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Canonical's Power Play

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Aug 13, 2008


Paul Rubens
Of all the announcements to come out of last week's LinuxWorld expo in San Francisco, the two most interesting takeaways are Ubuntu's imminent assault on the enterprise space and the fact that the rise of community Linux distros in large organizations is at hand.

Ubuntu, coming soon to an enterprise near you -- if Canonical has its way. And Ubuntu's not the only distro with an eye on large organizations.

A well-timed series of announcements from Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu), IBM and various other software makers ensured that Ubuntu grabbed plenty of the limelight at the show while making Canonical's plans for its Linux distro clear.

Microsoft's discomfort over Vista and the cool reception it has received from businesses certainly provides an opportunity for Ubuntu to capitalize on. This has not been lost on IBM, a company that would like nothing better than to give Microsoft a good kicking and stick the knife into its Windows and Office cash cows.

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To that end, IBM has formed a gang with Canonical, Novell and Red Hat as sidekicks, issuing a joint statement outlining a crafty plan to "free" the enterprise desktop from the clutches of Microsoft. Actually, the plan is quite simple: It involves teaming up with hardware vendors and getting them to supply enterprises with PCs pre-loaded with one or other of the gang members' Linux distros, IBM's Lotus Notes, Symphony and SameTime, as well as various other software applications and installation services.

Kevin Cavanaugh, one of the ring leaders — and vice president for IBM's Lotus Software unit — explained the gang's goal, albeit with a large dose of PR speak:

The slow adoption of Vista among businesses and budget-conscious CIOs, coupled with the proven success of a new type of Microsoft-free PC in every region, provides an extraordinary window of opportunity for Linux. We'll work to unlock the desktop to save our customers money and give freedom of choice by offering this industry-leading solution.

Will the plan succeed in getting businesses with Windows desktops to switch to Linux in significant numbers? It's a long shot, but it just might work. For Ubuntu and the others it's certainly worth a try.

But it's not just the enterprise desktop Ubuntu has its eyes on — it wants a bigger bite of the server market, too. It's got a whole bundle of plans up its sleeve, which it revealed in announcements made last week. These plans include offering DB2 and Informix database management systems as .deb packages and making Alfresco Enterprise Release 3, a Microsoft SharePoint replacement, available pre-packaged in its partner repository. Canonical will also be offering Zimbra Collaboration Suite 5.5 (an alternative to Microsoft's Exchange) and Unison, which includes telephony as well as messaging and collaboration. Future versions of Ubuntu will feature a full Java application server stack.

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But here's the thing: Why should enterprises adopt Ubuntu when there are two well-established, commercially supported enterprise Linux distros out there already, in the shape of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise? They've got the business side more or less sewn up between them, haven't they?

Not according to Jay Lyman, an enterprise software analyst at The 451 Group who led a talk on community Linux and Ubuntu at LinuxWorld. (Community Linux, incidentally, he defines as "a community-developed, freely available Linux operating systems for the server.")

On the face of it, Lyman's argument is simple: Many enterprises will be unwilling to pay Novell or Red Hat for commercial support contracts when they can use community Linux distributions and make use of their own in-house Linux skills as well. In fact, as Lyman makes clear in a blog posting, his argument is much more subtle than that.

If we're talking about the enterprise, and particularly if we're talking large enterprise, paid support is absolutely, positively critical to use of Linux. In addition, we believe it is actually commercial support or 'paid support' — not for RHEL or SUSE but for CentOS, Debian or Ubuntu — that is helping to drive community Linux in the enterprise.

He sees community Linux distros like Ubuntu making inroads through the back door as file and print servers and suchlike, and also, but to a lesser extent, in mission- critical areas. "Before too long, we'll see some of these community distros gaining more commercial backing and support options from hardware vendors, SIs, VARs and others" he says. This will likely drive the price of commercial support down and result in a more varied choice of support offerings.

So the takeaway from LinuxWorld seems to be this: Watch out for Ubuntu and community Linux in general, coming soon to an enterprise near you.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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