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(Guide) Ubuntu 20.04: Welcome to the future, Linux LTS disciples


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Ubuntu 20.04: Welcome to the future, Linux LTS disciples

ZFS gets more accessible, security becomes a bigger priority, and Ubuntu speeds up overall.

Did everyone know that a fossa is a cat-like, carnivorous mammal endemic to Madagascar beforehand? Anyone else first misread it as "Fosse" and think choreography?
Enlarge / Did everyone know that a fossa is a cat-like, carnivorous mammal endemic to Madagascar beforehand? Anyone else first misread it as "Fosse" and think choreography?

This is most definitely the strangest spring in a very long time, with all sorts of event and hardware delays or outright cancellations. But one thing that has arrived right on schedule? The latest version of Ubuntu Linux.


Ubuntu 20.04 (Focal Fossa, as this release is known) is a Long Term Support (LTS) release, which means Ubuntu's parent company, Canonical, will provide support through 2025. The LTS releases are what Canonical calls "enterprise grade," and these tend to be conservative when it comes to adopting new technologies. The interim releases, like last year's Ubuntu 19.10, are instead where the company tends to experiment. Perhaps not surprisingly, Canonical estimates that 95 percent of all Ubuntu installations are LTS releases. Which is to say, this is a big update that the bulk of Ubuntu's user base will be upgrading to eventually.


The good news for Ubuntu fans is that 20.04 has been a fantastic release in our testing. This update has been very solid in day-to-day use, and it still manages to (optionally!) include support for some cutting-edge new features, like the beginnings of a tool to manage ZFS snapshots. There's also a major kernel bump, and considerable work has gone into improving and polishing the default Yaru theme.


That's a running theme in Ubuntu, where much of what makes it great are small changes and new features that individually might not be remarkable but all together create a system that is fast, stable, and hard to beat. The security improvements offered this time around almost alone make Ubuntu 20.04 a must-have upgrade.


But the Ubuntu 20.04 update has plenty of new stuff for all the various Ubuntu flavors as well. So even if the default GNOME desktop doesn't excite you, there's big news in Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu Mate, and more. There's also some good news for Raspberry Pi users, who get first-class support for the Pi 4 platform out of the box (and when I say first class, I mean, frankly, better than the official Pi distro, Raspian).

WireGuard will be in tree for Ubuntu 20.04 LTS (pictured), as well as the upcoming 5.6 kernel.
Enlarge / WireGuard will be in tree for Ubuntu 20.04 LTS (pictured), as well as the upcoming 5.6 kernel.

ZFS, kernel, and more

Often, first impressions on any Linux release start with the visual and desktop changes. This time around, however, what's really impressive isn't necessarily the things you see; it's the things that are working behind the scenes to make your computing faster, easier, and more secure.


Ubuntu 20.04 ships with 5.4 kernel, which brings support for Intel's Comet Lake chips as well as the beginning of Tiger Lake support. If you keep track of the kernels, you might be disappointed, since the baked-in support for Wireguard in the kernel doesn't come until 5.6. But fear not VPN users: Ubuntu has backported the Wireguard bits so that you can enjoy using Wireguard with your VPN provider today (assuming your VPN supports it).


More exciting, quite frankly, is the continued work on integrating ZFS into Ubuntu. There's nothing new about the usefulness of ZFS, but usefulness is not necessarily the same as usability. Ubuntu's developers have put a lot of work into making ZFS easier to use, both in terms of making backups via snapshots and the arguably more important part of easily restoring your system using those snapshots.


New ZFS features in this release include zfs 0.8, which supports hardware accelerated encryption and some performance gains among other things. But the more interesting addition is Ubuntu's Zsys utility, which essentially makes it easier to see what's happening under the hood.


This is still highly experimental, and it's hidden away during the install process, but if you click the advanced features section of the disk partitioning tool during installation you'll see an option "EXPERIMENTAL: erase disk and use ZFS." It's no longer in scary bold red text the way it was in 19.10, which I take to mean that things are improving. Do note, however, this message still appears in all caps. This option is definitely not what you want to use on a production system looking for LTS-style stability.

In testing, I have been using it since it debuted in 19.10 and have not had any issues. That said, I also, until the 20.04 beta rolled around, have not done much with it. My fellow Ars Technica writer Jim Salter took an in-depth look at Zsys and what you can (and can't) do with it that's well worth reading. The short story is that right now it's all on the command line and a little bit technical for the average user, but it's not hard to see how this tool could be expanded down the road, given a GUI, and turned into a dead-simple, rock-solid backup system.


If you're not familiar with ZFS you may be wondering why you should care, there are, after all, plenty of ways to back up your data. The advantage of ZFS is that rolling back your system becomes incredibly simple. Suppose you have your disk formatted with ZFS and snapshots are enabled. You install a new application and some key part of your workflow breaks. No problem: without you doing anything, ZFS has already made a backup of the system when you install that new app. All you need to do is reboot to grub and select the image to boot from.


This is possible right now in Ubuntu 20.04 (and any system with ZFS install), it just lacks user interface polish. It's not hard to see, though, that if Canonical can build out a nice GUI for interacting and managing ZFS, it's going to be a huge selling point.

To be absolutely clear, what's new here is not ZFS snapshots. Those have been around in some form for a decade. What Canonical brings to the table is the Zsys management tool and a solid background in producing GUIs that make tools like ZFS more accessible for users.


Beyond the ZFS additions, Ubuntu 20.04 sees a few other noteworthy changes, including moving the Ubuntu Software app to a snap package, rather than the repository version. This means developers will be able to push out updates to Ubuntu Software more quickly. The Store itself has been slightly redesigned and looks a little cleaner and easier to navigate. For the most part users probably won't even notice that the Store itself is now a snap install, but there is one gotcha: if you want to install Flatpak apps (for example, from Flathub), you'll need to install the Store from the repositories since the snap version of Ubuntu Software does not include the Flatpak plugin.


Other changes in this release include major updates for all the usual suspects, both desktop apps and included tools like ruby and python. And note that the system Python is now at 3.8. Since it reached end-of-life, Python 2.7 has been moved to universe and is not included by default.

Ubuntu Software received a slight makeover in 20.04.
Enlarge / Ubuntu Software received a slight makeover in 20.04.

Desktop design

The first thing you'll notice when you boot up Ubuntu 20.04 desktop are the changes to the default Yaru theme. There are new icons for some of the default apps, including the file browser, which is now a folder rather than a file drawer.


The user interface also has a slightly purpler look to it. For example, the old orange toggle switches are now purple.


If you dig into the settings panel, which has been slightly revamped, you'll find a new switch to toggle between light and dark themes with a single click (it's under Appearance). GNOME 3.36 also has a new lock screen that no longer uses a separate background but instead blurs your main background.


As with the previous release, the big improvements in GNOME 3.36 are under the hood. Performance is better, with fewer CPU spikes from things like window movement and animations. The latency is lower now, too, which goes a long way to making the overall experience of Ubuntu 20.04 feel snappy.


It's also worth noting that the Amazon "app" that used to end up in the Ubuntu sidebar by default is gone. According to a recent Canonical survey of over 21,000 Ubuntu users, just one person said they would miss the Amazon app. Everyone else will be happy to know that Canonical's effort to make a little affiliate revenue is no longer around.

The Ubuntu MATE desktop in Ubuntu 20.04.
Enlarge / The Ubuntu MATE desktop in Ubuntu 20.04.

Other desktops

That same Canonical survey reports that 85 percent of respondents use the "official" GNOME-based version of Ubuntu. The remaining 15 percent were mostly split between Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and Ubuntu MATE, which all ranked very closely.


Ubuntu MATE is, and has been for some time, my favorite Ubuntu desktop, especially when setting up a machine for someone else. It's stable, fast, and familiar to anyone switching from another OS. The release of 20.04 continues in that vein with a slew of small updates too numerous to list here.


What's perhaps more noteworthy than any individual change in this release is how these changes came about, namely by asking users what was bothering them and then fixing it. The Ubuntu MATE team relies on some dedicated testers to help them focus "on the pain points our community is most vocal about." The result is another great release, with enough improvements to MATE's Marco Window Manager that Compiz and Compton are no longer included by default (you can still install them if you can't live without your wobbly windows, of course).


Other new features in MATE 20.04 include a GUI front end for fwupd, which means you can easily install, upgrade, and downgrade firmware on devices supported by the Linux Vendor Firmware Service.


Kubuntu 20.04 has a new version of Plasma, KDE Apps updates, and some other smaller changes that polish up the look and experience of KDE. Work on Plasma and Wayland continues as well; there's a new plasma-workspace-wayland package that's not officially supported but is at least available. It will eventually add an option to login screen to start Plasma in a Wayland session. Unfortunately, I found it buggy for now—very buggy, which is presumably why it's not supported.


Another Ubuntu flavor with a major update is Lubuntu, which is releasing its first LTS based on LXQT. That does bring with it one catch: you can't upgrade from 18.04 or below. Still, as a fan of LXQt and Lubuntu, this release is a huge improvement, especially when it comes to stability. Lubuntu remains easy on system resources and makes a great choice for older hardware where even MATE would be straining your RAM and processor.

Raspberry Pi and Windows

Ubuntu 19.10 brought support for the Raspberry Pi 4 platform, but now with 20.04 there have been numerous bug fixes and improvements (many of which will make their way upstream eventually) that make Ubuntu my favorite system for my Pi 4. It also means Ubuntu will run on pretty much all Pis from the 2B and up.


Another place you'll find Ubuntu 20.04 LTS is in the Microsoft Store on Windows 10. If you're using Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), you can get your LTS cake and eat it, too. I haven't had a chance to play with this much, but my early testing went well. What remains to be seen is how the switch to WSL 2—which comes with the May 2020 Windows 10 update—will work out. The move to WSL 2 is a big one, with some speed improvements since it runs an actual Linux kernel rather than translating everything to Windows commands.

Ubuntu on the server

There's a good number of new features in Ubuntu 20.04 that, while available on the desktop, seem more geared toward the server release. This is particularly true when it comes to security, which has seen a good bit of emphasis in this release.


There are two major new security features in 20.04, Kernel Lockdown Mode and Kernel Self Protection. Kernel lockdown mode is a long time in coming, and this addition really reflects the kernel catching up to where Ubuntu (and many other distros) have long been using patches. With 20.04, now there is a built-in Linux Security Module to stop even a root account from interacting with kernel code. The goal is to make it more difficult for compromised root accounts to compromise entire systems.


Kernel Self Protection is similar in that it tries to contain the potential damage done by security flaws in the kernel itself. For more details, see the kernel.org documentation.


Another big change that's no doubt welcome for Ubuntu's enterprise customers is that Ubuntu Advantage Support (which gets you 10 years of support) now extends not just to the core system, but to the some 30,000 packages in Ubuntu's repositories. That means that enterprise deployments of Ubuntu 20.04 that include a subscription to Ubuntu Advantage Support will be supported until 2030.


For the 95 percent of users who will be upgrading from 18.04 (the last LTS release), rest assured that things are about to get much, much better. Even if you leave the ZFS features for the future (as you should), the speed bumps for GNOME, improved theme and design changes, and the long-coming security improvements make Ubuntu 20.04 well worth the update.


If you're looking to upgrade mission critical servers, I suggest you hold off until the first point release, which generally arrives a month or two after a new release. I have not run into any issues during testing, but there no doubt will be some, and I prefer to let other people be the edge cases when it comes to server updates. Don't get me wrong, Ubuntu 20.04 is a solid release already—servers just aren't something I suggest rushing to upgrade.


On the desktop, though, I've installed Ubuntu 20.04 on a Dell XPS 13, Lenovo x240, and an Acer Swift 3, as well as several virtual machines and have had no hardware issues. I installed the early betas even on the Dell, which is my main testing machine, and ran into only two problems, both of which were fixed before the official release.


And, yes, I did solve those issues initially by rebooting to grub and rolling back to the last ZFS snapshot. After a few seconds to reboot, I was right back to work. Welcome to the future, fellow Ubuntu users.



Source: Ubuntu 20.04: Welcome to the future, Linux LTS disciples (Ars Technica)  


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