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What's New in Ubuntu 7.10? (a.k.a. Gutsy Gibbon)
Pages: 1, 2

This Old Hardware

In order to test Ubuntu and gather some real-world experience with the releases, I dusted off three old machines—Compaq Presario SR1620NX, eMachines T4010, and a Dell Inspiron 700M. Each one had become a sluggish, poor performer by the end of its useful life with Windows. To balance my review with more modern hardware, I bought a brand new shiny desktop – Dell's 530N—to put Ubuntu through its paces. Here's the lineup:

  • Compaq Presario SR1620NX has 512 MB of RAM and a wimpy AMD 3400+ Sempron processor. It was reviewed by PC Magazine in October 2005 as "an unassuming PC."

  • eMachines T4010 is even older: it also runs with 512 MB of RAM and a low-end Intel Celeron processor. CNET's April 2005 review described the T4010 as an "excellent value for the money among budget PCs."

  • Dell Inspiron 700M with 512 MB of RAM. This spry little laptop came with a Pentium M Processor clocked at a mellow 1.60 GHz. I reluctantly retired this versatile little laptop, which was purchased in 2004, from active Windows service when a relentless round of virus attacks rendered it unresponsive to help from multiple, expensive, and time-consumed spyware doctors.

  • Dell 530N with 512 MB of RAM, a quick Intel dual-core processor, more advanced NVIDIA graphics processing, and a very sharp 20 inch widescreen digital flat-panel display, This one was pre-installed with only Ubuntu, keeping the price below $600 when I bought it in July 2007.

As you can see, all these machines have downright stingy memory footprints. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to build a machine that could meet the low standards of those old ones today. My test machines were inexpensive hardware using free software. If it works, it's a compelling combination.

The Bottom Line?

I was able to install Ubuntu, Kubutnu, Xubuntu, and Gobuntu without any major difficulties. Installations typically took about an hour once I had the software on CD. This compares favorably to other software operating systems, where an equivalent installation and configuration might take a day or two. In addition, Ubuntu has a Live CD, which lets you run from the CD without requiring you to remove anything from your test machine. It's a wonderful example of "try before you buy"—except here there is nothing to buy since it's all free. (Ubuntu software is available at www.ubuntu.com. If you want CDs, through the generosity of financial supporters like Canonical Ltd., you can order them free through Canonical's ShipIt service.)

"Is Ubuntu perfect?" No, but it works really well and the price is right. I have one glitch with video on the SR1620NX in the 7.10 release, even though that same machine has no problem with video in Ubuntu 7.04. I can wait before I update that computer. (An Ubuntu developer has contacted me no less than three times in an effort to resolve the problem, so I'm confident of a good outcome.)

Another unanswered question is how easily I'll be able to upgrade my existing Ubuntu 7.04 system to 7.10. I have previously saved data files and then reinstalled the entire system when a major new version appears. All Ubuntu users will be automatically notified when new releases and other updates are available, allowing users to decide whether or not to accept the updates.

With all my old hardware now running pre-release versions of Ubuntu 7.10, they feel like they've been rejuvenated into peppy, useful computers. Each one of them handles the typical tasks of web browsing, email, word processing (with spell checking), spreadsheet, presentation, and programming activities (NetBeans, Java, Ruby, Swing, etc.) The machines can print to modern printers, play my music, and process my camera photos. Because of the robust security environment, I have few fears of viruses.

This article was written on the eMachines T4010, connected to a 24" Dell widescreen LCD. While Ubuntu was helping me with my writing, it was also playing music, sharing files (over a local area network and the Web), scanning the Web for the latest in news and sports scores, and running a number of additional programs not included in Ubuntu. For example, I installed Google's Picasa to transfer photos from my Canon camera via the USB ports. Google Earth installs beautifully as well: a virtual tour from the United States to China, using Google Earth on a 42" high definition LCD connected to a computer running Ubuntu, is fun for the whole family. There are software applications that I use on Windows that do not run on Ubuntu, but the variety and quality of applications that do run in Ubuntu is growing steadily.

Codeography and Ubuntu

Software development is an amazingly creative process that blends art and science. Open source is both more complex (with volunteers contributing from all over the world) and somehow simpler (as a self-organizing process, lacking many points of coordinated complexity) compared to proprietary development. Codeography is my term for describing and mapping where code comes from.

Ubuntu Installfest Image
Working on installs at the Ubuntu Installfest at MIT
(Clockwise from left: Mike Rushton, Martin Owens,
and Steve Pomeroy) - Photo by Brian DeLacey

There are more than 1,000 developers working on the Debian project. A number of employees at Canonical work on Ubuntu full-time. In addition, there are 76 Masters of the Universe (MOTU) who work with open source developers to make sure the right version of up-to-date code is included in the final release. Countless other volunteers have contributed—I asked a few to comment.

Sarah Hobbs started doing volunteer development on Ubuntu and Kubuntu in 2005. She initially helped by providing IRC support and later gained experience with packaging. She subsequently served as a MOTU, and now contributes as both a MOTU and a Ubuntu Core Developer. I asked Sarah about the role of the MOTU, and she said, "Part of the role of Masters of the Universe is to monitor upstream projects, including Amarok for me, and make sure that we're sending our bug reports (in a useful fashion) to them. We also take fixes that they commit to their svn repository, and put it into our packages. For fixes of high impact bugs, such as security fixes, severe regressions from previous versions of Ubuntu, or bugs that cause a loss of data, we put these fixes into the stable versions of Ubuntu."

Richard Johnson is a Kubuntu Developer and also serves as a MOTU, helping to look after the "universe,"which is a large repository of free software that isn't installed out of the box with Ubuntu but provides a source of future applications to consider. He described his role: "I really don't have a specific role. The closest I come to such a role would be that I spend most of my time working on packages for Kubuntu, so most of my work would deal with KDE. At times I assist other developers in getting their packages to build if they are having issues, and every now and then you can catch me in the IRC channel (#ubuntu-motu on Freenode) helping future developers learn the process."

Andrew Mitchell has experience as a Debian Developer and Ubuntu MOTU. Mitchell described the flow of software as it makes its way into a Ubuntu release: Most of the packages in Ubuntu originated from Debian. Ubuntu pulls packages from the Debian unstable branch of code, which makes it especially important for bug fixes to find their way back and forth between open source projects. According to Mitchell, upstream authors write the majority of the code that finds its way into a release of Ubuntu, while Debian people package much of it up. Ubuntu developers also do some independent packaging, and a great deal of integration work as well as original coding—usually creating tools, which become packages in Ubuntu and can be pushed back to Debian.

Brian Fallik is an end user, working on software development projects between the United States and India. He relies on Ekiga and Ubuntu for communicating with his development team in India. Trying the Ekiga version in one of the early beta builds of Ubuntu 7.10 proved problematical. He queried LaunchPad and saw a bug report had been filed. Within a couple of days, the bug was fixed.

Kilian Krause, the Debian Developer currently maintaining Ekiga in Debian (but not in Ubuntu) reckons that Debian had found the very same issue. However, a roll-out of a new version would have been delayed until further testing was done. The bug was soon fixed in both Debian and Ubuntu, further demonstrating how closely this stream of software is connected together.

Fallik was thrilled when Ekiga was fixed—but there were many other encouraging moments in his use of the beta: "One feature that amazed me was the way plugins work. I launched Firefox and found that eTrade couldn't display some widget because the Java plugin was missing. Sigh. Having used Linux for many years I knew this is almost always a pain to resolve. With low expectations for success, I decided to simply follow the instructions on the web page and click to install the missing plugin. I expected either an error message, an attempt to install a Windows version, or an attempt to download and install an unpackaged version. Immediately Gutsy's update-manager pops up and asks me which version of Java I want to install! I selected the later version, which downloaded and installed fine. Simply refreshing the web page displayed the correct widget. It all actually worked together, and I had a native Ubuntu package installed. Wooohooo, as Homer would say."

Full Circle is a community supported publication that provides good coverage of the latest news from the Ubuntu community. Ronnie Tucker, the founder and editor, described the publication to me: "The readership of Full Circle is worldwide, we have around 30,000 downloads each month with the vast majority of the readers being American (followed by other English speaking nations). We also have translations from English to Chinese, Polish, Italian, French, and so on, these have monthly downloads ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. In the beginning most people found out about us through The Fridge (part of the Ubuntu site) and from the Ubuntu Marketing and News mailing lists." Now, Tucker explained, more blogs are starting to pick up on the publication. Issue #5 includes a "Preview of Gutsy Gibbon." The magazine walks its talk too: only open source software is used in creating the publication, something not all Linux publications claim. It's well worth checking out.

Building a new version of Ubuntu is a delicately interwoven process of activities involving people from all around the world. Much of the communication takes place via email and IRC. New volunteers are welcomed, and it's not too late to get involved and have a major impact on the future of this technology.

Looking Ahead

Ubuntu's community is already looking ahead to the next release. Releases are scheduled for delivery every six months, so the next one will arrive in April 2008 as version 8.04. (The 8 represents the year, and 04 representing the month shipped.). The code name is Hardy Heron.

The Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) will be held from October 29th through November 2nd in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is a working gathering for Ubuntu contributors and marks the beginning of a new development cycle for Ubuntu. Priorities will be agreed to. Schedules will be set. Coding will commence. As they say about the UDS, "It's not for end users, it's not a time for free support, it's not a time to meet and talk strategy. No suits, no tourists in short."

Success, even for free things, requires some serious effort.

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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