I've been holding my breath for two years since the last Long-Term Support Ubuntu release, 10.04 Lucid Lynx. Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, Precise Pangolin, was just released so at long last I can breathe again.
Summary for the impatient: Both desktop and server Precise Pangolin are supported for five years, rather than just three years on the desktop. Ubuntu Server gets new "big data" technologies. More interoperability support with VMware, Citrix and Microsoft Remote Desktop. More certified hardware and software. More ARM support. Not much drama, but incremental improvements and continued wooing of the enterprise, from small business to vast empires. And more evolution of consumer retail products.
Time to Clean Filters
Ubuntu's six-month release cycle makes it a bit wearying to maintain the appropriate level of excitement. I use it as a reminder to clean my furnace filters. Anyway it's hard to have drama in a mature product. Improvements are incremental, the new has worn off, and there are a lot more excellent Linux distributions to choose from than when Ubuntu was the new kid. A lot of them are Ubuntu derivatives, and that is how it's supposed to work.
Most of the attention given to Ubuntu is either liking or loathing the Unity desktop. Unity is just one piece of Ubuntu, and everyone natters on tediously about it. It's like back in the day, before Unity, there was always considerable discussion about the default themes. Everyone had an opinion about them, brown or aubergine or what-have-you, and argued fiercely pro or con. How hard is it to change a theme? A couple of mouse clicks. I feel the same way about Unity. For all of the passionate controversy over Unity, a sadly tiny percentage is informed. It's just like the endless theme debates – "I love it!" "I hate it!" "Ubuntu is stupid!" "Is not!" – ad nauseum until the heat death of the universe.
So I am going to ignore Unity, and I am not tell you how to download, install, or upgrade Precise Pangolin. I'm not going to take a passionate stand on the default color scheme or string together random screenshots and call it a day. I'm not going to breathlessly adore/loathe Mark Shuttleworth. Instead, just to break tradition and be weird for the fun of it, let's talk about the myriad other aspects of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin, the many features that distinguish Ubuntu from the rest of the great thundering Linux distro herd.
Consumer and Enterprise Ubuntu
Canonical has invested a lot into penetrating the enterprise and Tier 1 vendors. Ubuntu Server and Desktop are certified on a number of Tier 1 hardware vendors such as Dell, Lenovo, ASUS, Acer, HP, and Lenovo. OEM Ubuntu ships on ASUS, Dell, HP, and Lenovo, and Canonical has a long history of working with independent Linux vendors like System76 and ZaReason. Ubuntu is the only consumer desktop Linux available pre-installed with Tier 1 vendors. Ubuntu is certified with some major enterprise software as well, such as MongoDB, Centrify, Parallels, Puppet Labs, Amazon Web Services, VMWare, and many more.
The Linux world is littered with the corpses of desktop distros that tried to take on Windows directly: Lindows/Linspire, Corel Linux, Caldera Linux, Xandros, some others I'm sure I've forgotten... only Xandros still lives. Much punditry has been devoted to the window of opportunity opened by the retirement (for real this time) of Windows XP, yet Ubuntu is the only major Linux distro being positioned as a Windows XP upgrade, an alternative to Windows 7. (Check out the comparison table with Windows 7.) Red Hat soft-pedals its desktop edition, and neither Red Hat nor SUSE have much interest in the consumer retail space. Mandriva has valiantly tried for years, but never succeeded in getting much traction.
Ubuntu Server Does Big Data
Ubuntu Server is the real deal, tuned for server duties and defaulting to no graphical environment. I imagine this comes as a bit of a shock to users who expect something like Ubuntu Desktop, all full of hand-holding goodness, but it's lean and mean and meant for serious work. Like everyone else addicted to buzzword bingo, Ubuntu does "big data." This is a fuzzy marketing term, but mostly it means a quantity of unstructured data that is so large it's not manageable with ordinary tools. Think petabytes and larger. Big data, in a happy coincidence for cloud vendors, means you need cloud services to manage all that stuff.
The 12.04 release includes a lot of cloud technologies: OpenStack, AWSOME ("Any Web Service over Me") for managing diverse cloud services, and the Query2 cloud meta-data service. It's full of virtualization: Xen, KVM, and LXC, Linux Containers. Precise Pangolin introduces Canonical's new server provisioning tool MAAS (metal as a service), which works in conjunction with Canonical's Juju. Juju is a service management framework for configuring and deploying server software stacks. MAAS does bare-metal network installations of Ubuntu Server. Together they simplify rolling out new Ubuntu-based clouds, and then the whole works is managed through the Landscape systems management dashboard.
Canonical offers a range of paid services for Ubuntu server. Support options for plain old Ubuntu Server undercut Red Hat and SUSE, starting at $320/yr per server. Private cloud deployments start at $1050/yr. Ubuntu Cloud Guests are $17,600 per year for a hundred Ubuntu Server instances, or $175 per server, on Amazon, HP Cloud, or Rackspace.
The big challenge for the modern system administrator is management tools. Linux has long had all the necessary components for running services and performing myriad datacenter chores. Now the new frontier is managing all this stuff efficiently: installations, migrations, updates, monitoring, integration, configuration, regulatory compliance and changes. This isn't your grandmother's server room anymore, where she whips out a quick script over SSH and then goes back to her Nethack marathon. It's many times more complex.
Coordinated *buntu Releases
There are six official Ubuntu releases: Xubuntu, Ubuntu Studio, Lubuntu, Kubuntu, and Edubuntu. All six are on the same release cycles as Ubuntu. All share the same software repositories, and no matter which one you start with you can get any of the others through the package manager, without downloading and installing the whole works. This works brilliantly in concert with the PPAs to easily customize your system.
A longstanding criticism of Ubuntu is the release cycle. Some think that six months for normal releases is too short and too buggy, and two years is too long for a desktop system, though it's all right for servers. A single yearly release is a common suggestion, but in my own somewhat humble opinion the existing release schedule works fine. It incorporates both "release early, release often" and provides a steady flow of (theoretically) more stable long-term releases.
What makes it work is the brilliant Personal Package Archive (PPA) system. PPAs provide a central home for third-party packages, and they are installed through your normal package manager. So when you want a newer version of a single program you can probably find it in a PPA, instead of waiting on the distro maintainers or upgrading your entire system to a newer release. PPAs make the long-term releases viable as desktop systems for users who want it all – reasonably stable and selected updated apps right now.
Future or Vapor
More resources are going into ARM support, including ARM servers. Ubuntu for Android and Ubuntu TV are making lots of marketing buzz but not much in the way of specifics. The new Ubuntu Business Remix, based on 11.10, was launched on February 10th. This is a basic office-oriented serious-work-only desktop that businesses can easily deploy and modify; it comes with OpenJDK 6, Adobe Flash and VMware View, and foofy stuff like games, social apps, admin, and development packages are not included. It is a free download after filling out a short registration form. $105/yr per desktop gets you standard support, which includes Landscape, 24/7 technical support, and access to the Canonical Knowledge Base. Compare to Red Hat at $49/yr with no support and $299/yr with standard support, or SUSE at $50/$120.
Linux surpassed Windows years ago for stability, security, performance, and flexibility. The missing pieces have always been pre-installed desktop Linux, and serious sustained marketing that isn't chicken to say "I'm better than Windows." Precise Pangolin has all the elements to be a serious contender in multiple arenas, so the next few years should be interesting in Linux-land.