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This chapter is from the book

Simple, Secure, Supported

Early on, the initial core Ubuntu team—of which one of this book’s authors was lucky enough to be a part—resisted the idea of the server version of Ubuntu. Or rather, they resisted the idea of a server distribution in the way that other GNU/Linux distributions had produced them and the way in which they were commonly thought of. The team was more than happy with running Ubuntu on servers, of course, but they resisted the idea of “server distributions” because of the way that Red Hat, SuSE, and the other big distributions built their businesses around “enterprise Linux” distributions that were big, clunky, and expensive. The result was, in the eyes of many of the early Ubuntu core developers and Canonical employees, top-heavy monstrosities. That’s not what Ubuntu is about.

The big server-based GNU/Linux distributions seemed to be competing over who included more services, more features, and more bells and whistles. Distribution 1 would have a Web server, an FTP server, a DNS server, several file servers, and a mail server. Distribution 2 would have all of those plus a DHCP server! A brand-new install of one of these “server distributions” would be running dozens of daemons—each taking up many megabytes of memory, loads of disk space, and (most important) lots of administrator time when they failed or interfered with something else. But worst of all, most of these daemons lay completely unused on most installs.

And if that wasn’t enough, the server installs would then run firewalls to keep people from accessing all these now-open services and to prevent users from exposing security vulnerabilities from their newly installed machines. Of course, there would be regular upgrades, security releases, and the like, to update all these now-firewalled services that nobody was using. Debian provided one alternative model that focused on custom installations of just what people needed. Among an elite group of sysadmins in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Debian had become the server OS of choice. Because nearly everyone on the early Ubuntu team was a Debian developer, it was to this model and to Debian technology that the Ubuntu team first turned.

Of course, the commercial GNU/Linux server market was not all horrible. For example, the early Ubuntu developers liked the idea of commercial support for its servers. They liked the idea of regular, predictable releases. As Debian developers, they all knew someone who wanted to install a simple, custom version of Debian on a server but who, because of the lack of commercial support and accountability, had been rejected by a higher-up in the company or organization. They liked the idea of a company using Debian’s technology to offer simple, custom server installs but could offer a commercial support contract. The Warthogs, and lots of folks like them, had waited years for this, but nobody had stepped up to the plate.

As we described in the previous section, an Ubuntu server install was simply a bare-bones installation. We were all administrators—at least of our own machines—and when we installed servers, we started out with “naked” machines so that we could choose every application, every daemon, every service that would go onto the machine. As administrators, we wanted the options of the big enterprise distributions, but we wanted to be able to choose those options ourselves. Like all administrators, we used servers to solve problems and to offer services to our users. These problems and needs are unique and, as a result, the cookie-cutter model of GNU/Linux servers was always a poor match.

And so that is what the Warthogs built and it is what Ubuntu Server remains today. At first, some people were confused. Ubuntu’s server offering was panned in several reviews for not including a firewall by default. But Ubuntu installed no open ports by default, so there was nothing to firewall! Of course, Ubuntu provided several firewalls for users to install if they wanted one, but Ubuntu left the decision to install a firewall, just like the decision to install services that might require one, up to the server’s administrator. For all installations but for server installations in particular, Ubuntu’s goal is to make the default installation simple and secure and to put the user in the driver’s seat. Ubuntu’s job, as distribution producer, is to make it as close to drop-dead simple for system administrators to do their jobs. In an Ubuntu Server install, every machine is exactly as complicated as the administrator has requested but never any more than necessary. No extra services or unnecessary features are included—although they are waiting in the wings for when they become necessary and are easily installable in ways that are described in Chapter 3.

One important effect of this simplicity is security. When there is less going on, there is simply less to go wrong. But, of course, the Ubuntu team has taken this many steps further and pursued proactive security in a number of other contexts. Ubuntu’s first release was held up for one day because a single open port was found in the default release. The goal of a machine with no open ports by default was more important than an on-time release. Ubuntu’s CTO and the chairman of the Ubuntu technical board, Matt Zimmerman, is a longtime security-focused developer who made nearly all of Debian’s security updates for more than a year before joining the Warthogs. As Ubuntu struggles over hard decisions about what to include or to pass up for inclusion in the distribution, the most important questions continue to be ones of security and support. “Can we—and we do want to—maintain security support and provide security releases for this software for the next 18 months?” Every piece of software included by default is subjected to this question, and many popular pieces of software are kept out because Ubuntu is reluctant to support them. Inclusion as an officially supported package means that a server admin can trust the software—both because Canonical has indicated that it trusts it and because Canonical has promised to clean up any security messes that occur through fixing important bugs and issuing a fixed package. Canonical’s security guarantee goes beyond security bugs to other bugs that might result in data loss. While there are no guarantees beyond this, Canonical makes many dozens of new updates per release that fix other important bugs in the distribution as well. The result is a rock-solid system with a commitment to continue.

With customizability, security, and support, Ubuntu truly is ready for the data room. The rest of this book will show you how.

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