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).
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.