How Is Ubuntu Doing as a Server Platform?
Published: October 23, 2007
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Canonical jumped into the Unix distribution business in October 2004 and got into Linux server distribution in June 2006. With the launch last week of Ubuntu 7.10 for desktops and servers last week and the upcoming launch in April 2008 of a new Long Term Support variant of Ubuntu, it is reasonable to stop for a second and try to assess how well or poorly Ubuntu is doing on servers.
One of the first problems in trying to figure out how Ubuntu is doing on servers is that Canonical and the Ubuntu project that it controls has no concrete numbers on how many Ubuntu distributions are out there in use. Depending on when you ask, the Ubuntu installed base is anywhere from 6 million to 8 million--the larger number was an estimate from last year made by Canonical, and the latter and smaller number is the most recent estimate. Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's founder, was pressed during the Ubuntu 7.10 for a more precise accounting of the number of server installs, but said that it was not possible given that the Ubuntu project does not require registration for either desktop or server variants of its Linux, nor does it put any tracking software into its installs. Canonical does, of course, know exactly how many Ubuntu licenses are under support, and it is obviously a lot smaller than the millions of licenses that have been distributed in the past three years. And Shuttleworth was not going to divulge these numbers, just like other Linux distributors do not and Sun Microsystems does not with its Solaris 10 variant of Unix, which is freely distributed and open source as well.
The evidence on how Ubuntu is doing on servers is largely anecdotal at this point. "We have seen fantastic adoption of the server product," says Shuttleworth. "ISVs say they see Ubuntu more strongly as a candidate for server deployments."
He cites statistics compiled by open source mail server vendor Zimbra and content management software maker Alfresco Software, which put Ubuntu in second place behind other unnamed Linuxes (presumably Red Hat) as their main deployment platform. Shuttleworth also cites an IDC survey that indicates that nearly a quarter of the businesses surveyed by the market researchers had Ubuntu deployed somewhere. Initial demand for Ubuntu on servers came from programmers and administrators who were using it on their workstations and, in the wake of Ubuntu 6.06 LTS decided to put it on some servers as well.
What Canonical does not yet have is a tier one server vendor deploying Ubuntu on its servers, preloaded and preconfigured. But given Ubuntu's focus on drivers and supporting a wide variety of iron, this seems to be a goal that Canonical can hit if the server makers want to play. Canonical does have some whitebox server makers distributing Ubuntu on machine, but this is mostly in emerging markets outside of North America and Europe. Some big companies are also choosing Ubuntu. The WayBack Machine, a historical archive of the Web, is powered by 1,500 Ubuntu servers, and Joost, the free TV programming site, is also powered by Ubuntu. But for most companies, Ubuntu will start at the edge of the network and move in as larger iron and more databases and middleware get certified to run on Ubuntu. And while Sun doesn't preload Ubuntu on its X64 servers, it has been working with Canonical to get Ubuntu certified on its Sparc T1 and now T2 lines of servers--which it still doesn't preload on the boxes.
"It's not going to happen over night," explains Shuttleworth with regards to adoption of Ubuntu server editions by enterprises. "We know that the server base is the most conservative user of operating systems. But I think we have made remarkable progress after only being in the market for only one year."
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