Although the Ubuntu desktop has won wide popularity, Ubuntu's fairly sophisticated server OS has yet to establish significant inroads in U.S. data centers.
In a recent Ubuntu global user survey, nearly a third of the respondents worked for companies with 10 or fewer employees and only 28% worked in the U.S. (compared to 55% from Europe). And the overwhelming majority are using it for basic functions like Web, print and file, database and backup servers, with only a small minority using it for advanced tasks like virtualization or cluster computing. (The low usage for the latter mirror the findings for Linux as a whole in a TechTarget data center survey last year.) The most prevalent Ubuntu industry sectors, unsurprisingly, were technology and education.
On the plus side, most of the respondents said they are entrusting mission critical functions to Ubuntu and will be adding more Ubuntu servers in the future. They also consider Ubuntu a good platform for cloud computing, although they aren't ready to venture into it just yet. In addition, although the largest percentage of Ubuntu users work for very small companies, the next largest segment – 16% – work for medium-sized firms with 101 to 500 employees, a size likely to require advanced server capabilities.
Deven Phillips, senior systems administrator for Louisville, Ky.-based Metal Sales Manufacturing Corp., said he runs most functions on Ubuntu servers including Web applications, firewalls, virtual machine hosts (with several running Windows guests), FTP and telephony systems for the $450 million roofing company.
Metal Sales is running Ubuntu on all but two of some 55 servers, and plans to pay for Canonical support in order to utilize Landscape Manager for centralized server deployments and updates, which he estimates could save him 70 to 80 hours a month
Ubuntu's only shortcoming is the lack of business applications for small- to medium-sized businesses, he said.
"Ubuntu makes great products," he said. "I like simple, quick and easy and that's what Ubuntu gives me."
Ubuntu's desktop use leads, but server growth steady
Canonical spokesman Gerry Carr said Ubuntu server adoption is growing at least as fast as its desktop (but from a lower usage base) and has more than doubled in the U.S. in the last year based on the number of requests for security updates. Ubuntu's growth is not at the expense of Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat Inc.or Waltham, Mass.-based Novell Inc. but, instead, is occurring because Ubuntu itself is encouraging people to experiment with open source and, in turn, growing the market, he said.
"We're seeing a whole different category of users now that are less interested in Linux but simply interested in a better solution like Ubuntu's Landscape Manager [for centralized deployments and updates] to manage their infrastructure," he said. "Ubuntu is a big savings over Unix" and needs fewer people to administer with its APT application package management, he said.
Carr declined to say how many paying support customers Canonical has acquired for its free open source server software but said the company is not yet profitable.
The Canonical spokesman admitted the company needs help to move from the edge to the center of the data center operations, which it is attempting to solve by offering professional services to assist with migration and compensate for the lack of Linux skills, he said. There are a few applications that are not certified to run on Ubuntu and some specialized uses like High Availability or clustering that may not be appropriate; but, for common workloads, Ubuntu offers significant savings, Carr said.
Another obstacle Canonical is working to overcome is the lack of hardware certifications for its server operating system, Carr said. Hewlett-Packard will be certifying the soon-to-be-released Ubuntu 9.04 on ProLiant servers in a few months and discussions also are underway with Dell and IBM, he said.
Integration with Windows-based shops is not a barrier to Ubuntu adoption because of the many mature cross-platform open source applications such as the MySQL database, Apache Web server and Likewise software, which enables administrators to monitor Ubuntu servers via Windows Active Directory, Carr said. Although Canonical was the first Linux vendor to select KVM as its hypervisor of choice, Ubuntu can run any hypervisor as a guest. However, Canonical has no plans presently to seek certification to run as a guest on Microsoft Hyper-V, he said.
Ubuntu's future: Improved virtualization and increased commercial support
As for future direction, Ubuntu is heavily focused on the cloud in Ubuntu 9.04, which is due for release on April 20, and the following release scheduled for October 2009. The April release will enable companies to deploy production workloads on Amazon EC2 and include tools for building a cloud inside the corporate firewall. The October release will go one step further and enable companies to move Amazon EC2 instances inside and outside their corporate firewalls. The April release also will improve virtualization, adding live migration of virtual machines; improved file system integration with Microsoft and support for file clustering, and include the new AMQP (advanced message queuing protocol) for high-speed communications and AppArmor security enhancements.
Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady, whose firm assisted with the survey, said the results offer a "reasonable snapshot" of what applications Ubuntu users are running, a task that is "notoriously difficult to measure" with open source. Large businesses may be underrepresented in the survey, he cautioned.
U.S. adoption is growing and should continue to make steady, incremental gains, particularly for non-commercial workloads, he said. Ubuntu server adoption also should benefit from a spillover effect form the popular Ubuntu desktop, he added.
When it comes to pitching big business, however, Ubuntu must overcome IT's predisposition against change and demonstrate over time that the platform is here to stay and will be supported, he said.
"In this country, people run what is commercially supported [as opposed to community supported] and what's easy," O'Grady said.
While having no involvement with the user survey, Tony Iams, an analyst with Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Ideas International Inc., said Ubuntu's cloud initiatives could appeal to its strong small to medium business user base, which is less risk-averse than large companies and could benefit from the cost advantages of cloud deployment.
Ubuntu's challenge is competing with entrenched Linux competitors, which benefit from strong channel and OEM relations, solid reputations for customer support and third-party applications that have been optimized for their respective platforms, he said.
"Business customers typically install computers as part of a hardware and software solution," Iams said. "(The purchase decision) is rarely about the technology on its own but its relationships with everyone else in that stack," so if Canonical is on the verge of an agreement with Hewlett-Packard, that could be really helpful, he said.
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