We already know that Ubuntu Server developers are heavily invested in the cloud, a focus that continues during the current development cycle.  But that's not all to expect next fall: Ubuntu Server will also add support for ARM architectures.  Here's a look at exactly what to expect, and what it means for the channel.

ARM chips have been around in one form or another for a while--decades, actually.  But they've been popular in recent years only in mobile hardware.  Although some Linux distributions, like Debian (which supports every architecture under the sun), have long shipped builds optimized for different ARM sub-architectures, Ubuntu has traditionally provided little or limited official support for the family of chips.

That makes sense, given that ARM hardware represents only a fraction of the market and that Ubuntu's primary strength has always been on the desktop, where virtually no ARM hardware exists, and in the server world, where ARM has only lately emerged as a major hardware possibility.

More recently, however, Canonical has begun increasing its commitment to ARM support.  Ubuntu kernels optimized for different ARM architectures have been around since Ubuntu 9.04, with developers continuing to work on expanding that list.  That trend continued through the Maverick (Ubuntu 10.10) and Natty (Ubuntu 11.04) development cycles. meanwhile, Canonical set its sights on improving

ARM and Ubuntu Server

For Ubuntu Server developers, producing a complete "Ubuntu ARM Server Edition" has become a priority for the current Ubuntu 11.10 release cycle, in order to perfect ARM support on Ubuntu Server in time for the next longterm support (LTS) release in April 2012.  Specifically, the server team is focused on the following ARM architectures and types of images, according to the full specifications:
  • armel+omap
    • Image types: netboot, headless, preinstall server.
  • armel+omap4
    • Image types: netboot, headless, preinstall server.
  • armel+mx5
    • Image types: headless.
Progress towards the Ubuntu 11.10 ARM server is currently deemed 27 percent complete.

Does It Matter?

Canonical has a lot on its plate--too much, some might say--and expanding the profile of hardware officially supported by Ubuntu Server represents a substantial additional commitment.  It's also one whose payoff remains uncertain, since it's not at all clear that ARM based servers will become widely available anytime in the near future.

But the investment could certainly prove worth the Ubuntu Server team's time if ARM takes off in the server room as demand for energy-efficient data centers increases.  In that scenario, Canonical would emerge as an obvious partner for ARM OEMs, and as the dominant open source player within the ARM server niche.

Indeed, Canonical's already positioning itself to exert major influence over the ARM based server market, announcing (along with nine other organizations) a partnership a few days ago with ARM manufacturer Calxeda aimed at promoting ARM in the backroom.  Stay tuned to how this effort plays out going forward.

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