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Ubuntu is a popular Linux desktop distribution, but some of its design choices have come under criticism lately.
What if there was an easy-to-use desktop distro based on Ubuntu but keeping unwanted changes out of the core system? Vanilla OS might be what you’re looking for.
What is vanilla OS?
vanilla operating system is a Linux distribution that aims for higher security than other desktop Linux distributions. It’s based on Ubuntu but adds a twist: the core system files are immutable. This means that it is protected from changes that third-party programs might make.
The name comes from the idea that the original intent for the distribution was to provide a stock experience without any changes Canonical made for Ubuntu.
Why an immutable Linux distribution?
Immutability in Linux distributions is a concept that is becoming increasingly popular in containerized systems. Immutable distributions are standardized so that they are the same in every installation.
Immutability increases security; Since the central parts of the system, such as the kernel, cannot be modified, it is theoretically impossible for a malicious program to tamper with them. Additional packages are installed in a separate area from the main system.
Even an immutable system needs updates when bugs or security vulnerabilities are discovered. How does vanilla OS manage these updates? It uses something called AB Root.
ABRoot manages two system states, “Present” and “Future”. Suppose a new kernel is packaged for the system. When the user installs updates, this new kernel will be added to the future state. When the system reboots after installation, the future state becomes the present state, while future updates are added to the new future state.
Installing vanilla OS on a PC
Installing vanilla OS is similar to installing other Linux distributions. First you need to download the install image from their GitHub page and extract it to your installation media if installing on a physical machine.
As with standard Ubuntu, you boot into a live environment. By default, vanilla OS uses a standard GNOME 3 environment. You can browse the desktop and click when ready to install Install vanilla OS.
The installer is pretty standard. You will be prompted to select the drive and set up a partition scheme. You then choose a username and password and then install it on the hard drive. After that, boot into the new environment.
The vanilla OS desktop
The vanilla OS desktop uses the regular GNOME 3 desktop environment. It comes with the standard set of GNOME apps and not much else. That means you have to rely on the package manager, but vanilla OS is hardly uncommon on Linux distributions for this.
Vanilla OS doesn’t even come with an office suite. If you need to do word processing or spreadsheets, you’ll need to install something like LibreOffice. Fortunately, despite vanilla OS’s unorthodox architecture, it’s easy to add new packages.
It comes with a web browser, imaginatively named Web. You can also install other browsers that you may be more familiar with, such as Firefox and Chromium.
Package management in vanilla OS
The immutability of vanilla OS poses a challenge for installing additional software. Many large packages contain configuration files and require other dependencies. The traditional approach of APT and RPM is to install a series of packages into the main system directories.
The main problem with this approach is that it can be difficult to determine which components are part of the inventory system and which have been added by third-party programs. This can make troubleshooting difficult and even cause security issues.
One solution to this problem is to ship more programs as standalone packages that have all their dependencies together. This is the approach taken by Flatpak and Canonical’s own Snap packages. Flatpak is the default package format in vanilla OS, perhaps in response to the controversy among Ubuntu users over alleged snap package bloating.
This new approach to program distribution complements vanilla OS’s immutability by preventing applications from interfering with the affairs of the underlying system.
The main graphical way to install applications is to use the default GNOME software store. Flatpak packages are installed by default. One nice thing about using these is that they are installed in the user space. This means you don’t need to provide passwords to install new apps.
You can also install packages from the command line, like on standard Debian or Ubuntu systems. As traditional package managers make changes to the system, you might think that with vanilla OS’s immutability, you couldn’t install additional packages. Vanilla OS bypasses this with APX.
APX is the built-in command line package manager. APX is similar to APT, but installs packages in a container isolated from the main operating system. All dependencies are also installed in this container. Better still, you can also install programs without having to use sudo. Everything is done correctly in user mode.
For example, to install Firefox:
apx install firefox
The syntax of APX is very similar to APT and other Linux package managers. Installing and updating packages will seem familiar to those already familiar with the Debian/Ubuntu approach to package management.
Is vanilla OS for you?
You may be wondering if vanilla OS meets your computing needs. It’s still a very new distro, even if it builds on the track records of Debian and Ubuntu.
The distribution may appeal to those who are suspicious of Canonical’s recent changes to Ubuntu. While the main Ubuntu distribution also uses GNOME as the default desktop, some changes have been made. Canonical has also drawn criticism for snap packages and advertised its paid services in the terminal when updating packages.
It will also likely appeal to users concerned with security. While immutability is touted as a solution to security problems, it’s unclear how well it will hold up over the long term. It’s still interesting to see how it develops in the meantime. The project is proof that open-source operating systems like Linux allow people to experiment with new concepts in computer science more easily than proprietary systems.
Vanilla OS tries to weed out bugs
Vanilla OS is a newcomer in a crowded field of Debian and Ubuntu derivatives. Its unique architecture is an attempt to reduce problems by making the core of the operating system unmodifiable by external programs. While this complicates package management, Vanilla OS looks like an interesting project to pursue in the future.
Vanilla OS is just one of the Debian-based distros out there. Some of the most successful Linux distributions in use today, including Ubuntu, have been built on the solid foundation of Debian.
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