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Rather than trying to 'out Red Hat' Red Hat, Canonical uses its application portfolio to put Ubuntu on a roadmap that it says the other major Linux enterprise OSes don't address: hyperscale and cloud applications.
Canonical positions Ubuntu as a platform for the next generation of scale-out, open source-based installations, rather than hosting enterprise applications migrated over from Unix or Windows servers.
"It is a different niche [than Red Hat]," said Christian Reis, VP of hyperscale for Ubuntu. "You might find someone running SAP or Oracle or DB2 on Red Hat, but you would more likely find someone running Apache, memcached or nginx -- even a Hadoop installation -- on Ubuntu."
Can Ubuntu's cloud niche pay off?
Cloud infrastructure deployments boosted Linux server demand, according to the IDC Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker (Q4 2013), but by volume, there aren't a whole lot of cloud deployments taking place.
"They have done a good job going after the cloud-based infrastructure opportunities out there .... They have a pretty good shot at being one of the short-listed companies considered for the OS layer," said Al Gillen, system software program vice president at IDC, a market researcher based in Framingham, Massachusetts.
The other problem? Ubuntu's draw is for companies that write and support their own applications, as opposed to those companies that run a generic service or a commercial application.
"They don't have the application certification base for that," Gillen said.
Canonical's disinterest in the Red Hat path has meant a tougher road for the company: As Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth blogged in 2011, "Ubuntu and Debian have large combined levels of adoption, but low revenue."
Since then, Canonical has seen two straight years of operating losses despite increased profits, according to the private company's disclosures, as it invests heavily in broadening the OS's hosts to include areas outside the core cloud and data center, like smartphones.
Canonical also launched managed OpenStack cloud hosting this year and a converged infrastructure product called Orange Box with 10 nodes of 4 cores, 16GB of RAM and 120+ GB of solid-state drive storage per node.
The Ubuntu distribution is freely available, so enterprises can run tens of thousands of nodes for a project without paying a per-server OS premium. To benchmark scalability, AMD deployed 75,000 virtual machines with Ubuntu's Icehouse OpenStack platform on a SeaMicro SM15000 server in six hours and thirty minutes.
Ubuntu estimates that 60% of public cloud workloads run on Ubuntu 12.04 and expects the same adoption curve with Ubuntu 14.04, released in April 2014. A 2013 OpenStack user survey estimated about 55% of OpenStack workloads use Ubuntu.
"Ubuntu is killing Red Hat for cloud deployments at the moment," said Mark Clarke, solutions architect at Jumping Bean, a software developer and integrator in South Africa. "You may be spinning up and down VMs on a regular basis."
Ubuntu vs. Red Hat licensing, support and updates
Ubuntu offers support when needed, without locking customers into a contract, which encourages flexibility. The Ubuntu Advantage support program runs between $320 and $1,200 per year per server. By contrast, Red Hat Enterprise Linux costs in the $349 to $1,491 range by sockets annually, or $1,999 to $3,825 per year for virtual data center servers.
While the support model from Red Hat and SUSE is necessary for large enterprises that need a team for troubleshooting, Ubuntu was never in that realm of support, said Gabriel Aquilano, IT infrastructure support and operations analyst at Xelere, an IT optimization firm in Argentina.
Ubuntu's roadmap also takes a different cadence in the delivery of its products from that of Red Hat and SUSE. The company early on decided open source users needed more predictability and so delivers incremental upgrades of its version of Linux every six months with the latest kernel, application software, databases and Web servers and languages built in, including Ruby and Python's PHP.
One analyst doesn't see any particular advantage to delivering time- or features-based releases as a way of being predictable.
"I think predictability is more a matter of producing a roadmap and sticking to it," rather than simply hitting five-year release dates, Gillen said. "I would be focused more on feature-driven releases than time-based releases because there is probably a certain set of features I would really want for my next deployment."
For commercial customers and product developers, the company also delivers a five-year long-term supported release, or LTS.
"We prefer to only use Ubuntu LTS distributions, for stability and security," said Ian Kaufman, research systems administrator in the Jacobs School of Engineering (JSOE) at the University of California, San Diego. Users on the five-year supported Ubuntu versions want bug fixes and security patches until they upgrade to a newer release. The JSOE team will adopt the six-month non-LTS OS versions when necessary to future-proof an application.
In contrast to Ubuntu, Red Hat's release cycles are longer, based on features around a stable core. The downside to features-based releases is they require a lot of back-porting to pull new features into the older kernel version, Reis said. Canonical avoids back porting by giving users the option to stay with the 3.2 kernel in 12.04 or upgrading to 14.04 for kernel 3.13.
Canonical also tracks what its largest customers are using in -- and dropping from -- their supported infrastructure. This resulted in Canonical bringing in 64-bit ARM server platform support for Ubuntu 14.04, for example. IBM also partnered with Canonical to support Power servers running Ubuntu 14.04. There is also talk about bringing a supported Ubuntu OS onto mainframes, as Linux on Z adoption picks up among IBM mainframe customers.
Ubuntu 14.04 LTS
For some administrators, Ubuntu is all about the kernel.
"I like the fact that I can play around with bleeding-edge kernels from kernel.ubuntu.com without rolling out my own," said Michael Tinsay, assistant vice president of IT at Moldex, a real-estate and construction group of companies in the Philippines.
He also likes the minimalist server installation, and prefers certain Ubuntu utilities over those from Red Hat: apt (and aptitude) over yum and prevu to easily back port applications from more recent repositories for older installations.
The Ubuntu server OS comes with around 30,000 orchestration and provisioning packages for applications baked in. Canonical validates the set of frameworks on each Ubuntu release.
Meanwhile, Ubuntu 14.04 for servers is missing some capabilities, according to Francois Dewaste, chief IT architect at APEC, an employment association in France. When he removed 12.04 and did a clean install of 14.04 on his servers, he had to install tzdata, ntpd and ntp packages to set up server time as well as iptables-persistent to set up the firewall and nmon to check server health.
Ubuntu tailored the Ubuntu OS with Docker support and Ubuntu's MAAS hardware provisioning and Juju service orchestration cloud tools, which support Windows guest images as well as Linux, to move from a developer's laptop onto a distributed array of cloud servers.
To support cloud deployments on private infrastructure, Canonical partners with Eucalyptus on its API for compatibility with Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud and Ubuntu 14.04 includes OpenStack Icehouse.