New DICE Ubuntu Environment

We are very pleased to announce that the Informatics managed Linux desktop environment (DICE) has been ported to Ubuntu 20.04 (Focal Fossa).

After 5 years of service our Scientific Linux 7 (SL7) based desktop environment is showing its age. In particular, this has begun to make it difficult to provide the latest versions of software for teaching and research. SL7 is based on Redhat Enterprise Linux 7 which has now moved into a maintenance phase. This means that Redhat will now only be providing important security updates.

With the release of Redhat Enterprise Linux 8 the developers of Scientific Linux decided not to continue with their project. That change led us to investigate what alternative Linux distributions we might use for DICE. Although we have decades of experience with various Redhat-based distributions we concluded that the Debian-based Ubuntu distribution would be better suited to the needs of the school. In particular, Ubuntu provides a much larger collection of software packages. The 2-year long-term-support release cycle for Ubuntu also means that the software they provide is typically more up-to-date than that available for Redhat. Ubuntu is also a more desktop-oriented platform when compared with Redhat which should mean you have a better desktop user experience.

As those of you who are involved in teaching will already be aware, before the start of Semester 1 in September 2020 all the teaching lab machines were upgraded to Ubuntu 20.04. We have also already upgraded various user-facing services including the XRDP remote desktop cluster, the general access SSH service and the general purpose compute servers.

All newly deployed DICE desktop machines will now come with Ubuntu installed. Over the next few months all those with an existing SL7 DICE desktop will be contacted by the Computing Support Team to arrange for it to be upgraded. We are aiming to upgrade all staff/PhD desktops by Easter 2021, if you would like your machine upgraded sooner you should contact the Computing Support Team.

At this stage we are primarily targeting Ubuntu to our desktop environment, plans to upgrade servers are still being formulated and we will continue to provide support for SL7.

Further information regarding the new DICE environment is available on our computing help site. If you have any questions about the new Ubuntu environment please contact us via our Support Form.

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One Response to New DICE Ubuntu Environment

  1. gdutton says:

    As most of our users will be accessing DICE remotely (using our RDP service), they’ll already be familiar with MATE, the desktop environment we use instead of the SL7 and Ubuntu default of GNOME. We’ve used MATE for some years for remote access as we find it more responsive in practice: it’s less graphically demanding, which helps remote response, but also generally less resource intensive, which makes for happier shared servers.

    For this release we’ve also taken the step of changing the Ubuntu default in all contexts from GNOME to MATE, including what we may as well call “2019-style” logins.

    We’ve done this for a few reasons: almost all of the development of the DICE Ubuntu platform was done remotely, and we simply hadn’t had the chance to “dog food” test things enough to be comfortable with the state of GNOME (and indeed the transition path for those upgrading their desktops from SL7). We also wanted those who have primarily used DICE remotely) to have a more consistent user experience.

    GNOME fans, fear not: we’ve only changed the default. The first time you log in locally to your Ubuntu desktop / lab machine, you’ll see MATE regardless of your previous preference, but from there you can use our switchdesk desktop chooser tool to pick your default – this will apply to local logins on all desktops. We still enforce MATE remotely, as we would still expect problems running the GNOME environment this way, but we’re looking into easy ways to choose from other low-impact window managers such as i3wm, which was popular amongst DICE SL7 users.

    PS: it’s pronounced maté

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