Ubuntu's "Dapper Drake" release - more prosaically known as "6.06 LTS" - is
due on June 1, and may well be available by the time you read this
article. A distribution release is not a particularly rare occurrence in
the Linux community, but there are a couple of things about Dapper which
are just a little bit unusual and worthy of note.
The "LTS" in this release's name stands for "long term support"; this
distribution comes with a promise of security updates for five years
(on server systems) or three years (on desktop systems). Exactly how that
distinction will be made is not entirely clear; one assumes that, for
example, graphical mail clients will go unsupported in June, 2009, while
mail transfer agents will continue to get updates into 2011. That is the
longest credible support promise ever made for a free distribution, and it
may change the commercial landscape in interesting ways.
There are many situations where the deployment of a Linux system makes a
great deal of sense. In many of those, one wishes to start with reasonably
current software, but to not have to worry much about upgrades for a long
time thereafter. Web servers, print servers, database servers, kiosks,
point of sale systems, and more all fall into this category. Once the
system works, any sort of software change offers downtime and the risk of
problems, but little in the way of advantages - except, of course, for
security fixes. Anybody planning such a deployment must consider how the
system will be supported and kept secure through its operating life. In
recent years, the available choices have fallen into these categories:
- An entirely free distribution (Fedora, Debian, OpenSUSE, etc.) can be
used. The price is right, and the quality of the software tends to be
high. The support window for these distributions tends to be short,
and, for some of them, unpredictable. Keeping a Fedora Core system
secure can involve upgrades twice a year - not an appealing option for
a system which is supposed to be stable and "just work."
- The "Enterprise" offerings from Red Hat and Novell come with long
support promises; there are, undoubtedly, still plenty of systems
running 2.4.9 kernels on RHEL 2 with uninterrupted support.
These services can be expensive, however. For many customers, a
support subscription is easily justified and worth every penny.
But others will find that cost hard to swallow.
Some try to get the best of both worlds through enterprise clone
distributions like CentOS. By all
accounts, the CentOS team has done a top-quality job with its
distribution, but anybody contemplating a long-term deployment will
have to be convinced of the project's long-term future and be able to
overcome qualms (if any) about free-riding on the enterprise
- Security support can be managed in-house. This approach requires a
significant investment of time by a skilled administrator or
developer, however, and is thus far from being free.
Ubuntu's five-year guarantee provides another choice: install Dapper, and
obtain updates until 2011 with no costs at all. The existence of the
Ubuntu Foundation, with its $10 million nest egg, helps to make that
five-year promise credible, and Ubuntu's record with security updates has
been, so far, quite good. So it would not be surprising to see significant
uptake on Ubuntu's promise. Whether those new Ubuntu users will come at
the cost of the enterprise distributions, or whether they are mostly people
getting away from the (relative) upgrade treadmill of the free
distributions, remains to be seen.
That leads to the other interesting aspect of this release: the increasing
friendliness between Ubuntu/Canonical and Sun Microsystems. The two have
that the Dapper release will include a version for Sun's new Niagara SPARC
architecture, and Sun executives are issuing quotes on how important a
distribution Ubuntu is. Clearly something is going on here.
Sun's troubles in recent years have been well documented; to a great
extent, Sun's customers have been steadily turning into customers of the
enterprise distributions. To Sun, Ubuntu may well look like an
opportunity to poke holes in the revenue streams of its main competitors.
Ubuntu, in turn, may see Sun's support (and the Niagara port) as a way to
gain a foothold in the server market. If Sun's new servers find customers,
Ubuntu will be the obvious distribution for any of those customers who wish
to run Linux.
How all of this plays out will be interesting to watch. Ubuntu's past
releases have certainly been popular; if Dapper holds together well enough
(and the initial signs are good), it may be the best-received Ubuntu
release yet. If so, Ubuntu may well change the shape of the Linux
(For those who are interested in what's actually in the 6.06 LTS release,
the "testing Dapper"
page has a lot of information and screenshots).
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