freshidea - Fotolia

Inside the distros: A year in Linux development

Linux will turn 30 in three years. We look at how far the major Linux distributions – or distros – have come over the past year and what they might be able to bring in the future

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: The desktop is changing

If the collective roadmap progressions of the major open source distributions (distros) throughout 2017 show anything, it is the importance of applying automation intelligence and cloud network orchestration to the total stack of functions that go towards making up an enterprise-grade Linux operating system (OS).  

The big brands in enterprise Linux include Canonical with its Ubuntu OS, Red Hat with its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), and SuSE with SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES). Other growing names spanning the free and open source category include Linux Mint, CentOS, Fedora, Mandriva, ReactOS, Solus and Chrome OS from Google.

Red Hat footprints

Red Hat’s major release for 2017 came in the shape of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.4, which the firm insists is an operating system that works across physical servers and virtual machines, as well as hybrid, public and multi-cloud footprints.

In a world of componentised IT, where cloud containers are becoming an increasingly popular means of segmenting discrete, defined chunks of application and data processing, it might be argued that this breaking apart of technologies results in a fragmented degree of complexity.

As a consequence, knowing what happens when and where inside any given operating system could become more difficult. Red Hat has tried to address this issue with updated audit capabilities in RHEL 7.4 to simplify how administrators filter the events logged by the OS’s audit system, gather more information from critical events and interpret large numbers of records.

“The modern enterprise will not be solely based in physical servers or cloud services; rather, the path to digital transformation weaves across four distinct technology footprints,” says Jim Totton, vice-president and general manager of the platforms business unit at Red Hat.

“The latest version of RHEL’s enterprise Linux platform supports each of these deployment methodologies with new security features and improved performance, and introduces new automation capabilities to cut through the inherent complexities of heterogeneous datacentres.”

The four footprints Totton refers to are: traditional physical servers in on-premise server rooms and in-house datacentres; virtual machines in public cloud datacentres; next-generation cloud, which is made up of servers in a combination of the two above locations to provide “hybrid” cloud services with workload orchestration; and container services as distinct components of application logic provisioned only with the minimal resources needed.

Canonical Ubuntu

Over at Canonical, 2017 appears to have been an extremely busy year for the engineering team. In April, it launched an Amazon Web Services (AWS)-tuned kernel of Ubuntu. Canonical also released Ubuntu version 17.04, with Unity 7 as the default desktop environment. This release included optimisations for environments with low-powered graphics hardware.

Juju is Canonical’s open source modelling tool for cloud software – it handles operations designed to deploy, configure, manage, maintain and scale applications via the command line interface (CLI), or through its optional graphical user interface (GUI). 

The Juju charm store is an online marketplace where charms, and bundles of charms, can be uploaded, released (published) and optionally shared with other users. Recommended charms have been vetted and reviewed by a so-called “Juju charmer”, and all updates to the charm are also vetted prior to landing. There is also a “community” section of charms that have not enjoyed the same ratification process.

The Juji charm store added the Storage Made Easy (SME) Enterprise File Fabric charm last year. This technology is designed to give operations engineers access to Storage Made Easy’s data store unification and governance technology.

Canonical’s Ubuntu does not appear to spend more than a couple of weeks without a noteworthy release or update of some form. Its development team would probably say micro-releases are happening almost constantly, such is the nature of continuous delivery in the modern age, especially with regard to operating systems.


In March 2017, SuSE completed the acquisition of OpenStack IaaS and Cloud Foundry PaaS talent and technology assets from HPE. SuSE says it plans to use the acquired assets to expand its OpenStack infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) solution and accelerate the company’s play into the Cloud Foundry platform-as-a-service (PaaS) market.

Also in the early part of the year, Huawei and SuSE announced that SuSE Linux Enterprise Server would be the preferred standard operating system for Huawei’s KunLun RAS 2.0. In May, SuSE unveiled its SuSE OpenStack Cloud Monitoring open source software. The product monitors and manages the health and performance of enterprise OpenStack cloud environments and workloads.

“Based on the OpenStack Monasca project, SuSE OpenStack Cloud Monitoring makes it easy for operators and users to monitor and analyse the health and performance of complex private clouds; delivers reliability, performance and high service levels for OpenStack clouds; and reduces costs by simplifying, automating and pre-configuring cloud monitoring and management,” says the company.

SuSE also opened the SuSE Academic Program in 2017, which shares no-cost – or low-cost – open source software with students globally. This includes a training curriculum, tools and support to help schools, universities, teaching hospitals and academic organisations use, teach and develop open source software.

In June 2017, SuSE launched CaaS (container as a service) Platform – a development and hosting platform for container-based applications and services. SuSE CaaS Platform lets IT operations staff and developers provision, manage and scale container-based applications and services to meet business goals faster.

And in July of that year it made SuSE Linux Enterprise Server for SAP Applications available as the operating system for SAP on Google Cloud Platform (GCP). “Customers can use it to leverage high-performance virtual machines with proven price/performance advantages for SAP Hana workloads on GCP powered by SuSE Linux Enterprise Server for SAP Applications. It is the first supported Linux for SAP Hana on Google Cloud,” says SuSE.

Not desktop de facto, yet

Looking back on 2017 in open source, it would be easy to conclude that it’s all good news. The open, collaborative, community-centric model of open source design obviously has much to offer, and the world of proprietary software has resolutely appreciated and understood – and indeed pledged love for – Linux in the warmest possible terms. But not everyone is convinced, and Linux is not the de facto desktop for most users – not yet.

The open, collaborative, community-centric model of open source design has much to offer, and the world of proprietary software has resolutely appreciated and understood Linux. But not everyone is convinced

DevSecOps company Sonatype issued statements recently highlighting a major security concern in the open source community. Its research found that as many as one in eight open source software components downloaded by developers in the UK in 2017 contained known security vulnerabilities. These are not bugs, but security vulnerabilities.

At a time when technologies such as blockchain are bringing equal measures of confidence and uncertain disquiet to the way information is managed and locked down, the long-term road ahead still appears to have a few bumps.

But despite security concerns, containerisation complexities, multi-cloud management models and – for some at least – a general confusion as to where free and open source (Foss) stops and enterprise open source begins, the open source stalwarts still paint a rosy picture.

Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat insists that over the next decade we will see entire industries operated based on open source concepts, as the sharing of information and joint innovation become mainstream. “We’ll see this impact in every sector, from non-profits, like healthcare, education and government, to global corporations that realise sharing information leads to better outcomes. Open and participative innovation will become a key part of increasing productivity around the world,” he says.

The real future, for now, on the desktop and on the server, appears to be most likely driven by an increasing adoption of enterprise open source systems with a complementary backbone of proprietary systems still in existence.

Read more about Linux distros

Read more on IT strategy

Data Center
Data Management