I actually started pondering this a few days before the Novell-SCO ruling on Tuesday clearly put Novell in an important position as a "[defender of] Linux on the intellectual property front." Why, you ask, would a Googley Edu blogger be thinking about major players in the enterprise Linux market? Because I can see an open source showdown in the making here, the beneficiaries of which will be consumers, SMBs, enterprises, and educational institutions. I don't get the feeling the showdown will be any fun, though, if Novell is left to its own devices.
First, a bit of background. A few days ago, I fired up Ubuntu 10.04 Beta 1 on a netbook and haven't looked back. This immediately became my desktop OS of choice and is running happily both on the netbook and in a VM on a server I'm using to test various VDI implementations. I needed to set up a backup web server and start testing Moodle integration with Joomla, so I figured I'd take the beta of 10.04 Server for a spin. At the same time, I fired up OpenSUSE 11.2 on another machine since a community-supported educational project (Li-F-E) might have made the Moodle testing a bit easier.
Both did what I needed them to. They both worked quite well, in fact. Like most things in computer-land, the differences in the distros themselves were largely religious and not terribly relevant here. What is relevant is that, although Moodle is included on the Li-F-E DVD, I had a functioning Moodle instance running within minutes on the Ubuntu server. A quick Google search for "Moodle on Ubuntu" sent me to a concise walkthrough and I was good to go. The install base, massive software repositories, and regular release cycles just seem to make Ubuntu more attractive all around.
Why is Ubuntu so darned easy? And can a perfectly nice OS like OpenSUSE (and the enterprise desktop and server products it feeds at Novell) compete with a well-documented, sexy distro like Ubuntu? The answer to the latter question at least is yes, but only with the right support.
I emailed a friend who was close to Novell and OpenSUSE and asked him a similar question. It's pretty clear that Novell isn't providing the sorts of resources that OpenSUSE needs to compete with Ubuntu when Mark Shuttleworth is so happy to dump his own cash into the company. It's also clear that SUSE Linux, in its community-driven form as well as its enterprise incarnations, contains a lot of great technology. Not only does the SCO-Novell verdict affirm that, but many within the company and OpenSUSE community (my friend included) suggested that the "under-the-hood" contributions to creating a stable, scalable, enterprise-class distribution were enough to make the distro competitive.
Wait a minute...Highly scalable? Enterprise-class? Why that sounds like a nice match for the IBM brand, doesn't it? IBM is committed to open source at a lot of levels, but lacks its own Linux distribution that would function well in virtualized environments or on SMB servers (thus, their partnership with Canonical to create the Smart Work Client). IBM also has the resources to support, rebrand, and promote a community project like OpenSUSE and get the enterprise SUSE desktop and server products to a point where they are competitive with Ubuntu, not only under-the-hood, but also in terms of polish and innovation.
As my friend (who wished to remain anonymous) pointed out, "Fedora and Ubuntu are focusing pretty hard on innovation and for the last year...Novell has been focusing on cost-cutting and layoffs." IBM hasn't been without its own restructuring, but potentially has a lot to gain through a strategic acquisition. Of course, he also said he wouldn't acquire Novell on a bet, but the SCO ruling alone could make Novell's intellectual property (in addition to the SUSE brand and technology) worth the purchase price (which, most likely, would be fairly low at this point).
So why does any of this really matter? Because not only does SUSE still have a lot going for it in terms of core technology, but we all benefit from a couple of strong competitors, particularly as the race to the cloud heats up. And speaking of a race to the cloud, Android (and Chrome OS) represents a major, open source factor in getting people to the cloud. As the desktop matters less and less, who's going to be running the back end? Ubuntu is betting on themselves with their Enterprise Cloud. IBM has the hardware, technology and wherewithal to be there as well (certainly more so than Canonical at this point). Ubuntu has plenty of potential on portable and embedded devices, and Android adoption is exploding.
It gets very easy to imagine an incredible degree of synergistic competition around these open source products. Ubuntu, an IBM-backed SUSE Linux, and a variety of Google technologies could be very interesting indeed. Interesting enough to compete with Microsoft in previously unthinkable ways and interesting enough to make sure that Ubuntu focuses as much on those under-the-hood improvements as it does on speedy boots and pretty desktop effects. Interesting enough to create powerful vertical solutions for the markets we care about and interesting enough to give SMBs and enterprises a wide variety of really legitimate options, both on the desktop and in the cloud, whether private or public.
This isn't so much about any particular company as it is about ensuring continued, rapid innovation in a cloud-centric world, where Linux stands to gain as much as Windows has to lose.