Is Ubuntu a good server OS?

My “Openstack IRL” presentation informs the audience that we at Cloudscaling use Ubuntu for the systems we deploy. When I present this live and we get to that slide, I usually say something like this:

We use Ubuntu for our systems. This is somewhat ironic because at least once a month in our office we have a big discussion about how terrible Ubuntu is as a server operating system…

Funny. But is it true? Is Ubuntu a terrible operating system for servers? Let’s look at one data point: Upstart.

Upstart’s raisons d’etre

My distillation of the reasons upstart was created to replace the traditional rcX.d init structure from SysV and BSD is:

  1. the traditional system is serial rather than parallel, meaning reboots take longer than they have to – and people reboot their systems a lot more these days
  2. the traditional system doesn’t deal well with new hardware being plugged in and out on a regular basis – and people are constantly plugging stuff in and out of their systems these days

Do those sound like conditions that affect your servers? Me neither. They are desktop-centric concerns. And there’s nothing wrong with that – unless you’re trying to run a server.

Why does it matter?

From the perspective of a crotchety old-time unix sysadmin (a hypothetical one of course!), upstart is a PITA. Let me try to illustrate why:

Checking what order stuff starts in

In the traditional world, here’s what you have to do to find out what order things start in:

ls /etc/rc2.d

That’s it. The output of that command provides you with everything you need to see at a glance that (for instance) apache is going to start after syslog.

Here’s how you do it in the upstart world:

well I wish I cold give you a simple way to do that, but you can’t. You have to open up the conf file for the service you’re interested in in /etc/init and look at what events it depends on for starting. If one of those events is the startup of another service, then you know your service will start after it. However, if there is no dependency listed on another service, then you don’t know what order they will startup in. Yours might start after the other one, or the other one might start before yours does, or they may both be starting up at the same time. You don’t know, and it isn’t guaranteed that they will start in the same order every time the system boots. This makes crotchety old unix sysadmins nervous, and leads to the second point….

Defining what order stuff starts in

In the traditional world, this is done with 2 digit numbers. You have a 2 digit number (part of the name of the file in /etc/rcX.d) and the scripts are run in the order of the numbers in their filename. So if you want one script to start later than another, just change its number to be larger than that other one. Easy to understand, and all you have to know to do it is how to use mv. And there are no hard dependencies here – if you build one server that doesn’t contain a particular service, that init file won’t be installed, and none of the other init files will be affected and startup will go as you expect.

In the upstart world, you do this by specifying startup dependencies between the jobs that start services. Each job emits an event when it completes that you can use in the conf files for other services. So say you have two services, s1 and s2, and you want to be sure s2 starts after s1. You do this by putting a line like this into /etc/init/s2.conf:

start on started s1

So aside from the crochety old sysadmin spending 45 minutes perusing ‘man upstart’ to figure this out in the first place, the problem you run into here is with distributed systems that can be deployed in varied configurations. For example, sometimes s1 and s2 are on the same node, and sometimes they are on different nodes. If you put the above line into /etc/init/s2.conf by default, guess what happens if you deploy in a config where s1 isn’t on the same node? s2 will never ever ever start.


My take on this is that upstart is a great thing for desktop systems. For server systems, it’s adding a bunch of complexity and brittleness without providing any actual benefits. And it’s one check mark in the “ubuntu isn’t a good OS for servers” category.


About Paul Guth

Old Timey Web Ops guy. I think about cars and clouds, and how they could be faster, cheaper, and more resilient. View all posts by Paul Guth

3 responses to “Is Ubuntu a good server OS?

  • hs

    What’s your ‘crotchety old-time unix sysadmin’ take on systemd? Doesn’t it also have similar drawbacks as it does parallel service start as well?

    • Paul Guth

      I haven’t had direct exposure to systemd, so I don’t really have an opinion…what’s yours?

      • hs

        I wish I had that kind experience using either Upstart or systemd. I’m a limited user playing with both Ubuntu and Fedora in VMs. Maybe you could give systemd a try and do a comparison? I, for one, would love to see the results.

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