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Ubuntu Server 11.04: Fully baked in 7 days

Mmm, this Narwhal is natty

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If you have nothing better to do next Thursday after stuffing yourself full of Easter lamb or ham on Sunday, you might want to wander over to Canonical, get a slice of "Natty Narwhal", and chew on a bit of Ubuntu Server 11.04.

The Natty Narwhal release is based on the Linux 2.6.38 kernel, which came out in mid-March with lots of interesting performance enhancements. One of the important ones is transparent huge pages (THPs), which boost the memory page size from 4KB to 2MB and considerably speed up database, virtual machine hypervisor, and guest operating system performance.

The new kernel also includes support for Intel's Intelligent Power Sharing (IPS), which scales the performance of CPUs and on-chip graphics processors up and down based on workload needs, helping machines use less electricity and generate less heat. Although this is something that few desktop users care about, laptop users always care, and an increasing number of data centers are starting to care as well.

Ubuntu Server 11.04 also includes PowerNap 2.0, a rev of that open source power-throttling tool that Canonical says can help the typical Linux server run on about 14 per cent less juice.

The Linux 2.6.38 kernel also supports AppArmor, the Linux-hardening project run by Novell until it fired everyone working on the project back in September 2007. AppArmor now sits upstream from the Linux kernel.

The new Ubuntu release does, of course, include kernel and driver changes to support new hardware, as every release must. Ubuntu cooks in the new kernel and then certifies its distro for specific hardware configurations.

Steve George, vice president of business development at Canonical, the corporate entity that sponsors the Ubuntu project and provides commercial support for the product, tells El Reg that Ubuntu Server 11.04 supports the new high-end "Westmere-EX" Xeon E7 and low-end "Sandy Bridge-DT" Xeon E3 processors, which were announced in the past several weeks. George says that support for future Sandy Bridge Xeons is already cooked in for both desktop and server editions, so when Intel ships the Sandy Bridge-EN and -EP variants in the third quarter, presumably to be called the Xeon E5s, Natty Narwhal will be able to ride on them.

Ubuntu Server 11.04 does not yet have support for the future "Valencia" and "Interlagos" Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices. These chips are based on the "Bulldozer" cores and are due to launch in the third quarter of this year. The updated Linux kernel does have support for the AMD Fusion CPU-GPU combo chips as well as preliminary support for new virtualization features that AMD is cooking into the Bulldozer cores for both desktop and server machines.

While Canonical supports Ubuntu on ARM-based PCs, there are no ARM-based servers to speak of – excepting some skunkworks around the world – and Canonical does not support its server releases on Power, Itanium, Sparc, or mainframe servers.

Server-provisioning has been made a little bit easier with Ubuntu Server 11.04 thanks to the inclusion of cobbler, a Python program that, as the name suggests, cobbles together a bunch of commands when making new systems or tweaking existing ones.

The server release also includes a set of tools called the Marionette Collective, or MCollective for short, developed by Puppet Labs, that provides a way to programmatically control clusters of systems instead of driving system admins nuts having them code-up custom scripts and manage naming schemes for machines.

Ubuntu Server 11.04 has a number of server virtualization and cloud enhancements. The libvirt virtualization API, which is used to manage KVM and Xen hypervisors on Ubuntu systems, has been tweaked with bug fixes and feature updates, according to George, moving to the 0.8.8 release.

Also, the cloud-init tool, which does the initial configuration of virtual servers on a cloud and which is coded by Canoncial's techies, has been revved to the 0.60 release level. With this release, Canonical is adding initial support for OVF containers for Ubuntu server images, which it admits requires some further testing in the release notes for beta 2 of Ubuntu Server 11.04. (The release notes for the final release are not out yet.)

Cloud-init is used to manage Ubuntu images out on Amazon's EC2 public cloud, as well as on private clouds using Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud (UEC), the commercially supported version of Ubuntu and the Eucalyptus cloud framework that clones Amazon's EC2 and its API stack.

The server distro includes Eucalyptus 2.02, which is the latest stable release and which includes security and performance tweaks, as well as a technology preview of the "Cactus" OpenStack 2011.2 cloud fabric being championed as an alternative to Eucalyptus by NASA, Rackspace Hosting, and a slew of other IT players with clouds in their eyes.

The big question, however, is when will OpenStack be fully supported in Ubuntu and not just be in tech preview. "It's not clear yet," George admitted to El Reg. George said that the Ubuntu developers would be gathering in May to discuss just this issue and that it would "be interesting to see if OpenStack will be stabilized" enough that it will make it into next year's Ubuntu Server 12.04 release. That's significant because the LTS releases have a five-year lifetime on servers and are the ones that many corporate customers prefer when they roll out Linux in their data centers.

George said that Ubuntu Server 11.04 also has improvements in the Btrfs, ext4, and XFS file systems.

One other item on which Canonical is spending more time is making sure that people can easily find out what specific server platforms have been certified to run Ubuntu. "The changes here are really about communication, not engineering," says George. "Half the battle is in engineering, but the other half is telling people what hardware we support." To accomplish this, the company has been more diligent in updating its supported hardware matrix for both PCs and servers.

Price points for Ubuntu Server support contracts remain the same with the 11.04 release as they were for the 10.10 release from last October. El Reg already walked you through Canonical's tiered pricing scheme for Ubuntu support when it was announced back in June 2010, but here's the cut and dry: a standard support contract with 9x5 business-hour support costs $700 per server per year, while an advanced contract covering 24x7 over a year costs $1,200. The essential contract, which is the barebones support deal from Canonical that gives you access to the knowledge base and handholding for installation of Ubuntu Server and basic applications such as Web, print, and file serving, costs $320 per year.

Ubuntu Desktop and Server editions will be available for download on April 28. ®

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