Ubuntu Server: Canonical’s Third Way to the Enterprise

Paul RubensCheap ‘n’ cheerful, and easy to use. Those are the three characteristics that define Ubuntu for the desktop, the Debian-derived Linux operating system which has proved hugely popular with open source enthusiasts. It’s free (as in beer and as in speech), each version has a daft name like Hardy Heron or Gutsy Gibbon, and it has an attractive GUI which makes Windows users feel right at home, making it an attractive choice for companies or individuals considering ditching a Microsoft operating system.

But Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, also offers a server version of the software, and this raises an obvious question: Do you really want to be running cheap and cheerful server software at the heart of your enterprise? Red Hat and Novell offer serious Linux server software, with serious names like “Red Hat Enterprise Linux” or “SUSE Linux Enterprise Server,” and if you want them you have to pay serious money for subscriptions. That’s the way that serious business is done.

Canonical begs to differ: it believes that plenty of organizations do want to run cheap and cheerful server software. Not for running mission critical systems, perhaps, but certainly for more mundane tasks.

“Realistically we are focused on large deployments carrying out the common workloads that enterprises or public sector organizations require,” says Steve George, Canonical’s Director of Corporate Services. “We want to provide a general server platform for general server duties, and this would include file servers, databases, mail servers, backup servers, security and systems management .”

Ubuntu’s Third Way

You’ll find servers carrying out these sorts of tasks on every network, but why should anyone pick Ubuntu? Enterprises usually have to make a choice between the commercial model, which involves paying a subscription to a company like Red Hat for tested and guaranteed software and certain level of support, or the community driven model, which involves using a distribution like Fedora “as-is”, without any payments.

The third way allows organizations to use fully tested and guaranteed software that Canonical stands behind, without having to pay a subscription, George says. “We allow customers to select and pay for exactly the options they want. With RHEL or SLES you effectively have to pay for security updates, but we say that you only have to pay for support, and only if you want it. And if you do decide to purchase support, you only have to pay for the groups of servers that you particularly care about.” Ubuntu is currently certified on (or compatible with) a range of 64 and 32 bit x86 platforms from vendors including IBM, HP, Dell and Sun, as well as Sun’s T1000 and T2000 SPARC-based systems.

Regardless of whether support is purchased, then, organizations using Ubuntu servers get free access to security fixes and other updates that Canonical endorses. But Ubuntu only makes economic sense if a good proportion of its servers in a given organization are unsupported. That’s because the support contracts (which include limited indemnity against claims of intellectual property infringements from the use of Ubuntu) that Canonical offers are more expensive than those offered by Red Hat: Canonical charges $2,750 per year for 24X7 support, while Red Hat’s subscription is $1,299 for servers with up to two sockets or $2,499 for more powerful machines, and Novell’s subscription is $1,499.

Who is actually running the server version of Ubuntu? Some of the big name users include Google, Wikipedia and Harvard University. The Works With U website lists many other server deployments in organizations in countries as diverse as the USA, Trinidad, Germany and Thailand. Many run mixed environments including Linux, Windows, and perhaps even Unix as well, according to George. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the free server software is finding some traction with start-ups and small businesses as an alternative to Windows Small Business Server, although Microsoft, with its large number of resellers and partners, represents formidable competition. Canonical is developing a partner network, but as present it is small and geographically patchy.

The absolute numbers or Ubuntu servers in use is impossible to come by as anyone can download, copy and install the software on multiple servers without any form of registration.

Ubuntu Server may initially have been aimed at servers running common workloads, but recently Canonical has announced partnerships with companies that push the boundaries. Zimbra, a Yahoo! owned company that supplies an open source alternative to exchange, is an obvious “common workload” partner, but teaming up with Alfresco, which makes an open source content management system, seems to indicate that Canonical wants to move slightly upmarket. “We are driven partly by customer demand, and partly by thinking about the things that people would logically want to do with Ubuntu,” confirms George. “We are interested in a Java application server, databases, web servers and so on.”

Ubuntu Server has certainly come a long way since its introduction in 2006, and adoption by companies like Google can only enhance its credibility. But it faces far larger competitors like Novell, Red Hat and indeed Microsoft, and it will be interesting to see how they react of Ubuntu server starts making serious progress. The road is long, and for Ubuntu it is going to get tougher.

Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist specializing in enterprise networking, security, storage, and virtualization. He has worked for international publications including The Financial Times, BBC, and The Economist, and is now based near Oxford, U.K. When not writing about technology Paul can usually be found playing or restoring pinball machines.

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