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Ubuntu Server makes gains at SUSE Linux' expense

RHEL claims the majority of enterprise deployments, but Ubuntu adoption is also fast filling the needs of business. SUSE Linux, by contrast, has dwindled.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux is still the most widely used open source server operating system in data centers, but Ubuntu Server adoption is on the rise, and it could come at the expense of SUSE Linux.

John Locke, the manager of the open source technology consultancy Freelock Computing in Seattle, said he’s witnessed an increase in production-level use of Ubuntu and less interest in SUSE.

“Red Hat has all the enterprise deployments and is as strong as ever, SUSE is dwindling, and Ubuntu is fast filling needs of the smaller businesses and organizations,” Locke said.

“People are concerned about SUSE’s future under Novell, and that may have caused the increase in Ubuntu adoption.”

David O'Berry, CIO for the South Carolina Department of Probation

That said, Canonical Ltd.’s Ubuntu Server market share is quite small compared with Windows Server and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), but the gap between SUSE and Ubuntu has shrunk over the past year, with Ubuntu deployments rising slightly and SUSE declining, according to TechTarget’s Data Center Decisions 2010 survey.

According to the survey of 1,049 IT managers, the most commonly used data center OSes are Windows Server 2003 (81%), Windows Server 2008 (52%) and 2008 R2 (45%), followed by RHEL (41%). SUSE Linux ranks below Sun Solaris, IBM AIX, HP-UX and iOS at 16%, while 14% of respondents said they use Ubuntu Linux.

Compare that with the 2009 Data Center Decisions survey, where about 23% of data centers used SUSE Linux, and 12% of data centers used Ubuntu Linux, and the shift is clear.

In 2009, RHEL was the second most widely used OS (48.33%) behind Windows Server 2003 (86%) and Windows Server 2008 came in slightly behind RHEL (48.07%). At that time, Windows Server 2008 R2 was not an option.

SUSE use declining?
Some open source users blame the apparent decline of SUSE on Novell’s instability in the market. “People are concerned about SUSE’s future under Novell, so that may have caused the drop in SUSE and increase in Ubuntu adoption,” said David O'Berry, the CIO for South Carolina’s Department of Probation, in Columbia, S.C., a longtime SUSE Linux user.

Open source users say the survey’s decline in SUSE use is not because of technical issues, as the product is as strong as ever. In fact, server virtualization giant VMware’s recent decision to standardize on SUSE Linux validates SUSE Linux as dependable despite uncertainty surrounding Novell.

In addition, broad platform support makes it a stronger player in the open source space than is Ubuntu, which is still working to gain independent software vendor and hardware support, said Frank Basanta, a systems integrator with New York-based Systems Solutions.

Ubuntu Server offers easy path to Linux
But Ubuntu Server has gained support from major server hardware vendors recently, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell all of which certified Ubuntu Server LTS. The move legitimized the OS and helped Canonical gain user trust, Basanta said.

Novice Linux users gravitate toward Ubuntu Server because it is considered the “easy” version of Linux. It is also popular because it requires a small footprint and little maintenance, Locke said.

“As a descendant of Debian, it installs only what you tell it to install. A base server installation installs little more than the OS,  so there are no network-facing services to turn off, like there are for [commercial versions of] Red Hat and SUSE,” Lock said. “This approach makes it more secure by default; you only turn on what you choose to install.”

Users also like that there is no difference between the "free" version and the "commercial" version, which is not the case with Red Hat or SUSE Linux, Locke said.

In the Red Hat ecosystem, users can choose either “experimental” Fedora, free and stable CentOS or commercially supported RHEL. With SUSE there are two options, OpenSUSE or the commercially supported SUSE Linux. But with Ubuntu, users can choose either the six-month release or the Long Term Support stable release, and both are free and commercially supported.

“That's pretty compelling for shops with a small budget that might need commercial support someday -- they don't have to buy support until they need it,” Locke said.

Ubuntu for desktop and notebooks is also popular among open source fans, and users are naturally inclined to try the server version.

Linux is Linux
While some Linux distros are more popular than others, there are few technical advantages among the distributions, so user choice boils down to personal preferences and specific strengths, Locke said. “The market share changes are purely due to the way the businesses offer support and the brand perceptions,” he said.

In fact, some users have the philosophy that “Linux is Linux” and don’t really care whether it’s branded as SUSE or Ubuntu.

“The reason for running Linux is better scalability and flexibility than Windows, and it really doesn’t matter much which type [of distribution] I use,” O’Berry said. “The Linux stuff just works for us, and OP/EX is always the most important factor.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter

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