Snaps help Xibo rekindle its relationship with Linux

by Sarah Dickinson on 27 August 2019

Sometimes, relationships just don’t work out. At first, it seemed that Xibo and Linux were made for each other. Xibo had a popular open source digital signage and player system, while Linux brought a community of enthusiastic users. Dan Garner of Xibo remembers why they broke up in 2015: “Releasing our player on Linux was too heavy on development resources, we were a small team, and it was difficult to make deployment stable”.

So, Linux releases were shelved, much to the disappointment of users. Xibo’s software remained available as open source and as binaries. However, Linux users had to do the heavy lifting to install it and make it work. Hardcore fans often built their Xibo systems directly from the source code, creating a patchwork of different generations of the software in a universe outside Xibo’s mainstream activities.

Meanwhile, Xibo developed its Android player as a commercial offering and as Dan puts it, “joined the industry foray into system-on-chip with commercial webOS and Tizen platform versions”. The overriding goal continued of having a completely open source option permanently available. With Xibo’s CMS system already open source, Dan adds, “Xibo has always had an open source player and plans to always do so – there is a strong following for our open source products and users do a lot of cool stuff with them”. 

However, there was still the stumbling block of the difficulty in making the open source player releases stable as Linux packages, compared to Windows versions that were “stable out of the box”. The video and embedded web components of Linux releases of the Xibo player were especially problematical. Undeterred, the user community came back with suggestions about different frameworks that Xibo could use to resolve the problems, while users continued to use old Linux player versions in the absence of updates. 

The Xibo user base also continued to expand. While education was a key market, Xibo saw its solutions being used in many other sectors including retail, banking, and government. Dan estimates that currently, “installations range from 1 to around 2,000 units in a single CMS with well over 50,000 screens out there running Xibo, possibly even more behind closed doors”.  And even if Xibo prefers to focus on x86 architectures, leaving alternatives like ARM for later, Dan is aware that “Xibo’s open source players run on almost anything users can find”.

Then Dan’s colleague and Xibo co-founder Alex Harrington discovered snaps. As the Xibo team grew, Alex did some research into different ways of using snaps, the channels available, and snaps capabilities of auto-updating and API access. As Dan puts it, “since the Xibo app uses a lot of libraries, having these running in an isolated platform like snaps was attractive – in fact, it sounded like such a perfect fit for Linux version releases that we just launched into it”.

Now, things have changed. The Xibo team is bigger and Linux release packaging has become easier and more reliable, thanks to snaps. “With snaps we can manage the Xibo dependencies much better,” says Dan. “There are no more long installation guides, just one line and it’s done – a huge benefit to users”. There’s something else that Dan and the Xibo team find remarkable about snaps. It’s the silence. “There are no support questions any more about installation, it’s smooth and seamless”.

Snaps and Snapcraft work well in Xibo’s internal processes too. “We work with Docker and then push the results into Snapcraft. Starting to package our app as a snap was simple, taking about two days to learn about and apply Snapcraft for a quality result”. Dan hopes that making the Xibo player snap available via the Snap Store will also bring more order to the current “fractured” base of Xibo Linux player versions, by allowing users to automatically update their installations to the latest version. Currently, Xibo develops, tests and builds using Ubuntu, although additional distributions may be added in the future.

Has Xibo considered commercialising versions of its open source offering? “The short answer is no,” says Dan. Xibo is committed to keeping its open source software available for anyone to use, free of charge. Xibo has a paying cloud option and Dan thinks some users may be attracted by the “easier, one-click experience” of using the Linux player with the cloud hosted CMS, “but there is no plan to directly monetise the Linux player”. 

The Snap Store will be an extra channel for Xibo player software for Linux, rather than a replacement channel for the open source that Xibo continues to make available. Dan says, “the Snap Store makes distribution easier and I think that users are organically attracted by snaps in any case, even if there is great enthusiasm among developers”. What other advice would Dan give to developers weighing the pros and cons of snaps? “Go for it!”, he says, “And visit the Snapcraft Community forum to learn more about everything that’s going on in the world of snaps”.

Install Xibo as a snap here.

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