Everyone must have heard of Chrome OS, a Linux-based operating system designed to run on Chromebook-type devices. However, since 2018, the search giant has also been using another not-so-known system, called gLinux. Follow:
This distribution – supported by Debian – is only used internally at Google, embedded in the computers of the company’s employees and engineers.
Currently, Big Tech uses multiple operating systems on multiple platforms, applying each of them in the environments where they are most productive. In the case of gLinux, Google claims that it uses the open source system on more than 100,000 company devices.
Before the adoption of this new system, Google had been using Goobuntu for over 15 years – which, as the name implies, was based on Ubuntu. The choice of this distro was motivated by the ease of use as well as fancy extra features.
However, the old system used Long Term Support (LTS) versions, which provided about 2 years of security updates. With this release cycle, the company had the hassle of having to update all machines before the OS end-of-life date.
According to Google, it was necessary to reinstall and fully customize the devices, an operation considered difficult and time-consuming. “The productivity impact of having all engineers set up their workspace from scratch every two years was not a financially responsible option,” the company says.
The birth of gLinux
Initially, Google even developed an auto-update tool, which solved most common Goobuntu problems.
On the other hand, extensive testing was required in the process of updating and verifying all major changed packages, an effort that usually took nearly a year.
To solve the problem, gLinux Rodete (Rolling Debian Testing) was developed, based on Debian and adopting a model of continuous patch release. This reduces the burden on software engineers – spreading the work out over time – with smaller changes being easier to track and reverse.
This led to a change in mindset within Google, as it was possible to control the flow of work to keep it more predictable, instead of adopting big changes that created stress on the team. This reduced employee turnover and eliminated the need to tackle multiple issues at once.
Other distributions also adopt this continuous release scheme, such as Arch Linux or NixOS, but Debian was chosen because of the availability of packages and tools, in addition to the large community of this distribution.
With gLinux, Google has re-engineered many systems and processes by adopting small weekly releases rather than stopping productivity every couple of years.
Updates are installed on a small number of machines and tested over the course of a few days to detect any problems or bugs in the installed packages, before the update is disseminated to all company devices.
Unfortunately, gLinux is not available for installation by the general public. However, we are using this system indirectly, when we are accessing company services, such as Gmail or YouTube.
In addition, Google says it intends to work even more closely with the Debian community, using its internal security patches to maintain the ecosystem of this Linux distribution.