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Ubuntu Linux: To the server side and beyond?

Is a perfect storm brewing for Ubuntu? The combo of a renewed push for Ubuntu on the server and new thin client support could spark interest in IT managers looking for less expensive alternatives to Red Hat and Windows.

As the launch of Ubuntu "Feisty Fawn" 7.04 draws near, proponents of the Linux operating system (OS) are predicting much wider adoption of it in server environments.

More on Feisty Fawn:
Check some key upgrades coming in Feisty Fawn at the Enterprise Linux Log

Bolstering that belief is Canonical Ltd.'s -- Ubuntu's corporate sponsor -- promise that the OS's existing server functionality would be better marketed in 2007.

Ubuntu has always had a server component, but it really shines on the desktop. At, a popular Web site that tracks major Linux distributions, Ubuntu has consistently ranked number one with end users month over month.

Beginning with version 6.06, Ubuntu developers like Benjamin Mako Hill began promoting Ubuntu as the server option for IT managers looking for Windows alternatives. Mako -- his preferred nom de guerre -- wrote The Official Ubuntu Book in 2006 and works at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge. Ubuntu's developers have been running the OS on their servers ever since the Warty Warthog Release in October 2004.

"The success of the desktop distribution really distracted people from that good effort on the server side," Mako said.

Ubuntu and virtualization, KVM support

Furthering the Ubuntu on the server cause, the 7.04 server edition will add support for hardware facilities that speed up the use of virtual machines (VMs). This also includes virtualization support for kernel-based virtual machines (KVMs). For instance, on x86 systems with the Intel-VT or AMD-V extensions, KVM allows multiple virtual machines to run unmodified Linux instances. VMI support, which currently provides optimized performance for paravirtualized Linux OSes under VMware, has also been added the Linux mainline kernel and will be included in Ubuntu.

Jean-Yves Quentel, a venture capitalist and blogger based in France, understands why Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 would support KVM (Red Hat has publicly endorsed KVM, in addition to Xen). But he wonders what the Ubuntu team has in mind for the technology.

"Do they want to ease the migration of Windows servers to Ubuntu by making it easier to run the Windows programs that they really can't do without? Do they want to go after the enterprise/server market in a big way?" Quentel said.

They just might. Speaking at UbuCon in March, Steve George, director of support and services at Canonical Ltd., said, "The view from Ubuntu is that Microsoft has too much of the market. We're going to continue rolling out and making Ubuntu easy to use on the desktop, and we'll add increased focus on the server this year."

Bringing Ubuntu on the server to a slow boil

There hasn't been much to back up George's comments since UbuCon, but analyst Nick Selby, with New York-based 451 Group, said Canonical has wisely decided to take things slowly for now.

"That's the business plan of Canonical -- to have enterprise support and enterprise security on both the desktop and the server," Selby said. "However, they know this is a long-term play, and they're doing things correctly so far by building up enterprise support and certification networks."

Those networks have born some fruit, Selby said; in the past year, Toshiba, PalmSource and the Harvard Medical School have all started using Ubuntu on the server. SpikeSource Inc., an open source application stack certification vendor, signed on with Ubuntu earlier this year to certify the operating system for open source applications like SugarCRM. However, Selby also made it a point to say that none of these customer wins are Red Hat- or Novell-caliber accounts.

That might not matter, though, at least at first, because much of Ubuntu's server growth will begin in enterprise environments outside the North American market, Selby said. Indeed, a source at Canonical told Selby this week that a "large OEM partnership" is pending in India.

Selby said more are sure to follow, thanks to Canonical's aggressive foreign language initiative (Chinese, French and Spanish versions were recently completed) and a renewed focus on thin- client support. The quickest adopters of Ubuntu thin clients on the server will probably be third- world governments that are "of the mind to push out free and open source software to their constituents," he said.

"Trying to get the widest range of linguistic services built into the distribution is a fairly original approach right out of the gate," Selby said. "And certainly what they have been doing with thin client support has been incredibly important."

Ubuntu and thin clients in the enterprise

Since version 6.10 was released in October, Ubuntu has included a pre-release of the upcoming Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). The project is designed to offer support for thin clients, which provide a lower TCO, simpler installation and easier maintenance than traditional desktop deployments. With all data stored on the server, administrators substantially eliminate the cost of updating individual workstations to ensure their security.

According to the LTSP project's Web site, LTSP includes:

  • Automatic network configuration with DHCP service for servers with two or more network cards
  • Language and session selection from the LTSP log in manager -- allowing a user to choose from any of the languages and desktop sessions installed on the server
  • Support for locally attached devices on thin clients -- cameras, iPods or USB sticks on the thin client

"[Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth] and Canonical are trying to rethink the way thin clients are viewed by systems administrators and the people who roll out services in enterprise environments," Selby said, adding that thin-client support will be well received by governments outside North America first, and then trickle in sometime later.

Canonical may also be "increasing focus" on the server because the company sees blood in the water. In March, popular open source software evangelist Eric Raymond dumped Red Hat and Fedora in favor of Ubuntu. In a public letter on his Web site, Raymond said the decision was the result of Red Hat "throwing away" what was at one time an almost unbeatable lead "in technical prowess, market share and community prestige."

Bump, set, SpikeSource

To gain more clout in the enterprise, industry experts have maintained that Linux software must be certified. For Ubuntu, that happened with the aforementioned nod from SpikeSource.

At the Open Solutions Summit in New York SpikeSource announced that it had certified its portfolio of open source applications for Ubuntu and said it would deliver support for Ubuntu through its channel of application providers. SpikeSource specializes in providing business-ready free/open source software solutions, and the partnership could spawn a lot of open source CRM, collaboration, content management and reporting software certified for Ubuntu.

Under the agreement, SpikeSource also became a reseller of Canonical Global Support Services for Ubuntu and will fully integrate the Ubuntu distribution into the company's flagship SpikeIgnite Platform.

In a statement, Canonical head Shuttleworth said of the deal: "Our relationship with SpikeSource will assist businesses to use Ubuntu. Both SpikeSource and Canonical are committed to bringing the benefits of open source to a wider business audience. An integrated [application stack] will make it easier for customers to deploy and maintain SpikeSource's leading-edge business suites."

Ubuntu Feisty Fawn, version 7.04, is due out on April 19.

Have a question or comment about the article? Email: Jack Loftus, News Writer

And don't forget to visit our new blog, the Enterprise Linux Log.

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