Ubuntu Unicorn horns in on CoreOS territory

Ubuntu 14.10's emphasis on containers and orchestration sets it on a collision course with the Docker-powered CoreOS

ubuntu unicorn
Credit: Pierre Cante via Flickr/Creative Commons

Every major Linux distribution sets itself apart in some way. Red Hat aims to be -- and long has been -- king of the enterprise. Canonical's Ubuntu Server, by contrast, is being positioned more as an infrastructure building block for the cloud.

The latest edition of Ubuntu Server, 14.10, aka Utopic Unicorn, employs Docker and other new features to edge the distro further in that direction -- and might put it on a collision course with the up-and coming Docker-powered CoreOS.

The list of changes rolled into Ubuntu 14.10 is relatively small compared to previous editions of Ubuntu. Most of the major changes -- adding Docker, updating OpenStack to the Juno release -- will be particularly meaningful for the cloud-building verticals that have taken Ubuntu as their distribution of choice for setting up OpenStack clouds.

Mark Baker, product manager for Ubuntu Server at Canonical, described Docker as a key component in Ubuntu Server for that purpose, and he emphasized that Ubuntu itself had been one of the primary contributors to LXC, one of Docker's original technologies.

"Because Docker's moving pretty quickly," Baker said in a phone conversation, "we want it in the [14.10] distribution, so version 1.2 of Docker will be maintained throughout the lifecycle of 14.10." But Canonical will also be updating to the new revisions of Docker as they arrive, since "being at the tip is important."

Another area where Docker figures in significantly for Ubuntu is by way of Juju, its orchestration tool. Juju has been updated to manage not only Docker workloads, but also Hadoop setups as OpenStack now does.

If Canonical's idea for Ubuntu is to make it more of an infrastructure component and less competition for the Red Hats and Suses of the world, that pushes it into the realm of -- and potentially in competition with -- a project like CoreOS.

It's possible to see how Ubuntu could be reinvented along the lines of the Docker-powered Linux distribution and why the need might be pressing. InfoWorld's Matt Asay described CoreOS as "an existential threat to Linux vendors"; in that light, Canonical reworking Ubuntu to avoid becoming a last-generation technology makes sense. But CoreOS is here right now, enjoying a remarkable degree of uptake (available on Microsoft Azure and the Google Cloud Platform, among others), and feeding back into the very project that makes it possible. Red Hat, too, is contemplating its own container-powered reinvention.

Baker could not name definite plans for what Canonical might do in this area with Ubuntu, but said the company was looking at it for the future. He hinted that Ubuntu as a mobile platform required a software management scheme all its own, and the benefits from those projects may show up on the server side before long.

Canonical's history has revolved around making its Linux distribution an easy-to-consume commodity and finding a good, receptive niche for it. Ubuntu originally wanted to distinguish itself from the likes of Red Hat by being the premier consumer desktop version of Linux, but it made no more progress toward that goal than most other Linux distributions.

Ubuntu's push into infrastructure has yielded more tangible fruit, but given that it's fast becoming a hotly contested territory, Canonical will need to defend itself in that area just as vigorously -- if not more so -- than it would in any other.

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