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3/27/2009
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Can Ubuntu's 'Jackalope' Build A Better Netbook?

As one Ubuntu Linux release bows out, another is on its way. And this time around, Canonical is clearly taking aim at the netbook market.

As one Ubuntu Linux release bows out, another is on its way. And this time around, Canonical is clearly taking aim at the netbook market.First, a reminder: Canonical's 18 month support window for Ubuntu Linux 7.10 will close on April 18. This won't come as a surprise to most Ubuntu users. It may, however, shock Linux newcomers who aren't used to an OS distributor -- open-source or otherwise -- that is capable of publishing, and sticking with, a predictable release roadmap.

According to that roadmap, Canonical will have its latest major Ubuntu Linux update ready to roll in late April. Version 9.04, code-named "Jaunty Jackalope," promises yet another round of major improvements for Ubuntu.

Some Ubuntu users also hope that Jackalope will live up to its name and offer across-the-board performance improvements that, according to some benchmarks, the previous release failed to deliver.

According to Canonical, Jaunty will offer under-the-hood enhancements in at least four key areas:

Faster start-up times. According to Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth, the ability to deliver "blindingly quick" startup and resume times is a major goal for Jaunty. That will happen mostly through kernel modifications and tweaks to various startup services.

If Canonical succeeds, it will make Ubuntu a more compelling option for laptop and netbook users. Faster startup times will also allow Canonical to match quick-boot initiatives from Intel as well as other Linux distributors.

(Canonical, by the way, offers a customized version of each Ubuntu Linux release tailored especially for netbook OEMs. More details, including the ability to download and check out a copy of the Ubuntu "Netbook Remix," are available here.

ARM processor support. In a post earlier this week, I mentioned that Canonical would have a fairly easy time porting Ubuntu to the ARM hardware architecture, due mostly to the fact that the Linux kernel already runs quite nicely on ARM processors.

Apparently, I didn't get the memo: An ARM port of Ubuntu Linux is already on the way and will appear with the Jaunty Jackalope release. That positions Ubuntu nicely to compete against Google's Android OS in the ultra-low price netbook market, and it could even pave the way for Canonical to offer Ubuntu to smartphone and other mobile-device vendors.

New power management features. One of the chief benefits of the ARM processor is its extremely low power consumption. Canonical wants to build on that advantage -- and extend it to Intel-powered netbooks/laptops -- by rethinking Ubuntu's approach to power management. Jaunty Jackalope will, for example, support the ability to shut down a system's WiFi adapter whenever it detects an active Ethernet connection, and it will include an ultra low-power operating mode that can turn off USB devices and other non-essential hardware.

EXT4 file system support. The Ubuntu 9.04 installer will offer the EXT4 file system as an option. EXT4 isn't really new (the Linux kernel has supported it for quite a while now), but it now clearly represents the future for Linx file systems.

Among other features, EXT4 is designed to reduce file fragmentation (and thus to improve hard drive performance) in a big way. It will also impose a lighter CPU load for file operations, which means that it represents yet another piece in Ubuntu's power-management puzzle.

Another interesting feature for EXT4 is its support for petabyte-sized volumes. (A petabyte is 1,000 terabytes.) If you think that's more storage than any small business will ever need, remember that just a decade ago, the very idea of a 1TB storage device sounded like an exercise in overkill.

How fast can this Jackalope run?Even as Canonical works to win over netbook OEMs and users, it will have to put some nagging performance issues to rest. Quite a few users have complained that newer Ubuntu releases aren't quite as snappy as older ones, and they appear to have the benchmarking data to support their position.

If you're a desktop Windows user, the idea that the latest version of a desktop OS should always perform better than the previous one -- on the same hardware, mind you -- is a real knee-slapper. For both Linux and Mac OS X users, however, it's a feature they tend to take for granted.

As a result, I'm betting that Canonical takes this issue seriously. While these performance issues show up more in benchmarking scores than real-world performance, this is the sort of problem any top-tier Linux distributor ignores at its peril.

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