UBUNTU VS FEDORA
Linux Format|December 2021
Jonni Bidwell wants to know everything – and he means everything – about the two most popular Gnome-based distros…
Jonni Bidwell

Fedora and Ubuntu are both highly regarded distros, but have different approaches in a number of areas. If you were to believe the first few Google results comparing them, you’d conclude that Ubuntu is more suited to beginners, that Fedora features new technology first, and that both have large companies backing them. But these listicle summaries rarely tell the full story, so to celebrate the release of new versions of each we thought it’d be a fine time to really put these OSes to the test.

We’ll look at software availability, gaming prowess as well as some technical points about how each is put together. The flagship releases of both distros run Gnome and both use the Wayland desktop protocol, so there’s not much to compare there. The interim Ubuntu releases are supported for nine months, whereas Fedora is supported for only seven. If these two months matter to you, you’ve already got some use out of this feature. But if you want to know more about how in-place upgrades work for both, then you’ll have to read a little further.

We’ll also look at each specimen’s server offerings. Ubuntu’s cloud-init tool makes it easy to set up a new server, and Fedora’s Cockpit tool will have you administrating like a pro in no time. If you’re into IoT then Ubuntu Core with its Snap-powered modularity will get your embedded projects up and running. Fedora’s CoreOS Linux is ideal if you want to run container-based workloads. And there’s also Fedora Silverblue, powered by OSTree atomic updates.

Okay, time to pit Orange against Blue in a fight to the, urm, kernel panic.

What makes them great, again?

Here at Linux Format Towers we’re always recommending both Ubuntu and Fedora, but sometimes we forget why…

There’s a school of thought that states Linux is also all about choice. Then again, there’s also the website http://islinuxaboutchoice.com which says different (and in very large blue letters, too). Hearsay and single-page websites notwithstanding, users certainly do have a choice about which Linux distribution to use. And sometimes that choice is difficult.

Ubuntu is often classed (along with its derivatives Mint, Pop!_OS, elementary OS and Zorin OS) as a beginner-friendly distro. Fedora, by comparison, is seen as a testbed for new (and especially Gnome-related) technologies that’s more suited to intermediate users. But this definition isn’t entirely fair. A beginner (with just a little bit of luck and no Nvidia hardware) would probably get on just fine with Fedora. And if they don’t then it’s unlikely they’d fare much better with Ubuntu, where the only obvious user-facing difference – an Ubuntu-themed dock on the left-hand side – is unlikely to provide any kind of moral support.

Stepping up a gear

Advanced users revel in both operating systems, too. The security-conscious among them approve that AppArmor (Ubuntu) and SELinux (Fedora) offer incredible granularity for locking down applications. They like the harmony that goes with having the same software stack on desktops and servers. Ubuntu gives users with exabyte storage requirements (or just people who like advanced filesystems) an experimental option to install on ZFS. Fedora now uses Btrfs (the Btree filesystem, annoyingly referred to as ‘butterfs’ by fans of dairy products) by default, which can likewise cope with data spread (butter?–Ed) across multiple huge drives.

Thanks to Snaps even users of the Ubuntu LTS can get hold of bleeding-edge software in a single click. Those seeking newer kernels and low-level system tools (only available as traditional RPM and DEB packages) will find them in Fedora and the interim Ubuntu releases, which is what we’re going to focus on in this sequel. Snaps are perhaps a little more versatile than Flatpaks, because they can package command line utilities as well as graphical applications, but both offer potentially increased security through sandboxing and isolation features. And both are much more convenient than fiddling around with third-party repositories.

FREE AS IN “WHY WON’T MY FREEKING WIRELESS WORK?”

Apropos to our licencing feature (wow our technical editor is good), Ubuntu and Fedora have fairly divergent policies as to what can and what cannot live in each distributions repositories. We mentioned ZFS earlier, which has its origins in Sun’s Solaris operating system. It was open sourced in 2003, but done so under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL). As such it can’t be part of the Linux Kernel proper, since CDDL code can’t be relicenced under GPLv2. But the ZFS on Linux (ZoL) project has engineered a kernel module that Canonical is apparently happy enough to distribute with its OS. Fedora doesn’t have any truck with non-free offerings, and as such ZoL, the proprietary Nvidia driver and various bits of Wi-Fi firmware all require remedial steps to install there.

This stance on software freedom shouldn’t necessarily be a reason to not use Fedora. It’s easy for owners of Nvidia hardware to get Fedora to be set up for AAA-gaming. Just add the RPMFusionNvidia repository in the same way as (over the page) we add the non-free repository for the Intel Media SDK.

Fedora generally gets new technology working before other distros, with the exception of bleeding-edge ones like Arch and Gentoo. However, in those distros even though the new technology is there, getting it to actually work without breaking something else is often a challenge (that we enjoy, right? – Ed).

The Impish Indri is already one of our favourite Ubuntu animals. It’s a little taxing not being able to switch audio devices from the controls.

What’s in a top-tier distro?

Learn how Fedora and Ubuntu are engineered, governed and supported.

Just as anyone can contribute to the Linux Kernel, so anyone can contribute to Fedora or Ubuntu. You don’t need to be a seasoned coder – there are always translation and documentation tasks to do. If you’re a dab hand with a (virtual) paintbrush maybe you could contribute some icons, themes and logos too. Distro development isn’t some communist free for all, though. There are committees and managerial structures, though these are in general much less rigid than you’d find in a similar-sized company. In 2015 some 35 per cent of the 2,000-odd Fedora contributors were Red Hat employees, though the remaining 65 per cent may well have been working for someone else.

We won’t get into the technical minutia of how a distro is actually made. Look at the appropriate -next branch of any distro’s GitHub and you can get an idea of the process. For illustration though, a week after the release of Ubuntu 21.10, the first daily builds of 22.04 (Jammy Jellyfish) appeared. These at the time of writing hardly differ at all from the 21.10 release, since the first steps are to decide on the build environment and get everyone’s toolchains synced. You can find the release schedule at https://discourse.ubuntu.com/t/jammyjellyfish-release-schedule/23906, which shows when new software planned for inclusion is released. OpenSSL 3 and Ruby 3.0 are both slated for release in November, for example. If you’re upset that Ubuntu 21.10 missed out on Gnome 41 (by dint of misaligned release schedules), you’ll be pleased to hear that Gnome 42 will (assuming no delays to its release) be powering the Ubuntu 22.04 desktop.

Chains of command

Fedora is governed primarily by the Fedora Council, which includes representatives from all over the project, Red Hat-nominated members and a few others. Beneath that are FESCo, the Fedora Engineering Steering Committee, and MindShare. FESco is responsible for deciding on the technical direction of the project and MindShare is all about community outreach, conducting liaison between teams and encouraging contributors to mix with other teams. Reporting into FESCo and MindShare are many smaller Engineering and Community teams. See the diagram (below left).

Like Fedora, Ubuntu’s development releases feed into its big, stable releases (the LTSes) which is what people will run on their servers and will be supported for 10 years (with an Ubuntu Advantage subscription). It’s these releases, in conjunction with Canonical’s support for enterprise tooling (OpenStack, Kubernetes, Ceph, etc), that fill its coffers, so it’s in its interests to make the LTS editions fantastic. Also like Fedora, contributions to each new release don’t just come from Canonical employees, but also from other companies and volunteers. Oversight is apportioned between the Ubuntu Technical Board and the Ubuntu Community Council, which are analagous to FESCo and MindShare. A key difference is that Ubuntu has a SABDFL (self-appointed benevolent dictator for life) in the form of Mark Shuttleworth, who has a casting vote on both of these committees.

Ubuntu’s Technical Board and Community council both meet fortnightly on IRC. This might seem like an outdated (or, if you’ve never used IRC before, complicated) way to do meetings. But it’s better than Zoom and, since it’s how a great deal of open source projects are co-ordinated, is unlikely to go away soon. Fedora boards also use IRC, and have a great guide for newcomers at https://fedoramagazine.org/beginners-guide-irc.

Perhaps an overlooked part of making a distro is baking the files (ISO or USB images) that people will download and install. Fedora and Ubuntu both have their own tools for doing this non-trivial task.

Support levels

Both Canonical and Red Hat make money from providing support to their Enterprise customers. For machines on your own infrastructure, Canonical offers Ubuntu Advantage for Infrastructure (UA-I) and a quick glance at https://ubuntu.com/pricing shows that comes in three tiers. Its cheapest Essential support offering is available to those using the LTS releases on servers ($225 per machine per year), virtual machines ($75) and desktops. This doesn’t include phone support, but you can pay extra ($525 per annum) for that, and is only available for their LTS offerings. If you’re looking for paid support with installation, drivers or anything else consumer oriented then this isn’t really for you. It’s more aimed at infrastructure and server management (using Canonical’s Landscape administration tool).

That said, the Essential tier is available for free on up to three machines (or 50 if you’re an Official Community Member), and includes Extended Security Maintenance for older releases (namely 14.04 and 16.04) and access to the kernel live patching service. Again, kernel patching is only available for the standard LTS kernel, so no use for Ubuntu 21.10. Fedora is a community supported distribution, so there’s no paid support there. Red Hat supports Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which technology tested in Fedora (and now CentOS Stream too) will eventually find its way into once it’s stabilised. If you want support (beyond updates) with Kubernetes or OpenStack then you need to move up to the Standard tier. If you’re running Ubuntu on a public cloud, i.e. AWS, Azure or GCP, then you can, for a tiny bump on your hourly costs, switch to Ubuntu Pro instead.

For community support, there are official Ask Fedora and an Ask Ubuntu websites (run on Discourse and StackOverflow, respectively). These both receive dozens of questions a day, and both have easily accessible information on how to ask good questions and be a good human. There are also more traditional forums at The Fedora Lounge (https://forums.fedoralounge.com) and https://ubuntuforums.org). If you think you’ve found a bug then familiarise yourself with the bug-reporting process for each distro, so that the developers can fix it. If you’re a beginner, or angry, then please resist the temptation to post until you’re familiar with this process or have calmed down.

For tracking bugs Fedora uses the popular Bugzilla application where as Ubuntu uses the equally popular Launchpad. Both platforms have much the same workflow: bug reports are triaged, tested and (hopefully) fixed, but they might also be marked as “Won’tFix” (where the issue is judged not to be a problem) or as a duplicate of another bug. The Bugzilla application is also used for feature requests, but again you should familiarise yourself with the etiquette here. Launchpad enables more advanced users to file ‘blueprints’ for desired features.

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