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Ubuntu 11.10 Alpha 3 – behind the scenes with Oneiric Ocelot

Ubuntu 11.10 Alpha 3 (otherwise known as Oneiric Ocelot) is available today. The sub-cycle between Alpha 2 and 3 has been quite intensive with a number of things taking place, says Dave Walker, Ubuntu Server's technical lead…

In regards to the Desktop flavour we have seen a few improvements, including the switch to Gnome 3 (using the Unity shell).  There have been a number of improvements to Unity, both usability and reliability.  If the computer doesn’t have 3D acceleration (or to enable requires non-free graphics binary drivers), then there is automatic fall-back to “Unity-2d”.  This provides a near identical experience on initial inspection.

As part of Ubuntu’s stance of providing the best of open source/free software by default, the mail client Evolution has been switched to Mozilla’s Thunderbird.  This has meant that there has been a concerted effort for better desktop integration with Thunderbird, which many prior users have been wanting for some time.  This is similar to the change we saw last cycle with the switch from Rhythmbox to Banshee media player.  Whilst the original applications are still available in Software Centre, they are no-longer installed by default.

Synaptic, the former default desktop package manager which has traditionally been dual default along with Ubuntu Software Centre has now also been dropped, the rational being that the replacement has now reached a level of maturity meaning that Synaptic has also been dropped as installed by default.  However, this can be installed if the user desires.  The Software Centre itself has undergone a makeover, which is currently in trunk; but was not part of the Alpha 3 release and possibly not the default for final Oneiric release.

Preview of the under development software centre (which may not be ready for final release)

Oneiric is now shipping “Deja Dup” which is a desktop integrated backup manager, in an effort to assist users wanting to create a secure backup of their files.  The long term plan might include installer integration, but that is likely to be deferred for Oneiric.

The less casual user will notice that the default login manager (Display Manager) has changed from GDM (Gnome Display Manager) to lightdm, which is leaner and easier to customise; which should allow a more polished end result.  The current theme is noted as an example, so anticipation is growing as to what the released theme will look like.

We will not see significant artwork changes until later in the cycle, which is probably the one thing that users notice most on a new release.  This should technically land with UserInterfaceFreeze, which is set for August 25th which coincides with BetaFreeze which means that changes happen at a considerably lower pace, as each package upload to both ‘Main’ & ‘Restricted’ (the pockets that are officially supported, that the release is made from) require manual approval from the release team.

A more technical feature which has changed is the default umask (or user mask), from 022 to 002.  This means that it is possible to allow other local users write access to their files (including within a non-encrypted home directory), by adding them to the same group as their name.  This is a nice optional feature for shared computers, although for my use I’d favour a ‘Public’ directory that others can write to.  For me to use this feature, I’d like reporting of files touched by others; which means that it is good that it is ‘opt in’.

In the fortnight leading up to the Alpha 3 release, stability started to increase.  The time investment for an experienced user to be able to run the development release has probably been less than prior releases, especially if well supported hardware is being used.  It is my opinion that this can be contributed to three major things, natural maturity where the Ubuntu development process generally grows in experience, including better discoverability of tasks that need resolving.  The second being the focus on quality, included automated installation testing (via Jenkins Contious Integration tool) and the third being a concerted effort for early testing and QA, driven by greater desire for reliability of the early milestones.

One thing that caused some concern was the accidental automatic sync from Debian which happend due to a bug in a new feature of Launchpad .  For more details on this, the announcement can be seen here.  Whilst it is poor that this was able to happen, the instability that this caused was thankfully not as bad as it could have been, largely due to the fast reactions from Sebastian Bacher and others who quickly composed a list of the packages overridden, re-introduced delta’s if required and notified Ubuntu developers.

Despite many of the key developers being largely absent from development, due to attending DebConf 11 (Debian’s conference) which co-insided with the accidental sync, the release is of a good standard notably lacking in critical bugs (although many of the planned features have not yet landed).

In server, we have seen OpenStack undergo polishing with their milestone named (diablo-3) release well aligned with Ubuntu, Eucalyptus removed from the installation media and Orchestra features shortly to be added. In order to make the next milestone of greater quality, a number of the Ubuntu Server and OpenStack developers will be meeting for a ‘sprint’ in an attempt to add additional polish.  A key component of of the Ubuntu Server strategy is using Orchestra to provide a bare metal provisioning story, which makes use of Ensemble for the work load provisioning.  Adam Gandleman has been busy making formula’s to allow provisioning of the OpenStack, which we are all keen to try.

More details of some of the interesting things which Alpha 3 brings can be found here.  To test drive Alpha 3, the ISO CD image is available from here at some point today, there is no promise of stability; but early testing is always appreciated.