Why Ubuntu 21.04 is an important release, even without GNOME 40

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Jack Wallen discusses why the upcoming Ubuntu 21.04 is more important than some of its features would imply.

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Image: Ubuntu

At one point, the Ubuntu faithful were excited that 21.04 (aka Hirsute Hippo) would be one of the first distributions to include GNOME 40. The upcoming release of the GNOME desktop promises to bring about some serious workflow changes that could make everything on the desktop flow a bit more efficiently.

GNOME 40 would also bring GTK4 and retire the aging GTK3. 

Unfortunately, neither of those cases are to be–GNOME 40 is simply not ready for prime time and there aren’t many apps that have migrated to GTK4. So this decision, albeit a disappointing one, makes perfect sense. Even though 21.04 is a short term support release (which means it’ll be used by far fewer), Canonical doesn’t want to unleash a version of Ubuntu that wreaks havoc on the users.

Ipso facto, no GNOME 40.

SEE: Linux service control commands (TechRepublic Premium)

What in this upcoming release makes 21.04 even worthy of testing/using? At first glance, one might be so inclined to say, “Not much.” The short list of “shiny and new” includes:

  • Python 3.9

  • Kernel 5.11

  • The usual app updates

  • New wallpapers

  • GNOME Shell enhancements

That’s a list certainly to make any user shrug with a resounding, “Meh.” You’d have to dig pretty deep to find anything in that list to get excited about. Even kernel 5.11 doesn’t include a list of features ready to have users cheering. Check out the short list and you’ll see features like:

  • USB4 and Thunderbolt enhancements

  • Sound support by Intel Alder Lake

  • Support for Guitar Hero Live PS3 and WiiU dongles

  • Better detection of the Lenovo ThinkPad

  • First lanes for PCI Express 6.0 support

  • Support for Corsair Power Supply

  • Support for new ASUS gaming laptop keyboards

Unless you own some of the hardware above, you’re not jumping for joy about this kernel. Not that a new kernel is boring. There’s always code cleanup and bug fixes aplenty, but for a new release of a distribution, 5.11 isn’t all that noteworthy.

There is, however, another feature in Ubuntu 21.04 that might raise a few eyebrows.

Welcome to your private home

With Ubuntu 21.04, user’s home directories will finally be private. You might be thinking, “My home directory is already private.” Is it, really?

Let’s test that theory. Log in to a running instance of Ubuntu (server or desktop, it doesn’t matter). Make sure this machine has more than one user account. Once you’ve logged in, issue the command:

ls /home/USER

Where USER is a username other than your own. On a test machine, I have two users:

I log in as the user Nathan and issue the command:

ls /home/olivia

What do I see? Everything in Olivia’s home directory (Figure A).

Figure A

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The contents of user Olivia’s home directory.

Of course, that doesn’t mean, as user Nathan, I can read the files in Olivia’s home directory. Or does it?

In fact, if I issue the command (as Nathan):

less /home/olivia/secret_file

I can actually read the contents of that file (Figure B).

Figure B

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Nathan shouldn’t be able to read this.

Yes, Olivia could change the permissions of those files such that only she is able to read them, but that shouldn’t have to happen. Everything in the home directory should be set to private. That’s exactly what Ubuntu 21.04 is going to bring to the table–making home automatically private. In this new release, all home directories will no longer be set to 755 permissions, but 750 permissions. That means:

  • Only the owner (the user) has read, write, and execute permissions

  • Group has read and execute permissions

  • World has zero permissions

So Olivia can read, write, and execute files; anyone belonging to the Olivia group is able read and execute files, but everyone else is blocked. That might not seem like much of a change, but it’s actually an important one that will go a long way to increasing privacy and security. 

The caveat

The one caveat to this is that the new permissions change will not affect upgrades. To get the added bonus of private home directories, you must do a fresh installation. Of course, anyone running an LTS release (such as 20.04) probably won’t do an upgrade to 21.04. Because the only enticing feature for 21.04 is the private home directories, many will probably skip this release and hold off until GNOME 40 hits the desktop.

Even so, the private directories coming to Ubuntu 21.04 is a long-overdue addition to the distribution. I get why the home directory was originally created with global read permissions. At one time we lived in a world where cooperation and trust was actually something to be counted on. Those days are long gone and a desperate need for heightened security has usurped convenience.

Ergo, private home directories are a must.

If you’re interested in kicking the tires of Ubuntu Hirsute Hippo, download the Ubuntu 21.04 ISO and spin it up. 

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