Today, Canonical has released version 12.10 of its Ubuntu Linux distribution, codenamed "Quantal Quetzal" after a ridiculously awesome-looking bird. Quantal represents the start of a new two-year development cycle and lays the groundwork for what Ubuntu will evolve into by 2014. As such, the release is focused on figuring out what users are primarily doing on the desktop and in the enterprise and putting the right tools in front of them to help.
The release is right on schedule. Canonical follows a six month "tick-tock" cycle with Ubuntu, dropping new versions in April and October of every year. It has been six months since the "tick" release of Ubuntu 12.04, Precise Pangolin, which brought with it a number of enhancements to the love-it-or-hate-it Unity graphical front-end.
Bad news for those on the hate-it side: Unity, along with its HUD and Dash, is prominent in 12.10. In fact, it's going to continue to be a prominent feature on the Ubuntu desktop for the foreseeable future. Canonical is committed to watching how people use it and improving it so that it works well, though, so complaints are being heard. We'll touch some on Unity, but it's not going to be as huge a focus in our upcoming full review as it was with the previous one.
For the first time, Canonical has merged together all the different desktop installation images into a single unified 800MB .ISO file, designed to be used on a USB stick or DVD. Rather than having to pick from several images for i386 or x86_64 architecture with alternate images for different options, each architecture has its own unified install image which includes all common install choices.
The easy installation of previous versions is still easy, though 12.10 now has the option of enabling full-disk encryption right inside the installer. In prior versions this couldn't be done during installation, and it required the user to set it up later; the option to encrypt the entire hard disk at setup is a welcome one.
Once you're up and running with the desktop version, you'll see Unity. It has received a number of additions, all built around the idea of demolishing the walls between local applications and Web applications, and treating them like first-class desktop citizens instead of pages in a browser. Popular Web-based applications like Gmail can be docked to the launch bar, and on startup they will have their own dedicated windows, complete with QuickList functionality, just like a "real" program.
Along the same lines, searches now make less of a distinction between local and Internet-hosted content. A search for a file name or for file contents won't just look at files in the user's home directory, but in online storage locations like a user's Google Docs account as well. Searches for local music will also pop up results from the Ubuntu One store, so if Katy Perry is totally your jam and you're trying to remember whether or not you downloaded her latest single, one search will tell you if you have it—and how to get it if you don't.
This level of integration between offline and online has led to some consternation among the FOSS-minded Ubuntu community about encroaching commercialism, but Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth denies there are any nefarious goings-on. He points out that users should be able to search for anything they want, no matter where it is, and if it's not on their computer then the computer should tell them how to get it. Viewed from that perspective, the presence of "advertising" in search results makes sense, though it is still jarring to search for a file and get back shopping results.
Most of these enhancements were present in previous versions as preview or prerelease features, but they've been polished and made available right out of the box. Refinement is the name of the game across the board for Unity; like it or not, Canonical considers it an integral part of the Ubuntu desktop experience, and future releases will build on its capabilities.
Under the hood, Quantal picks up some upgrades. There's a new Linux kernel, 3.5, which brings with it a number of I/O and security improvements. 12.10 also includes Python 3.2.3 as standard, dropping Python 2.x (though it's still available if you need it). The bundled productivity suite, LibreOffice, has been updated to 3.6. Additionally, Quantal comes with gcc version 4.7.2 included.
The real fun stuff, though, is on the server side of things. Canonical has focused its microscope on how and why people are creating websites and applications, and is beginning a serious push to shape Ubuntu to fit those needs. 12.10 focuses on improvements to two hugely important server offerings: OpenStack and Juju.
OpenStack is a broad cloud infrastructure platform with a development cycle closely pegged to Ubuntu's. The latest release, codenamed "Folsom," arrived just last month. Its inclusion in 12.10 lets sysadmins construct "private clouds" out of Ubuntu servers without needing to involve outside vendors or equipment. "Cloud" is a hideously overused buzzword, and it can mean wildly different things depending on the context and the speaker; in this instance, "cloud" refers to "infrastructure-as-a-service" offerings. OpenStack can, for example, rope together a bunch of Ubuntu servers and make them function as a single multi-petabyte chunk of block storage, using the Ceph distributed storage technology included in OpenStack. It can also take another bunch of Ubuntu servers and divide them up into different cloud computing machines, linking them together or keeping them separated with its Quantum virtual networking technology.
Complementing this is Juju, which can best be summarized as "apt-get for services." Where package management systems have taken a lot of the pain out of installing applications on Linux distros (I haven't had to compile an application in forever), configuring and setting up complex services with lots of application components can still be a bit tricky. For example, if you want to get the self-hosted WordPress blogging platform up and running, you'd need to first set up a Web server like Nginx or Apache, then set up a database like MySQL, then configure a vhost and a database for WordPress to use, and then actually set up WordPress. Juju simplifies deployments of services like this by having "charms," equivalent to apt-get packages, which contain all the steps necessary to get WordPress running from scratch. The setup and configuration of the different application components is handled for you.
Juju is aimed specifically at running services in public or private clouds. You can easily build a private infrastructure cloud with Ubuntu and OpenStack, then use Juju to fill it with happily buzzing cloud-enabled applications, all preconfigured and ready to start work. Scaling is easy, too: as OpenStack can scale more servers into a cloud and link them together, so Juju can pull them into different service pools.
Nor does Juju need OpenStack to function: you can easily use it to create services on public cloud platforms like Amazon EC2. Need to deploy a Web application to EC2 written specifically to run on Apache Tomcat and which requires MySQL and Nginx as a reverse proxy? Juju can help, letting you push all of that to your EC2 instance, preconfigured in whatever way you specify. Juju can also monitor the different components of the app and tell you if any are running slow. Rather than taking a stab at scaling up just MySQL or the Web server, Juju can tell you where the bottleneck is and scale only what's needed.
This isn't the first release of Ubuntu to feature either of these technologies, but it is the first time they have been so closely tied to each other and to Canonical's core strategy. Since Quantal kicks off another two-year design cycle which will culminate in 14.04 LTS, the emphasis on services and cloud management is most definitely the shape of things to come.