​Ubuntu 18.04 LTS: The Linux for AI, clouds, and containers

Ubuntu will still live on as a desktop operating system, but that's not where Canonical sees it as having its greatest potential.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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Even in 2018, if you ask most people what they know about Ubuntu, they'll tell you it's a desktop Linux. Oh, but there's so, so much more to Canonical's Ubuntu than that, and in its latest long-term support (LTS) release, Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, that really shows up.

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In a conference call interview, Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's CEO and Ubuntu's founder, said, "Most public cloud instances -- Azure, AWS, Oracle, and so on -- are Ubuntu. To better support Ubuntu, 18.04 features improvements in network and storage and improved boot time optimization so that Ubuntu instances can ramp up faster with demand. In addition, Canonical has been working with NVIDIA to improve its public cloud General Purpose GPU (GPGPU) support."

Shuttleworth added: "Multi-cloud operations are the new normal. Boot-time and performance-optimised images of Ubuntu 18.04 LTS on every major public cloud make it the fastest and most efficient OS for cloud computing, especially for storage and compute intensive tasks like machine learning."

NVIDIA GPGPU hardware acceleration is built into Ubuntu 18.04 LTS cloud images and Canonical's OpenStack and Kubernetes distributions for on-premise bare metal operations, supporting Kubeflow, and machine learning (ML) and AI workflows.

This has lead Canonical to working closely with Google, IBM, and NVIDIA to improve Ubuntu's ML support. Shuttleworth specifically mentioned its work with Google on Kubeflow as an example. This is a new open-source project dedicated to making using ML stacks on Kubernetes easy, fast, and extensible.

Kubeflow, the Google approach to TensorFlow on Kubernetes, and a range of CI/CD tools are integrated in Canonical Kubernetes and aligned with Google GKE for on-premise and on-cloud AI development.

"Having an OS that is tuned for advanced workloads such as AI and ML is critical to a high velocity team" added David Aronchick, product manager of Cloud AI at Google. "With the release of Ubuntu 18.04 LTS and Canonical's collaborations to the Kubeflow project, Canonical has provided both a familiar and highly performant operating system that works everywhere. Whether on-premise or in the cloud, software engineers and data scientists can use tools they are already familiar ... and greatly accelerate their ability to deliver value for their customers."

Canonical is also continuing to support the OpenStack Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) cloud.

Shuttleworth claimed Canonical OpenStack delivers private cloud with significant savings over VMware with a modern, developer-friendly Application Programming Interface (API). With built-in support for NFV and GPGPUs, the Canonical OpenStack offering has become a reference cloud for digital transformation workloads. Today, Ubuntu is at the heart of the world's largest OpenStack clouds, both public and private, in key sectors such as finance, media, retail, and telecommunications.

Shuttleworth slammed VMware: "VMware is expensive. OpenStack is replacing it."

In addition, Canonical's Distribution of Kubernetes (CDK) runs on public clouds, VMware, OpenStack, and bare metal. It delivers the latest upstream version, currently Kubernetes 1.10. Many Canonical partners deliver their solutions on CDK, such as Rancher 2.0, a popular container management program.

Shuttleworth continued, "We think Kubernetes is a commodity. Our pure Kubernetes is delivered as a free service on top of VMs. It's the simplest and most cost efficient solution, and with it, you can scale Kubernetes from desktop to rack and out to the public cloud."

This is in contrast, he said, to Red Hat, which has integrated Kubernetes into OpenShift, Red Hat's Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). This is true, with the release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 7.5. Red Hat announced, "With Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.5, we're ... completely deprecating the Kubernetes RPMs and container image." If you want to use Kubernetes in production, "We recommend that customers evaluate Red Hat OpenShift for a fully supported container platform based on Kubernetes."

With Ubuntu 18.04, CDL also supports GPGPU acceleration of workloads using the NVIDIA DevicePlugin. Applications built and tested with Kubeflow and CDK are perfectly transportable to Google Cloud.

Developers on Ubuntu can create applications on their workstations, test them on private bare-metal Kubernetes with CDK, and run them across vast data sets on Google's GKE. The resulting models and inference engines can be delivered to Ubuntu devices at the edge of the network, creating a perfect pipeline for machine learning from workstation to rack to cloud and device.

Canonical is aslo using LXD, it's container hypervisor, to 'lift-and-shift' legacy workloads into containers for performance and density. LXD does this by providing 'machine container,' which behave like virtual machines. They can contain a full Linux guest operating system such as Ubuntu, RHEL, or CentOS. This provides a traditional administration environment for legacy applications, which run, Canonical claims, at bare metal speeds with no hypervisor latency.

As Shuttleworth explained, "Enterprises are realizing legacy apps aren't comfortable in the Kubernetes world. LXD, a system container that behaves like a VM, lends itself well for traditional applications." He added there are "tools available to move legacy apps from hardware and virtual machines to LXD. For example, you can run older RHEL instances without the Intel Meltdown and Spectre patches on LXD on Ubuntu 18.04, with the patches." Shuttleworth concluded, "80 percent of legacy apps can run in LXD. It all depends on the app's need for a specific kernel. If they don't need a specific Linux kernel, they can run in LXD."

Thinking of Legacy with a capital L applications, Ubuntu 18.04 also supports IBM mainframes. "Canonical and IBM have been working closely together to offer cloud solutions with Ubuntu on IBM LinuxONE and IBM Z," said Michael Desens, IBM's VP of Offering Management, IBM Z, and LinuxONE.

Don't let all this talk about clouds and Kubernetes fool you, though. Canonical is still supporting the desktop. The new Ubuntu 18.04 LTS comes with a default GNOME desktop as a replacement for its Unity desktop. It also natively supports the KDE, MATE, and Budgie desktops.

Shuttleworth also boasted of the growing popularity of its snap package manager system. Snaps, which started in Ubuntu Touch, are now a Linux distro-agnostic upstream software delivery system. Canonical claims there are more than 3,000 snaps published and millions installed, including official releases from Spotify, Skype, Slack, and Firefox. With snaps, publishers can deliver software updates directly and security is maintained with enhanced kernel isolation and system service mediation.

"Snaps enables us to access more Linux users and opens the market for us to accommodate more distributions," said Jonáš Tajrych, senior software engineer of Microsoft's Skype. Snaps reduced, he said, "the complexity and time of maintaining several packages across multiple distributions. In addition, we want our users to consistently experience the latest and greatest version of Skype and the automatic update feature allows us to seamlessly deliver this to them. It's such a promising format and an asset for developers to help create unification."

If you want a "just the basics" Linux desktop, Canonical is also providing a new minimal desktop. This provides only the core desktop and browser. In businesses, the minimal desktop can serve as a base for custom desktop images with just the applications you want and a smaller attack surface.

And, continuing on with desktops, Ubuntu will run better than ever... with the Windows desktop.

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New Hyper-V-optimised images developed in collaboration with Microsoft enhance the virtual machine experience of Ubuntu in Windows. "In our upcoming OS release this spring, Hyper-V's Quick Create VM Gallery will now include an image for the latest Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, officially stamped straight from Canonical," said Craig Wilhite, program manager at Microsoft. "This Ubuntu VM image will come pre-configured to offer clipboard functionality, drive redirection, dynamic resizing of VM console window, and much more, as we look to provide a great Hyper-V client VM experience for Linux on Windows."

So, while many of you may still be using the Ubuntu desktop, Canonical is making it very clear that Ubuntu has a larger role to play on clouds with containers and even with an old rival: Microsoft.

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