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Ubuntu, Red Hat and Novell SUSE Linux jockey for position

A survey by Alfresco Software suggests that Ubuntu and Red Hat have bitten into Novell SUSE's market share, but some beg to differ.

Ubuntu and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) may be growing faster than Novell's SUSE equivalent. But you can't prove it by Alfresco Software Inc.'s latest member survey.

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This week, Alfresco, a British open source content management provider (and a Red Hat partner), announced a poll indicating that in 2007 the number of users deploying its software on Ubuntu Linux grew the fastest, followed by Red Hat.

Meanwhile, according to Alfresco CMO Ian Howells, adoption of Novell's SUSE is flat, which has widened the gap between SUSE and its competitors.

"SUSE and Red Hat started off about the same, but SUSE has experienced flat growth while Red Hat is powering away," Howell says. "[Red Hat and Ubuntu] are pulling away."

Whether Howells is right is a matter of debate. An earlier version of the survey taken between April and June 2007 showed a more even breakdown for each platform: 22% for Ubuntu, 21% for Red Hat and 14% for SUSE.

SUSE and Red Hat started off about the same. ... [But now Red Hat and Ubuntu] are pulling away.
Ian Howells
chief marketing officerAlfresco Software Inc.

Alfresco continued to survey users over the course of the year, and by December last year had gathered data from 35,000 respondents. Compared with the first sample, the results were remarkably similar: Ubuntu's market share had increased 1% to 23%, Red Hat's remained flat at 21%, and SUSE's decreased by 1% to 13% (or, alternatively, declining by 4%, and equaling 9% of market share, depending on whether you include openSUSE in the total SUSE figures).

Howells suggested that some of Ubuntu's growth may have come at SUSE's expense, citing anecdotal evidence that Novell's agreement with Microsoft in November 2006 may have eroded support for Novell SUSE in the open source community.

Some Alfresco users had the sense that Novell "was no longer an open source player," he said. "Half and half is difficult."

Although the operating system results are probably the most striking, the survey uncovered other findings as well. Specifically, respondents confirmed that a clear leader has emerged for each layer of the stack. RHEL for operating systems, MySQL for databases, Red Hat for middleware and Tomcat for application servers. In addition, a mixed stack of open and proprietary products is the norm. Finally, VMware is the runaway favorite compared with Microsoft's Virtual Server (61% versus 16%) and the open source Xen, with a mere 8%.

The purpose of the surveys, Howells says, is to help Alfresco prioritize modifications to its own software by gauging the relative popularity of different sections of the stack.

Linux distros: Who's on first?
While industry analysts supported the thrust of the survey, they did not concur with its pulse taking on the OS rivalry.

Brad Day, a vice president and principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm Forrester Research Inc., said extrapolating from Alfresco's user base and generalizing about the larger marketplace would be a mistake.

Red Hat owns the Intel and AMD x86 space, but SUSE dominates in the high-powered mainframe, mission-critical Unix-type applications, he said. But Red Hat is moving up and starting to challenge SUSE in the RISC, Itanium and mainframe spaces, he added. "When you look at the growth of Linux, you need to look at the application and the platform," Day said. "The reason for traction is based on different business and technology drivers," depending on whether the purpose is office productivity or mission-critical functions.

Predictably, Andy Cathrow, a Red Hat product marketing manager, concurred with the Alfresco survey. The results "mirror what we see in the enterprise," he said. But Kevan Barney, a senior public relations manager at Novell, argued that, to the contrary, SUSE is, in fact, growing faster than the overall marketplace. In the fourth quarter, market share from 19% in 2006 to 27% in 2007, and SUSE experienced strong revenue growth as well, he said. "Not only is SUSE Linux Enterprise not falling behind in the market, it is growing faster than other enterprise Linux distributions," Barney said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Pam Derringer, News Writer.

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