The duel between Linux and Windows may have an obvious victor on the home computer front, but the battle for server use paints a very different picture: since the beginning, Linux has bested Windows, as usage figures show. But many users remain unconvinced by statistics and rightfully ask the question: what are the actual differences between the two platforms?
To make the release of the new version 16.04 LTS more palatable, Canonical published an infographic in April 2016 about the spread of the Linux distribution Ubuntu. The graphic shows the considerable success of the open source system package: For example, in 2015 about 20 million new Ubuntu installations were started on public and private clouds. The distribution has been installed on hundreds of millions of PCs, servers, devices, virtual machines, etc. since publication in 2004 – including on the Chinese supercomputer Tianhe-2. Among the numerous projects run by the system software are the social networks Snapchat, Pinterest, Instagram, and Reddit, as well as the web services Dropbox and Netflix. Ubuntu is also in use on the International Space Station (ISS) and is the central operating unit of the BYU Mars Rover.
- What really is Ubuntu?
- Debian Linux and Ubuntu: (not) a simple relationship
- User-friendly and fully customizable: Ubuntu’s core features
- More than 40,000 program packages with four priority levels
- How the version politics of the Linux distribution work
- Desktop, server, or cloud: An overview of the various editions
- Ubuntu system requirements
- Conclusion: Ubuntu, the other Linux distribution
What really is Ubuntu?
Ubuntu is a free Linux distribution, published in October 2004 and based on the GNU/Linux classic Debian. The founder of the open source project was the South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. He had a dream to develop an operating system that was available to virtually all people, and that shaped the basic philosophy of the software package – the word “Ubuntu” comes from the Bantus languages of the Zulu and the Xhosa, and means “community” or “humanity”.
From the beginning, the software company Canonical – also founded by Shuttleworth – was responsible for the further development of the project. Together with various developers, it ensures that new Ubuntu versions appear every six months containing new features, security updates, and system optimizations. Ubuntu quickly gained popularity due to its simplicity, which made it very different from other Linux distributions right from the start. Originally intended as a home PC system, it has been the most widely used Linux distribution for web servers since June 2016, according to the statistics of w3techs – finally overtaking its predecessor Debian almost twelve years after its release. Now, a variant for use on mobile devices also exists with Ubuntu Touch.
Debian Linux and Ubuntu: (not) a simple relationship
Since Ubuntu is a derivative of Debian, both Linux distributions look technically similar: The Ubuntu team has adopted a variety of structures, including the package manager dpkg (Debian Package) and the .deb format, as well as some of the software packages. At the beginning of the development cycle of a new version of Ubuntu, these are matched with those from the current stable version of Debian and adapted accordingly. These changes are then in turn made available to developers of Debian projects as patches. But because the adaptations are often rather drastic, they’re rarely suitable for use in Debian, which in the past has always been a point of contention between the two project teams. Primarily, there’s always the accusation that Canonical concentrates exclusively on the improvement of its own product during the development process, without contributing to the Debian project or the further development of the Linux core.
User-friendly and fully customizable: Ubuntu’s core features
As a Unix-like system, Ubuntu isn’t tied to a fixed desktop environment like a Windows operating system would be. The interface Unity (previously GNOME), created by Canonical, has been installed by default since version 11.04, but you can also replace it with the user interface of your choice. This isn’t necessary, though, because Unity allows you to work efficiently and quickly with just a bit of practice – by mouse or by keyboard. The appearance and positioning of individual operating elements can be changed to a great extent to quickly adapt the environment to your own requirements.
Another special feature of Ubuntu is the fact that hardware configurations are mostly not stored on the hard drive. The system automatically recognizes built-in components during the start-up process, which means that you can easily exchange graphics cards, memory cards, and more. Likewise, it’s also possible to use an Ubuntu installation saved on a portable storage system on a different PC without making any adjustments. The standard installation of the Linux distribution creates an administrator account (root), but this is disabled, which is also the case with Mac OS X. This protects newcomers from unintentional system changes that may adversely affect performance or security. The sudo command also allows you to temporarily obtain full system privileges in the default configuration, which may be necessary to install some applications.
The standard installation of Ubuntu underlines developer commitment to a high degree of user-friendliness through the approach of offering only one program for each application area. Many other Linux distributions often come with a variety of different solutions for a single user scenario, which creates unnecessary complexity. Ubuntu also offers users increased comfort when it comes to update policies: Update management informs you of new versions and security patches for the operating system as well as all installed programs. When you decide which of the announced updates you want, you simply select or unselect the packages and then start the update process for your selections at the desired time with one click.
More than 40,000 program packages with four priority levels
Another popular Debian element that’s also featured on its derivatives is the division of the program packets into several package sources. The Ubuntu team gives different attention to each of the various sources – unlike Debian. Main, the most important source for the basic functionality of the operating system receives the highest level of support. This contains only packages that meet the licensing requirements and is characterized by its guaranteed technical support and timely security updates.
All packages that are supported by the Ubuntu developer team because of their importance, but whose licensing doesn’t meet the requirements, are classified as restricted software. Compared to the main applications, support is limited – mainly because access to the source code is missing.
The sources universe (free software) and multiverse (software with licensing restrictions) don’t receive official support from Canonical. Updates instead come from members of the Ubuntu-Debian community, or the so-called Masters of the Universe (MOTUs). For open source software that’s not contained in main or universe, you can suggest its inclusion by submitting a bug report.
The installation manager Ubuntu Software has been included since version 16.04, which replaced the previous software center. The program is standardly pre-installed and lists some of the 40,000+ available software packages that can be installed directly using the tool. These primarily deal with graphic and frequently used programs, while most shell applications and server software, such as the Apache web server or the MySQL database, aren’t included in the manager. With Ubuntu, the path via the command line is also necessary for this.
How the version politics of the Linux distribution work
Since its release in October 2004, Canonical publishes a new Ubuntu version every six months – in April and in October. This rhythm was only broken for Ubuntu 6.06, which took two additional months to work extensively on program errors, Asian language support, and Linux standard base certification. Every version has a version number, which provides information on the publication year and month. In addition, they also each have their own code name, composed of a species of animal and a preexisting adjective with the same initial letter. For example, the version released in April 2007 is called Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn. Mythical creatures have also been given the honor of being Ubuntu edition namesakes, such as unicorns (Utopic Unicorn) and werewolves (Wily Werewolf).
Canonical offers a support period of at least nine months for all Ubuntu versions (before version 13.04 it was 18 months), in which necessary security updates are provided. Every two years, a special version with long-term support (LTS) appears instead of the usual April version. These versions offer five-year security and hardware updates, making them much more suitable for companies and institutions as well as for home users, as opposed to the usual expenses that are more interesting to developers and members of the Ubuntu community. The first LTS version was the previously mentioned Ubuntu 6.06.
Desktop, server, or cloud: An overview of the various editions
Ubuntu is designed to provide the user with highest possible comfort of operation. When this can be guaranteed obviously depends on what is actually needed for the operating system. As the basis for the administration of a web project, for example, a completely different form of preparation is needed than for the operation of a home computer. Canonical offers the Linux distribution in three different editions, which are adapted to specific user requirements:
- Ubuntu Desktop: The standard version of the Debian derivative, whose features are discussed in this guide. If you decide on the desktop variant, you have the Unity interface and various applications pre-installed, such as Firefox, LibreOffice, or Thunderbird, which makes it easier to work on the PC at home.
- Ubuntu Server: Ubuntu Server is a standard software package that’s especially equipped for sparing resources, and only has a classic command line interface instead of the graphical Unity interface. You can use this to load the required software for your server environment after installation. To this end, complete finished packages exist, for example for LAMP, OpenSSH, or mail servers.
- Ubuntu Cloud: If you decide on Ubuntu Cloud, you should be planning on using the Linux distribution to manage an OpenStack cloud. With the help of the “autopilot” interface, you can effectively scale your private or public cloud based on the free OpenStack software initiated by Rackspace. With Ubuntu Kylin, Canonical also offers an edition that’s specially adapted to the Chinese market. Developers and hobbyists can use Snappy Ubuntu Core to download a variant that runs on a wide range of devices, thanks to its special architecture, such as routers, refrigerators, drones, or Raspberry Pi. Since 2014, Ubuntu Touch has existed as a version of the open source operating system for use on individual mobile devices, like the Nexus or Sony Xperia.
The following packages are also among the officially supported versions of Canonical (“Flavors”):
- Kubuntu: Uses the desktop environment KDE, including other applications from KDE
- Xubuntu: Build on the resource-sparing desktop interface Xfce, and is suitable for older computers with less memory
- Edubuntu: Ubuntu development for use in schools and contains diverse learning programs
- Ubuntu Studio: Software package including core with real-time function that specifically meets requirements for audio, graphic, and video processing.
- Ubuntu GNOME: Variant with the previously standard interface GNOME.
Ubuntu system requirements
Before you can use Ubuntu as an operating system, you should make sure that your system fulfills all of the necessary requirements. The exact requirements for the hardware are, of course, also dependent on the version and variant that you choose. For Ubuntu 16.04, Canonical provides the following recommended system requirements:
|Processor||2 GHz Dual-Core|
|Memory space||2 GB RAM|
|Hard drive space||25 GB|
|Other||DVD drive or USB port required for installation; Internet access recommended|
By now, the Linux distribution has broken into the dimensions of Windows, mainly due to the fact that Ubuntu has developed into more of a multimedia platform over the past years. If you’re unsure whether your system meets the requirements or not, you can easily test Ubuntu: Just download the operating system from the official homepage and install it next to your current system. If you restart your PC afterward, you have the option to select the Linux distribution. The original system remains unchanged in the settings.
Conclusion: Ubuntu, the other Linux distribution
With Ubuntu, Canonical has pulled off an unrivaled success story. The simple concept enabled maximum comfort for users, and is continuing to achieve that same level today. The Debian descendant has attracted many users as an alternative to Windows, because it’s different, reminiscent of Linux systems, but at the same time intuitive – thanks to its in-house desktop interface, Unity, an App Store-esque software manager, and effective update management. This route also faces pretty strong headwinds, though, especially in the Debian-Linux environment. The fact is that Canonical has broken the common Linux conventions again and again with Ubuntu, and takes steps that increasingly remove it from the Linux base.
As critically as this development is viewed by the Linux community, the distribution rate of the operating system gives reason to assume that the Ubuntu developers are doing something right. The large selection of Ubuntu variants, which are already optimized for different application types, makes it possible to operate a web server, produce music or videos, teach interactively, or even control a drone. More than 40,000 different software packages are available for installation, including some commercial programs. If you’re unsure, whether your system fulfills the Ubuntu system requirements, or whether the Linux distribution is suitable for your plans, you can simply test it parallel to your current operating system – for free and without compromising the running capability of the current system.