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8 November 2016

Latest Ubuntu Core release aims to enable millions of IoT devices

Canonical has unveiled the latest version of Ubuntu Core, its low footprint operating system aimed at Internet of Things (IoT) devices and data center equipment. Claiming great successes in networking infrastructure deployments, Canonical now has to manage the transition to IoT devices out in the field – and hopes that its developer-friendly approach will win out.

Industrial gateways and IP networking infrastructure developers are easier sells than some of the emerging IoT applications in which Canonical would like to see Ubuntu deployed. A potentially lucrative market, in which the organization has already taken early steps, is telco-led consumer premises equipment (CPE), following its inclusion in a private cloud box from Nextcloud and Western Digital – which could form the basis of a cloud digital video recorder (DVR) for TV customers.

The pay-TV and broadband operators are best placed to push smart home as a service (SHaaS) to consumers, thanks to their existing customer relationships and the presence of CPE inside homes. With adaptations as simple as a USB dongle or an upgrade to the next generation of set-tops or home gateways, these operators have an incredible advantage when it comes to winning a smart home service deal – sold as a package to consumers.

Ubuntu is already gaining ground with these telcos and pay-TV players, in their networks and operations centers. Current customers/adopters include Google, Netflix, Tele2, Deutsche Telekom, AT&T, Verizon, NTT, Saudi Telecom, Etisalat, and Telefonica.

Collectively, that’s an awful lot of homes that could end up with Ubuntu-powered CPE as the basis of wider smart home ecosystems – and end-device manufacturers could likely be persuaded of the benefits of Ubuntu in their devices by the Canonical sales team.

The latest version of Ubuntu Core promises smoother updates, and easier device set-up. Essentially, the kernel and libraries in Core are the same as regular Ubuntu, but the way the OS stores these files is the key difference.

Canonical’s founder, Mark Shuttleworth, explained that if you were to look at the disk of a Ubuntu Core device and a regular Ubuntu laptop, the Core version would have a low number of large files, compared to the millions of smaller files used in the PC version. These large files are Snaps, and are effectively a self-contained file that houses all the necessary code for an application to run.

The OS and kernel are delivered as Snaps, and then any application that the device requires is downloaded to the device as a self-contained Snap. This containerized approach should allow for easier transactional updates, and better system stability, as problems in the application should be confined to its Snap – and not become a problem large enough to brick the entire system.

As the Snaps are certified by Canonical, they should remain tamper-proof during delivery and deployment. The deployment process has been ported to other Linux distributions, including the enterprise-focused Red Hat, and looks set to become a fairly standard way of deliver updates.

These Snaps, in combination with the new live-patching abilities found in Ubuntu, should allow for ultra-secure systems – as long as they are connected to the internet and able to receive updates. Canonical is also hoping that developers opt for its Ubuntu Advantage professional support package to help keep their systems online – as it’s these services that let Canonical monetize its open source OS.

For developers, this containeresque Snappy approach allows them to only add the software they actually need to their Ubuntu devices. Canonical notes that its new OS is already found in industrial gateways, RAN, digital signage, robotics and drones – as well as the majority of top-of-rack networking switches in data centers.

With Core 16 promising better disk space utilization, better rollback capabilities, and file compression, Canonical is pitching Ubuntu as an OS that is well suited for admins looking to deploy thousands to millions of devices. The key is ease of provisioning and initial setup, backed up by easier field management.

With the Raspberry Pi (32-bit ARM), Intel’s new Joule and Euclid, Samsung’s Artik chips, the Qualcomm Dragonboard 410c (64-bit ARM), and Intel’s NUC, as well as in VMs, developers aren’t short of ways to experiment.