​Google moves to Debian for in-house Linux desktop

January 19, 2018 6:00 am

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Google has officially confirmed the company is shifting its in-house Linux desktop from the Ubuntu-based Goobuntu to a new Linux distro, the DebianTesting-based gLinux.

Margarita Manterola, a Google Engineer, quietly announced Google would move from Ubuntu to Debian-testing for its desktop Linux at DebConf17 in a lightning talk. Manterola explained that Google was moving to gLinux, a rolling release based on Debian Testing.

This move isn’t as surprising as it first looks. Ubuntu is based on Debian. In addition, Google has long been a strong Debian supporter. In 2017, Debian credited Google for making [sic] “possible our annual conference, and directly supports the progress of Debian and Free Software.”

Debian Testing is the beta for the next stable version of Debian. With gLinux, that means it’s based on the Debian 10 “Buster” test operating system.

Google takes each Debian Testing package, rebuilds it, tests it, files and fixes bugs, and once those are resolved, integrates it into the gLinux release candidate. GLinux went into beta on Aug. 16, 2017.

Don’t bother looking for this new Linux distro. You won’t be able to find it. GLinux, like Goobuntu before it, is strictly for internal Google use.

Linux is not Google’s only desktop operating system. Google also uses macOS, Windows, and the Linux-based Chrome OS across its fleet of nearly a quarter-million workstations and laptops. Google isn’t using its mysterious Fuchsia operating system in production.

To manage its desktop operating systems, Google uses the Puppet DevOps tool. Specifically, Google works with the Standalone (Masterless) Puppet mode.

Google’s IT staff uses Pupper’s Standalone approach for two reasons. Standalone doesn’t require a large infrastructure of Puppet configuration servers. Instead, the desktops pull the cryptographically verified configuration files from a web host, then verifies the data locally, and applies the configurations. In addition, by not using a server-client model, this enables the company to commit to its BeyondCorp access model, which does away with using internal networks for corporate access.

BeyondCorp is Google’s enterprise security model, which uses the concept of zero trust networks. It works by shifting access controls from the network perimeter to individual devices and users. This enables employees to work securely from any location without a traditional virtual private network (VPN).

For Goobuntu, and now gLinux, Google uses PXE to netboot the standard Linux desktop installer image. These new Linux images are automatically built in the form of compressed tar-format archives. These images are then placed on an HTTPS server alongside Debian pre-seed files that automate the host setup portion of the installation. This installation process is integrated with Puppet and host update infrastructure to ensure every desktop is configured as intended at install. This allows Google to reinstall gLinux from the network in about 30 minutes.

Google wouldn’t say what desktop environment gLinux will be using. It’s believed, however, that it will use GNOME, backed by the Wayland display server.

Google wouldn’t officially comment on when the changeover from Goobuntu to gLinux would be completed. Sources say it should be well under its way by this summer.

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