June 22, 2006

Planning for Ubuntu Edgy: A mid-week report from the Ubuntu developer's conference

Author: Benjamin Mako Hill

PARIS -- On Monday of this week, more than 60 Ubuntu developers gathered in a hotel near Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport to plan Ubuntu's next release, codenamed Edgy Eft. The goal of the meeting is to set the goals for the upcoming release and to chart the set of steps that will be necessary to implement it.

Ubuntu's last release, 6.06 Long Term Support (LTS) was codenamed the Dapper Drake. It was designed to be a well-polished and well-supported release befitting its long lifecycle, and by most accounts it has succeeded.

On the other hand, Mark Shuttleworth's announcement of Edgy set different goals for the upcoming release:

Edgy is all about cutting edge, perhaps bleeding edge, brand new code and infrastructure. It will be the right time to bring in some seriously interesting but definitely edgy new technologies which lay the groundwork for the next wave of Ubuntu development.

Perhaps more importantly, while Ubuntu developers and the community decided to delay the release of Dapper by six full weeks to focus on quality assurance and polish, they agreed to make up for the delay in by slashing the Edgy release preparation period by a quarter. Edgy aims to take Ubuntu in some new, interesting directions -- and to do so at a breakneck pace.

Shuttleworth and Ubuntu technical board chair Matt Zimmerman are already quietly warning that Edgy may be "rougher" than previous Ubuntu releases, although they do not see this a liability; users can continue using Dapper with full support for a three to five years. Developers, however, will be able to use the window of long-term stability offered by Dapper to explore new and more risky choices in the Edgy time frame.

Dapper crowned a successful two-year period of growth for the Ubuntu project. Just as Ubuntu's first release, the Warty Warthog, broke new ground for GNU/Linux distributions while risking a few warts, Edgy aims to push development "to the edge."

At the time of writing, there are more than 170 identified goals under discussion at the Paris developer summit. Only a portion of these are marked as high priority, few have moved past the stage of "braindump," and only a handful have been approved. These specifications provide an idea of where Ubuntu might go in the next release. Of course, no promises are being made -- officially or unofficially.

A number of interesting feature goals stand a decent chance of being implemented in the Edgy release.

A cleaner house

While the software distributed with and supported in Ubuntu has only grown in size over the last four releases, core developers are taking advantage of the opportunity in Edgy to audit the list of supported packages and to make bold decisions that aim to build a smaller, stronger, and more well supported distribution around an updated list of software.

Ubuntu's priorities have changed over the last two years -- as has role of the desktop and supported lists of packages and of the universe component and the process of support. The Ubuntu core developers aim to revisit the lists of packages with all of this in mind.

Polish and consistency

Several specs under discussion involve improving polish and consistency on the Ubuntu desktop through pervasive and invasive types changes. One good example is a suggestion to to include consistent tab behavior across applications on the Ubuntu desktop.

Firefox, Gaim, GNOME Terminal, and other applications implement tabs with different key-bindings and interaction techniques. The Ubuntu developers are considering making changes to these applications in Edgy to make this behavior more consistent. Similar types of polish aim to improve user experience in other important ways.

Xen-enabled kernels by default

The kernel team is looking seriously at shipping kernels with Ubuntu that can be used with Xen without modifications as a way of making effortless virtualization an option for any Ubuntu user that wants to take advantage of it.

Widespread accessibility improvements

Ubuntu has, since day one, made accessibility support one of its most important philosophical goals. Led in large part by a big push by Henrik Nilsen Omma, Edgy aims to improve the state of accessibility in Ubuntu by including some of the best and most cutting edge accessibility tools in the free software world. This includes software to take advantage of hardware video acceleration for screen magnification and evaluation and integration of a whole set of next-generation tools for screen-reading and more. In addition to this being the right thing to do, it will open doors to Ubuntu in government and big business environments.

File type magic

Several goals discussed mapping unknown or unsupported files types to the applications necessary to run them in the Ubuntu package database. Just as Firefox can suggest and install software to help view unsupported media, the next version of Ubuntu may be able to suggest and install software necessary to support media and other types of files when a user does not have the necessary software installed.

GCC-SSP

Core developers are making a plan for the integration of GCC with "stack-smashing protector" into the distribution. SSP is an option on top of the GNU C Compiler which proactively blocks a wide number of buffer overflows; the end result is software that is proactively secure.

SSP has already been integrated into several other operating systems. Rather than building everything with SSP in Edgy, Ubuntu will probably experiment with SSP for many selected packages and then, once the team has worked the kinks out, will apply it to the whole archive for the release after Edgy.

Enterprise Grade Commercial Support

Through a number of specifications, Canonical seems to be gearing up for a serious push in providing improved support for Ubuntu. While the support seems to largely geared around supporting the Dapper Drake release, and not Edgy itself, Canonical Ltd. seems to interested in making a series of large investments into building infrastructure for community support and offering more traditional professional and enterprise support of the type offered by other "mainstream" distributions.

SMART Package Manager

SMART is a new package manager written from scratch in Python. It is able to deal with RPMs, Debian, and Slackware packages at the same time and includes a series of improved algorithms for resolving package dependency issues. Already in use by several other distributions, Ubuntu is looking at rolling out SMART as an option in Edgy. Once a list of issues are resolved in the Edgy and Edgy+1 time frames, the team plans to work on integrating SMART more fully into the project.

Conspicuously missing from the list of likely features is the crowd-pleasing Xgl. It, or the alternative AIGLX, might end up in the release but there don't seem to plans on doing it at the moment and the release schedule leaves little room for changes of heart.

The conference will continue through Friday, June 23. The list of full specifications can be read viewed on the Ubuntu Development Summit Web page. A second report on the conference will be released here after the conferences conclusion.

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