Ubuntu’s “Free” Ride Into the Enterprise

That Linux is a significant player in the enterprise comes as no surprise: Enterprise customers are a lot easier from which to generate revenue. It makes economic sense: if you have a business product to sell, it’s far easier to sell 1,000 products to one or two big companies than to do all the footwork to sell 2,000 products to 2,000 companies. Or even among 100 companies.

For some time, the big commercial Linux vendors have been happily wandering orchard of low-hanging enterprise fruit, almost completely eschewing markets such as consumers or small- to medium-sized businesses.

That single-minded focus may not serve them well against a relative newcomer to the enterprise Linux market: a newcomer that has quickly obtained a large percentage of the desktop Linux market and–more importantly–the hearts and minds of Linux developers.

The newcomer is Canonical, Ltd., the UK-based company that has masterminded the success of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, and is now rolling into the enterprise marketplace with all the momentum that put it on the top of the desktop Linux field.

A healthy dose of skepticism is to be expected: while Ubuntu is known to be stable and very pretty, such things do not a strong enterprise-level distribution make. Taken alone, that would certainly be true, but there’s a lot of things going on in and around Ubuntu Server that give it a more-than-fair shot at enterprise success.

Perhaps the most important advantage Ubuntu Server has against enterprise players like Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Novell’s SUSE Enterprise Linux Server (SLES) is the simple fact that, at any time, you can get your hands on Ubuntu Server free of charge. RHEL and SLES have trial programs available, but at the end of the day any production machine you want to deploy will have a price tag.

In the past, critics have argued that “free” hasn’t always translated into beaucoup deployments for an enterprise-level Linux distribution. After all, CentOS, which is almost an exact line-by-line free copy of RHEL, has only enjoyed modest success compared to its costlier RHEL antecedent. That’s because, these same critics maintain, there’s a perception that no formal CentOS support exists. (This is actually a misperception: OpenLogic started supporting CentOS last December.)

Ubuntu Server, from the start, has never labored under such perceptions: Canonical has had some level of support program available for it since Ubuntu Server’s inception. But it was the June, 2010 announcement of Canonical’s Ubuntu Advantage Server program put to rest any doubts that Canonical wants to be a player in the enterprise space.

The Advantage program is comprised of four major components designed to give support, from technical and emotional, to Ubuntu Server customers.

First, there’s the Landscape program, which just released version 1.5 right after the latest version of Ubuntu, 10.04 Long Term Support, came out. Landscape is Canonical’s systems management and monitoring service that can be used either as a hosted online service or as a dedicated local solution. The Hosted Edition comes standard for all Ubuntu Advantage program members, though the Dedicated flavor is available as an option.

Another component of the Ubuntu Advantage Server program is Assurance, which seems Canonical’s attempt to placate the fears potential customers might have about legal issues that supposedly surround Linux.

“We take care of intellectual property infringement legal claims brought against customers in their use of Ubuntu,” the Assurance web page reads.

Of all of the components, this seems to be the most superfluous given that, to date, no one has successfully made an IP claim against Linux’ creators, let alone customers. But there’s no pleasing some people, who apparently still buy into anything that comes out of Microsoft’s corporate mouths.

(The same mouths, mind you, that said: “We built KIN for people who live to be connected, share, express and relate to their friends and family. This social generation wants and needs more from their phone. KIN is the one place to get the stuff you care about to the people you care about most.” [Robert J. Bach, April 12, 2010, soon-to-be-retired President of the Entertainment and Devices Division at Microsoft].)

All Advantage users will get full access to Ubuntu Server’s Knowledge Base, which may seem like a pittance, but when you consider that Ubuntu’s community-driven documentation is among the best Linux documentation to be found, having access to the commercially driven version of that documentation is no small feature.

Beyond these three components of the Ubuntu Advantage Server program, things get a little more tiered. Specifically, there are three tiers for the Advantage program: Essential, Standard, and Advanced. Here’s where the remaining Advantage component–Support–gets divvied up.

Essential users will have support for basic installations and applications, according to Canonical, for a US$320 per server yearly subscription fee.

Standard users will get that level of service, plus support for virtualization and Windows integration, for US$700/server.

Finally, Advanced users will get the big kahuna of support packages: all of the above, with clustering and high-availability failover, and custom package repository support, all for the price tag of US$1,200 per server.

It’s a little hard to compare support programs, since they’re a little like apples and oranges, but RHEL’s comparable tiered-support subscriptions come in at US$349, US$799, and $1,299, respectively. Which pretty much tells you for whom Canonical’s gunning.

While Canonical has Red Hat edged out a bit on price, the real challenge may come another direction entirely: the hearts and minds of developers.

According to Canonical COO Matt Asay, Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond pointed out to Asay that with 12 million active desktop deployments, Ubuntu would be a natural choice for more developers to code. Hammond’s logic is simple: if developers are using Ubuntu, they’ll build apps for it first.

That kind of burgeoning application ecosystem is a big plus-point for Ubuntu Server, since it’s application availability that will ultimately attract customers to a given platform.

The formula seems to be working. According to IDC, Ubuntu Server installations went from essentially zero to five percent of Linux paid subscriptions in 2009 alone. Five percent may not sound like much, but it’s pretty good after only a year.

There will be challenges, of course, and not just from Red Hat and Novell. Ubuntu is based on the venerable Debian GNU/Linux distro, and while relations have improved in recent months, there have been occasional flare-ups as the Debian community takes exception to directions the Ubuntu team takes. These are mostly just smoke and little fire, but collectively they lend a negative impression toward the Ubuntu product. Canonical’s founder, Mark Shuttleworth, seems to be a favorite lightning rod for those in the community who Don’t Approve of the commercial moves Canonical makes with Ubuntu.

Still, Canonical’s messaging seems coherent and focused, and it has a good product to sell. There’s no telling how far it will go in the enterprise market.

Brian Proffitt is a Linux and Open Source expert who writes for a number of publications. Formerly the Community Manager for Linux.com and the Linux Foundation, he is the author of 18 Linux and Open Source books, including his most recent work, Introducing Fedora: Desktop Linux. His online works are read by nearly a half million people on a daily basis.

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