The future of Linux in the data center: More than just Red Hat?

Red Hat is the dominant vendor in the Linux server space, while the second biggest Linux distro, Novell SUSE Linux, struggles financially and is an acquisition target. Linux experts make the case in this column for multiple Linux distributions in the future.

Over the past few years, analysts have predicted data center server operating systems would eventually consolidate

down to just Windows and Linux. Some have gone as far to predict Red Hat will be the only viable enterprise Linux server distribution in the future. In this column, experts make the case for multiple Linux distros.

Expert perspective on non-Red Hat Linux distributions

By Sander Van Vugt, Contributor

For years, Red Hat has been the leader in the enterprise Linux market. And as of today, it still is -- but the market has changed. Up to about three years ago, Red Hat was the only Linux player on the enterprise market; currently there are at least three other companies you can consider for getting enterprise Linux:

The future of Novell SUSE Linux in the data center

When Novell bought SUSE in 2004, SUSE Linux's position in the enterprise market was marginal. Since then, it has grown market share from single digits to 30%, according to some.

Novell has successfully positioned its SUSE Linux Enterprise as a reliable platform for important applications, such as Oracle or SAP. Novell has also acquired some important customers using SUSE, including banks such as ING and HSBC as well as French car manufacturer PSA (Peugeot and Citroen).

In 2007, Novell and Microsoft made an interoperability agreement. SUSE was the first Linux distribution that went to market with Windows, and Microsoft has purchased thousands of SUSE Linux Enterprise vouchers, introducing SUSE Linux to important new customers like Walmart.

Novell SUSE Linux supports 5,000 applications, twice the number of applications supported by Red Hat.

The biggest problem for SUSE Linux is Novell. Apart from SUSE Linux, many of the company's other products are not doing well. In March 2010, the hedge fund Elliot Associates LP made a bid to purchase Novell. Novell refused the offer, not mentioning that the company is not for sale, but stating that the offer is inadequate. That means the future is somewhat unsure for Novell, which doesn't help it to acquire new customers. Nevertheless, SUSE Linux has established itself as a strong player in the enterprise Linux market, and it is unlikely to disappear completely.

Ubuntu Linux in the data center

Ubuntu is a completely different player in the market. It doesn't sell an enterprise Linux product, but it offers support on its open source Linux, available in a very popular desktop version and a server version that isn't as popular yet.

So why are companies using Ubuntu Server? Mainly because of its nature as a pure open source technology. There is no need to pay for Ubuntu Server -- you can just install it, and patches are available as well. Ubuntu Server is more open than the other three Linux distributions covered in this article.

On April 27, Canonical launched Ubuntu 10.04 LTS and introduced some elements that might appeal to data center managers, including Ubuntu's cloud computing play with Eucalyptus software. Ubuntu is the first Linux distribution that has integrated an easy option to create a private cloud. Nevertheless, Ubuntu Server clearly hasn't established itself yet on the enterprise server market.

Oracle Unbreakable Linux

Another player that cannot be ignored is Oracle. In 2007, the company released its Unbreakable Linux, a clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. With this Linux version, Oracle has a complete stack in its offering, starting with an operating system and going all the way up to the important Oracle applications. However, Oracle Linux is hardly used outside of traditional Oracle customers, so its position on the market still is marginal.

One reason customers are considering Oracle is because of its integration with other Oracle software. For Oracle application customers, the tighter integration makes Oracle's Linux a good choice.

For sure, Red Hat still has the most important enterprise Linux offering. It is a healthy company that has shown increasing revenue. But the situation has changed for Red Hat. Five years ago, it was almost a monopoly, but Novell SUSE Linux has shown nothing but growth, and there are no signs that this growth is stopping. SUSE users can hope that Novell isn't purchased by another company, as that would make the position of SUSE Linux a lot more difficult.

Vendor perspective: What is the plural of Linux?

By Michael Applebaum, SUSE Linux

The overall Linux ecosystem today is more vibrant than ever before. Commercial vendors like Canonical/Ubuntu, Novell (my employer), Oracle and Red Hat compete to offer a wide range of desktop and server enterprise distributions alongside a wide range of community distributions.

If anything, we're seeing more companies developing solutions with Linux, not fewer. On the server side, Red Hat and Novell are clearly the market leaders, controlling over 90% of paid server shipments. And although Red Hat maintains a market share lead, the gap is narrowing fast: Novell's share of the paid Linux market actually increased by 5%, while Red Hat's share decreased by 5%, according to the most recently published data from IDC.

There is simply no hard evidence to support the view that a single commercial Linux vendor will dominate the data center, with all others "pushed aside." This is good news for customers, for partners building solutions on Linux and for Linux itself. Competition breeds invention, and Linux would be much the poorer if a monopoly emerged.

The single-vendor view isn't supported by the level of industry investment, either. Whether one looks at IBM's driving software appliances and mainframe Linux with Novell, HP's focus on SAP and mission-critical computing on SUSE Linux Enterprise, or SAP's delivery of joint solutions with Novell for large and medium enterprises, it's clear the market has no interest in stifling diversity or innovation.

There's a heated lexical debate about the plural for Linux -- Linuxes? Linuxen? Whatever the answer, it's clear that there's going to be more than one choice of Linux vendor in the data center. Existing data supports this view, and the move to virtualization, appliances and the cloud creates new opportunities. The idea that a single vendor will control the market makes no sense. The diversity of Linux distributions and complementary products will keep driving rich innovation for the benefit of customers and technology providers alike.

What do you think the future holds for Linux distributions in the enterprise server space? Write to SearchDataCenter.com's Matt Stansberry about your data center concerns at mstansberry@techtarget.com.

This was first published in April 2010

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