December 8, 2006

Mandrake founder discusses new distro

Author: Bruce Byfield

Gaël Duval already has a place in the history of free software as the creator of the Mandrake distribution and the co-founder of MandrakeSoft (now Mandriva). After being dismissed last March from Mandriva, Duval plans to make his mark a second time with Ulteo, a new distribution designed to simplify computing by taking administration out of users' hands. With the alpha version of Ulteo released this week after six months of secrecy, Duval talked to about his plans.

The idea for Ulteo comes from Duval's experiences over the last few years. "As a software specialist," he says, "I'm very often called to help friends and family. Increasingly, this same situation is happening, whatever operating system is used. Typically, the user is asked to perform some system administration tasks such as fixing an problematic system behavior, or installing or removing an application. He thinks he can do it because there is a nice graphical interface and because he can always click OK or Cancel.

"Sometimes it works, But too much time is spent in these administration tasks. often, it even fails and leaves the system in a bad state which has to be recovered by someone who knows better. The tragedy is that the user is spending so much time to fix all these issues."

The goal of Ulteo, Duval explains, is "to address these issues by shifting as much system administration as possible from the users' hands to computer specialists."

How Ulteo works

Most details about Ulteo's design have not been made public. The project's Web page includes a reference to the Ulteo Connected Desktop, which went into alpha testing at the start of November, but includes no details beyond describing it as "an Ulteo desktop for both Ulteo OS users and all OS users."

However, according to the Ulteo newsletter, the new distribution will:

  • Always provide the most up to date stable features and self-upgrade automatically.
  • Require no, or very little, administration by the user.
  • Open users horizon to potentially every application which exists, the simple way.

"In general," Duval explains, "when you use Linux, Mac, or Windows, you eventually have to either trash your old system and install a new one, or perform an upgrade that is never very safe or stable. With Ulteo, it's different. Ulteo maintains a core system plus core applications which can be seen as a whole system. We like to call it an 'application system' by comparison with an 'operating system' which is not supposed to provide any end-user applications."

The recent alpha version focuses on Ulteo's first goal of providing stable and automatic software updates. According to the release notes, Ulteo uses a system called Yuch "to mount the whole system as a loop from a read-only SquashFS image and other layers. Read-only layers and the Read-write system layer are put together using UnionFS [and] a daemon called UGD (Ulteo General Daemon) is always connecting to Ulteo servers to see if a newer, more up to date system is available."

"The system is safe," Duval adds, "because we are not addressing a filesystem, but a system image that has to be replicated bit by bit."

Unfortunately, because of the newness of the release, no updates were available when this story was filed. As a result, users who install Ulteo to a hard drive will have to wait to see Yuch and UGD in action. Many features, too, are waiting to be implemented, such as the ability to upgrade from CDs, or to install to a hard drive with more than a single partition other than the swap. For now, Ulteo is simply another distribution with a KDE desktop.

However, Duval insists that Ulteo is not just another distribution. Although Ulteo is based on Debian and Ubuntu, its packages "have been reconditioned and the final result is regenerated from sources." More to the point, he asks, "What would be the point of doing yet another Linux distribution, just like the others? Ulteo's development is driven by users' pains, and we want to bring solutions."

Developing a business

Regardless of whether Ulteo can deliver the computing experience that Duval intends or securely take the place of on-site administrators, working on the project has clearly renewed his interest in computing after the bitterness of his departure from Mandriva. "It is an exciting new venture, both because of its technical perspectives and because of the fact that I've been in contact with so many brilliant and interesting people during the past six months."

Currently, Ulteo is not backed by any venture capital, although Notix Technical Solutions provides some support for the project's Web site. However, Duval hopes eventually to develop Ulteo into a business. He says that he is delaying this step because "I want Ulteo to have a business model which is totally compatible with open source / free software." He suggests that Ulteo "is going to be a great option for affordable OEM PCs."

Asked whether he has learned from his experiences with MandrakeSoft/Mandriva that he will apply to Ulteo, Duval replies, "Absolutely! I'll try to keep control as long as possible or as long as needed, and won't trust any more people who want to tell me what I should do and how I should do it."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.

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