Could Dapper Drake give Ubuntu a last laugh in Linux server space?

Could dapper little Linux distro Ubuntu have what it takes to take a spot in the Linux server market? One analyst firm thinks it does, but only if handler Canonical Ltd. steers clear of the practices of Red Hat and Novell.

Thousands of developer hours behind Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) could

make it close to impossible for the Ubuntu operating system to grab the third spot in the Linux server market.

However, not everyone feels that way. Raven Zachary, a senior analyst with The 451 Group, based in New York, looks at the massive community-driven potential of Ubuntu and sees a spark of popularity that is absent from the leading commercial Linux vendors. Ubuntu 6.06's server component opens the door for expanding into new markets, he said.

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"To some extent I can agree that there is not room for another Linux that looks like Red Hat or SUSE, but there is room for one that does not look like either of them," Zachary said.

This is not the first time that the Ubuntu name has been knocked around in the headlines with big-name vendors. When reports surfaced that Red Hat Inc. was buying JBoss Inc. in April, analysts from the Burton Group, based in Midvale, Utah, said that the popular distro could be an appealing target for Oracle Corp. as that company looked to either buy or begin a Linux for its own open source software stack. Buying into Ubuntu would have put Oracle in the top three for software stacks, said Burton Group senior analyst Richard Monson-Haefel.

On technical specs Ubuntu is comparable to RHEL and SLES, Zachary said. He added, however, that commercial vendors lack Ubuntu's "character," which has resulted in a community of more than 56,000 unique users over the past 18 months. That explosive growth could very well carry over to the server side, he said.

Red Hat already has something similar to this in Fedora, but this is essentially a commercially driven version of RHEL. Ubuntu, on the other hand, looks more like the Apache project, Zachary said, and it is not driven by commercial interests outside of Canonical Ltd., a private company founded in the Isle of Man and funded by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, who sponsors Ubuntu.

"[An enterprise] CIO is not asking which Linux his company is deploying because where things matter is if you have vendor lock-in with vendors like Oracle and BEA, where they have commercial products that are only certified on specific distros."

These certified distributions are predominantly RHEL and in some cases SLES, but rarely will the industry see the likes of companies like Oracle or BEA Systems Inc. embracing Ubuntu as a platform. Therefore, Zachary said, Ubuntu cannot go the certification and subscription routes that were fine-tuned by Red Hat and Novell.

"The problem with the subscription model is that they feel a lot like licenses," Zachary said. "For Ubuntu to be different, it needs to focus on enterprise support deals. Whether Ubuntu is installed on five or more computers and they charge X amount a year on support, it doesn't matter because it decouples the install from services and makes the customers feel that they are more in control of their choices," he said.

Zachary compared this model of business to open source middleware vendor JBoss, which was recently acquired by Red Hat. The JBoss model was designed around the user -- not the customer -- so that the software could be downloaded free of charge and services and support could be bought at a later time if needed.

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