do it. A new BitTorrent downloader, Transmission, is just one of many other application offerings.

Some core features have changed: ufw (uncomplicated firewall) and security are improved. Clocks now include multiple location time and weather. Memory protection has been improved. Policy Kit is now integrated into the administrative user interface if you need to gain better control over access privileges.

Ubuntu 8.04 has left me with the inescapable feeling that Ubuntu has reached a new level of reliability. Performance is impressive. Although this release is not perfect, and installation incompatibilities remain, it feels solid once you get it installed and running.

Expert Views

I asked Ronnie Tucker, publisher of the popular Ubuntu website "Full Circle", for his thoughts on Ubuntu 8.04:

"For me (as a Kubuntu user) the big thing has to be KDE 4. Since KDE 4.0.2 is far more usable than the initial KDE 4.0 release, I hope more users will give it a try. I am also impressed by the inclusion of Wubi. No more excuses Windows users!

A major turning point (I think) for Ubuntu is 'Bulletproof X'. (This is new functionality in the X Windows System which makes it possible to match software to varied user hardware and gracefully find the highest common denominator if there are hardware or software complications.) there's nothing more discouraging than having a blank screen, if you've no display (and no other PC) how can you find out how to fix it? I know, I've been there! So hopefully Bulletproof X will make that a thing of the past.

I don't think the release of Hardy will cause any major changes in the PC industry, but as Ubuntu (and Linux) start to become easier to use and gain the same features as Windows there'll be less and less excuses not to at least give Ubuntu a try."

Platform Tests

I installed the final pre-release version of Ubuntu 8.04 on seven different systems.

One of these test systems was a Dell 9200 Core 2 Duo running Windows. I installed Wubi – the Ubuntu Installer under Windows – and everything worked fine. On six additional machines, I installed Ubuntu from scratch – wiping out the pre-existing installation. Of these six machines, three had installation problems. That added nearly a dozen hours of debugging and validation time to my cumulative test installation process. (It may be worth noting other platforms also have their share of installation incompatibilities, so this can be a tricky process for any operating system.) In the end, Ubuntu 8.04 was up and running nicely on all but one machine – unexpectedly, the problem was on the newest machine in the bunch.

The first problem involved a Dell Dimension 8300, originally purchased in July 2003. Ubuntu 8.04 installed fine but there was no audio. After digging around on some of the message boards, I learned that the motherboard's onboard audio chipset can sometimes conflict with a sound card. As soon as I removed the sound card everything worked fine.

The second installation hiccup was my aging Compaq/Presario SR1620NX, purchased in October 2005. After installation, I couldn't get into the desktop – a video card with my quirky graphics card was blocking creation of the desktop and leaving me stuck at the login view. Fortunately, a simple workaround exists. The options menu on the login screen allows you to establish several different kinds of user sessions. Choose the option for "Failsafe GNOME", which got me to the Desktop just fine. Once I was at the desktop, Ubuntu kindly prompted me to install a restricted driver for my particular video card. Once that was done, subsequent reboots worked fine.

The third installation problem involved my relatively new Dell 530N. Ironically, this machine has been running Ubuntu 7.10 without any problems. The 530N was originally purchased from Dell in July 2007 and came with Ubuntu pre-installed. Considering that history, I presumed this upgrade would be effortless. The installation completed without any problem, but the system failed to recognize my hard disk during my first reboot. All I saw was a blank terminal screen scrolling error messages. I subsequently learned a number of other people have the same problem. The Dell 530N will have to wait until a fix is available before it moves to 8.04.

My installation experience underscores the need for improved release testing, perhaps including greater coordination of volunteer effort. It would be ideal if vendors could also participate more actively. Additional integration testing by motherboard makers, chip manufacturers, and system integrators would be relatively easy to accomplish as part of a fully automated process. At little expense, vendors could provide great assistances to their customers (and the entire Ubuntu and greater Linux community.) Vendors who demonstrate Ubuntu and Linux compatibility of their products would certainly gain customer goodwill and may find their products being used more widely in new and creative application solutions.

For my five successful Ubuntu 8.04 installations, I ran an extensive suite of standardized Ruby benchmark tests. The test systems are summarized in the attached table. Overall, Ubuntu 8.04 performed well with the rigorous Ruby tests, each lasting from 25 minutes to over 40 minutes, depending on the system speed and configuration.

Who's using Ubuntu? The South End Technology Center, Boston, Massachusetts

One Boston-based organization - The South End Technology Center (SETC) - has been introducing new users to Ubuntu since the beginning of this year. The center was previously the first pilot location for MIT's roofnet project, so it's no stranger to cutting edge technology. (Roofnet was a precursor to the modern mesh wireless internet access networks now being deployed in San Francisco and other locations.)

The Director of SETC is Mr. Mel King, a long-time community organizer and activist for youth programs he was a strong grass-roots candidate for the mayor of Boston in 1983.

Mr. Mel King
Mr. Mel King, supported by rack of O'Reilly reference books (Click to enlarge.)

Teaching and learning
Teaching and learning (Click to enlarge.)

As a tech savvy former adjunct professor at MIT, who also composes music and poetry, he saw the promise in Ubuntu. In January 2008, Mr. King sought assistance for teaching Ubuntu to people who drop into the center.

Three volunteers from the Ubuntu MA group – Martin Owens, Mike Rushton, and Sara Abbott – offered to lead weekly workshops introducing people to computers through Ubuntu. According to Martin Owens, leader of the Mass Ubuntu group:

"The training we provide is for both the general public who are invited and for people to whom Mr. King is giving a computer.

Most of the people we teach have some experience with computers, but even those who don't have found the experience to be positive and the introduction to Ubuntu to be a good first step into learning how to use a computer.

All students who participate in the training are encouraged to train others and pass on what they've learned."

In some cases, visitors to SETC have the simple goal of learning to type. TuxTyping and other Ubuntu friendly applications are perfect. For more advanced visitors, Linux-powered software like EagleCad is used for circuit board design.

SETC has its own Fab Lab, established with support from the National Science Foundation and MIT Prof. Neil Gershenfeld. An article in the January 30, 2005 Boston Globe – How to make (almost) anything – reported the Fab Lab has "about $25,000 worth of high-tech equipment and supplies, including a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter (normally for making signs but used here to cut copper for circuits), and a 3-D milling machine to make circuit boards, all connected to Linux-based computers loaded with open-source design and manufacturing software."

Mike Rushton, also a group leader involved in the SETC workshops, summed up:

"Everyone has so far taken very well to Ubuntu and what it provides to the average user. Some are happy to rid themselves of viruses and crashes that other OS's seem to be riddled with. Others are excited to be taking part in something new and interesting – they see more possibilities to how we use computers.

As for 8.04, I've been running it since Alpha 3. It has many new improvements and more importantly, stability. I think Ubuntu has come a long way and Hardy Heron will certainly be proof of that progress."

Ubuntu has proven to be a versatile platform at SETC for all levels of users. It's been an essential ingredient in the efficient recycling of hardware, and thus a great outreach tool. Mr. King receives a steady inflow of used, donated PCs. These come in with many different configurations; he wipes them clean and installs Ubuntu. In many cases, people who attend a training workshop install Ubuntu on a computer they will soon take home.

In Summary

Why wouldn't everyone use Ubuntu 8.04? Afterall, Ubuntu is free! Companies with customized applications that don't run on Linux are out of luck, but experimenting with Ubuntu would be a smart play. (It took a while for companies to reduce their dependence on COBOL too.) Another weakness in Ubuntu is playback of store-bought DVDs and the lack of best-of-breed media and content editing applications like Adobe's Creative Suite.

Most other users could find something of interest in Ubuntu 8.04. This release is a great way to revitalize an old, retired machine or build a low cost system. Ubuntu's graphical user interface has improved to the point where most people can explore and use it as easily as any other desktop graphical user interface. All the typical operating system activities (eg. menus, dialogs, file management, network access, resource sharing, application launching, web access etc.) are easily accessible. There is a growing list of reasons –security, reliability, reduction of malware and virus risks, easier upgrades and software maintenance – why you might want to seriously consider Ubuntu 8.04.

Much of the attention paid to 8.04 relates to it's designation as an LTS release, and thus ideally suited for the enterprise. In future releases, we'll see an increasing focus on mobile solutions. At the October 2007 UDS, many planning meetings focused on the Ubuntu Mobile and Embedded (UME) project, which is jointly sponsored by Canonical and Intel. https://wiki.ubuntu.com/MobileAndEmbedded. UME is expected to launch later this year as a mobile platform for Intel's MID (Mobile and Internet Device) class of computers. The MID will be a good match for the recently announced Atom™ Processor, Intel's smallest processor consisting of the world's smallest transistors. The perfect match for the growing number of mobile chipsets could be a high quality, low-cost operating system just like Ubuntu.

Test Machine Summary

PC Type

RAM

Processor

Model Year

IBM ThinkPad

128 MB

Celeron (Mendocino)

February-00

Dell Dimension 8300

2.5 GB

Pentium 4 CPU 2.80 GHz

July-03

Dell Inspiron 700m

512MB

Intel Pentium M processor 1.60 GHz

December-04

eMachines T4010

512MB

Intel Celeron CPU 2.93GHz

April-05

Compaq Presario SR1620NX

512MB

AMD Sempron 3400+

October-05

Dell Dimension 9200

3 GB

Intel Core 2 Duo PROCESSOR, 6600, 2.4 GHz, 4M

December-06

Dell Inspiron 530N

512 MB

Intel Dual Core - 2 x E2140 @ 1.60 GHz

July-07

Brian DeLacey attended the December 2005 Ubuntu Developer Summit in Montreal. He's thankful that his old hardware now runs faster with Ubuntu 7.10. He's also pretty happy that his newer Dell 530N runs Ubuntu on one half of a 42" 1080P LCD, with the Red Sox still playing games in October on the other half.


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