Another season, another Linux kernel. At least, that's how it feels sometimes as kernel developers churn out new releases every two or three months. Within the next few weeks, Linux 3.7, the latest version of the code at the core of most mainstream open source operating systems -- on Android phones as well as PCs and servers -- will likely see its official release. And unlike some kernel updates, it will introduce a host of new features that end users may want to know about.
We don't cover Linux kernel development too frequently on The VAR Guy because it's not something most end users are likely to care about or understand. Unless you're deeply interested in how your computer works "under the hood" -- and kudos to you if you are -- chances are you don't want to read about the latest innovations in Linux memory management or file systems.
And while you need to be a geek to appreciate all of the components of version 3.7 of the Linux kernel, which is currently available in beta form (or, more precisely, in the sixth iteration of its release candidate), there are a fair amount of new features in this release which will potentially impact end users in a more immediate way. These include:
- Improved open source graphics drivers for each of the leading families of devices: Nvidia, Intel and Radeon. These updates bring not only bug fixes but also some major performance enhancements. The Nouveau Nvidia driver in particular will gain significant new functionality, making it more feasible to use Linux without relying on the "proprietary blob" module from Nvidia itself.
- Hardware-assisted virtualization support for ARM Cortex-A15 processors using the Xen hypervisor. (Similar updates for the KVM virtualization platform should appear in a future kernel release.) This change stands to make Linux a more appealing solution for the emerging ARM server market.
- Continued improvement to the btrfs file system, the next generation data storage platform which could affect the world of Big Data when it matures. For now, btrfs is rarely used in production, and ext4 is the predominant file system on modern Linux systems. But the 3.7 kernel brings widespread adoption of btrfs a step closer.
- And last but not least, the Nintendo Wii Balance Board will now be compatible with Linux thanks to new input support. That may not do much to help you write your next paper or process data sets, but it's good news on the rest and relaxation front.
Of course, like a lot of open source technology, it will take time for the latest in Linux kernel code to trickle "downstream" and reach a majority of users. Most mainstream Linux distributions, like Ubuntu and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Fedora, stay a release or two behind the kernel. Unless you grab the source code and compile Linux 3.7 yourself (or use an unofficial precompiled binary), you'll have to wait a little while for the new features to reach your PC or server.
Still, the updates are a reminder that Linux continues to evolve, and that you need not be a geek to benefit from all of the innovation.