- Available in several distribution formats, including live CD
- server version available with preconfigured LAMP components
- generally straightforward to install and set up
- offers a viable replacement for a corporate Windows desktop, and much more
- Thousands of easily available applications and tools can create a complex installation with much potential for error
In the two years since it first appeared, Ubuntu -- an operating system based on Debian Linux with GNOME as its primary desktop environment -- has created enormous interest. By concentrating on usability and straightforward packaging, the Ubuntu community is making a sustained assault on behalf of mainstream acceptance for the free, open-source operating system. Version 6.06 LTS (Long Term Support) is claimed to be the most stable, usable and enterprise-ready Ubuntu distribution yet. It's available in 40 languages, with free community-based support and global enterprise-class support from Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. There's also a growing number of companies offering local support for Ubuntu: the European list is here.
Installation & setup
Ubuntu is available in a number of distribution formats. Most users will want the live CD, which runs the operating system without making any changes to the host PC: installation is a matter of clicking on a desktop icon when ready. An text-mode installation-only CD is available, which is more suitable for systems with less than 192MB of RAM, servers and situations where anything other than the standard-issue GUI desktop is required. There are also Power PC Macintosh, AMD and 64-bit variants, with more -- like the recently announced Sun UltraSPARC and Niagara ports -- on the way. Separate server versions include those with preconfigured LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP/Perl/Python) components.
We carried out four installations on a range of systems, from a 2001-vintage Pentium III Compaq notebook with 128MB of RAM to a Pentium D dual-core system with 2GB of RAM. Initial problems with the lower-specification systems were solved by using the installation-only CD: in all cases, the software correctly identified, installed and configured video, audio and network peripherals. Feedback online confirmed our impression that previously troublesome areas such as USB storage devices and wireless network interfaces are much improved over previous versions of Ubuntu. Although there's no guarantee that any particular configuration will be supported, it's cheap and simple to try things out with the Live CD, and even easier to type 'ubuntu' and the name of your particular component into Google.
We were particularly interested in seeing whether Ubuntu could drop into our office environment, which is a standard corporate Microsoft melange of Exchange, Office, shared printers and server space, together with a selection of Web-based publishing and content management services. We were almost entirely successful in this: Evolution connected in place of Exchange, giving us access to email, contacts and calendaring information, OpenOffice.org Writer is a good general editor, while those dissatisfied with the OO.o spreadsheet can easily install the superior Gnumeric application. GAIM worked well with our corporate-wide IM system, in the absence of any proper client from the IM provider itself.
Printer sharing was a matter of picking the right driver and selecting the appropriate network printer -- this worked painlessly on the main installation with an HP LaserJet 4050, but not on a domestic setup with an Epson Stylus Photo R800, where everything was flawless until the time came to print. Then, print jobs queued but the printer itself refused to respond -- a problem exacerbated by the poor structure and inadequate documentation of the Common Unix Printing System (CUPS), which provides print services. Similarly, establishing connections with shared directories on Windows servers failed with little information under Nautilus, the supplied filing system interface, due apparently to a bug in GNOME to do with establishing permissions. This time, we found a simple and effective workaround online.
Ubuntu's user interface is simple and clean, based around concepts that will be familiar to any current computer user. A task bar along the bottom of the screen collates the running programs, while a menu and status bar at the top presents the options available to the user. Applications are bundled together by type, while preferences and system configuration options present a good selection of GUI tools for peering into the heart of the system.
Within a day of first installation, and with little previous Linux experience, we had built a functional workstation that could do the job of its Windows predecessor. Ubuntu does indeed offer a plausible replacement for the Windows desktop in an enterprise environment, and one with a manageable support burden. Because we had previously taken care that our internal Web services were properly browser-agnostic -- and because Firefox was already a popular choice within the company -- Ubuntu could seamlessly integrate with many of our existing systems, and the level of support of Microsoft-based infrastructure is now such that interoperability can be expected.
There's a lot more to the distribution than a Windows replacement, though. Ubuntu comes with a rich range of tools preinstalled, and thousands more are available via the Synaptic installer. One of open source's strengths is that the community is free to arrange the distribution of software in a way that's maximally convenient to the user: as a result, substantial amounts of very good programs -- and many others of more dubious utility -- are obtainable online via a single interface that also takes care of updates and component dependencies. When it works (which is almost always), obtaining and installing packages is just a matter of clicking on a name in a list. Manual installation of software is much harder: although there is a great deal of free support online, much is hard to decode.
And that remains our major concern. Our functional Ubuntu desktop system reported that it had 1,136 packages installed out of a possible 18,800, which is a very complex system with lots of potential for error. Although Windows is itself notoriously complex, and by no means exempt from frustrating technical problems that defy solution, there is a much larger user base of experience and far fewer places to point the finger. Widespread adoption of any system as complicated as Ubuntu -- even one with so many concessions to usability -- will proceed at the speed at which support expertise spreads.
Although there is no unambiguous, quantifiable way of benchmarking the relative performance of Ubuntu and Windows, during our testing we had occasion to swap between XP and Ubuntu on a regular basis on a 600MHz Pentium III notebook with 378MB of RAM. On this system, Ubuntu was noticably more responsive, both on startup and when running applications software.
Ubuntu is a powerful, ready-to-run desktop Linux distribution that has succeeded in pushing open-source computing much closer to the point where it is eminently suitable for mainstream use. Using it will render you immune to virtually all malware and shakedowns by the software police, as well as saving you a lot of money. The complexities of the system and its heterogeneous nature do impose a steep learning curve on those with Windows experience who plan to support an installation themselves. Even so, based on our experiences with version 6.06 LTS, this learning curve is manageable.
Don't be scared of Ubuntu. Download it and try it out. Even if you decide it's not for you, your time won't have been wasted -- and it's impossible to waste your money.
This review was written on one of our Ubuntu 6.06 LTS test installations.