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25 January 2019

Ubuntu Core 18.04 goes live, Canonical hopes for IoT surge

Canonical has announced the launch of Ubuntu Core 18.04, the IoT-version of its Ubuntu operating system that has seen a surge in popularity thanks to the growth of cloud workloads. The promise of decade-long support should tempt developers looking for an OS to deploy for IoT devices that need to go the distance, but the industry still seems to be waiting on the explosion of gateways and edge-devices that need as capable an OS as Ubuntu that couldn’t make do with something designed for microcontrollers.

The launch comes at what looks like something of a tipping point for the industry. Open source has surged in popularity and acceptance, and even Microsoft, a company that used to be antithetical to the concept, has embraced the sharing of code – going as far as launching its own Linux variant for IoT applications, and opening up parts of Windows with some surprising Linux integrations and features. Linux is used in upwards of 90% of Amazon EC2 deployments, and over half of all Azure VMs are running a variant of Linux – from a company whose former CEO declared Linux a cancer!

This open source renaissance is largely due to the success of the cloud computing market, where virtualized instances need to be fired up to run applications. Canonical has enjoyed great success here, as has chief Linux rival Red Hat, which was recently acquired by IBM for $34bn. Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth said that deal was “a significant moment in the progression of open source to the mainstream.”

This is significant because many companies are busy hiring developers to work on their cloud-based applications. Many new IoT projects are finding a home in these cloud instances, instead of within an on-premises data center, as was the case historically. To this end, that an Ubuntu developer working on these cloud applications would also find themselves at home on the Core variant of Ubuntu, is a big win if these companies decide to expand their horizons and develop for the network-edge.

Canonical says this opens up the talent pool greatly, from the smaller selection of candidates that are capable of working on legacy Linux environments for embedded systems. Fair point; well made, but it means that Core deployment is somewhat tied to overall IoT adoption – and we’ve got a long way to go before the majority of enterprises using cloud platforms are persuaded of the benefits of a presence at the network-edge too.

Security improvements seem to have been a focus of development for Ubuntu Core 18.04, with Canonical saying that it has shrunk the attack surface by minimizing the number of packages that are included in the base OS – hence the ‘Core’ part of the name. This should mean fewer and less frequent security updates needed, for the core OS, and the smaller size should free up more system resources for the developer to play with.

Of course, Canonical’s Snaps are heavily featured. The application containerization technology carries on the security theme, isolating system resources and code libraries to the respective application, meaning that the threat of a compromised application being able to plunder the rest of the computer is slim-to-none – as it should be trapped within the container walls. Similarly, rollback and snapshot features mean that should an update go wonky, the system should be able to easily recover without human intervention – or so they say.

Canonical is also pushing the fact that it scans the snaps that are submitted to its app-store, looking for known weaknesses, in order to ensure that it doesn’t knowingly distribute dangerous code. This app-store is also a platform that developers could monetize, should they build an application that other developers might want to use – with Canonical able to take a slice of that revenue. It adds that there are 4,600 snaps available today, published by 1,700 creators.

But perhaps the biggest draw is the SLA-backed ten-year support agreement that Canonical is offering for Ubuntu Core 18.04. When this is combined with the snaps, it allows a customer to see exactly which devices in its fleet have received the required security updates, and also control how these updates are delivered to its network of devices – able to pick their own schedule for updates.

Canonical says its support packages, the way it is monetizing Core, are cheaper than traditional enterprise Linux support services, because the simplicity of the snap architecture makes for much quicker problem debugging. That simplicity extends to the development ecosystem too, as any coder familiar with Ubuntu, whether that’s on a server or a desktop, should be able to code for snap-enabled products.

“Dell has been working closely with Canonical over the past three years to certify Ubuntu Core on all our Edge Gateway platforms. Ubuntu Core enables our customers to build highly secure, stable IoT solutions that deliver the deep insight they need to effectively run their business,” said John Dauskurdas, VP Global IoT/Embedded PC Sales at Dell EMC. “We see enormous interest in customers wanting to take advantage of the built-in app store infrastructure to securely maintain and deliver new functionality at the edge.”