Ubuntu's corporate ready 8.04 is released but is three a crowd in Linux server market?

Ubuntu 8.04 LTS was released on April 24 as planned and will be supported until 2011-2013.

Ubuntu 8.04 LTS was released on April 24 as planned and will be supported until 2011-2013. But is extended support enough to convince ISVs and businesses to support three Linux distributions?

Despite the hoopla around its release Wednesday, Ubuntu’s ambitions in the corporate server space will be frustrated because developers and customers don’t want to support more than two Linux distributions, said one Linux kernel developer and a prominent industry analyst.

“Ubuntu did a very valuable service for the community when it proved you could make a very usable Linux deskop. They went down that path and forced other distributors to do this stuff, “ said Ted Ts’o, a top Linux kernel developer and fellow at the Linux Foundation. “But they’re not in a significant role today in the server markets and that’s because ISVs like Oracle and SAP aren’t interested in supporting multiple Linux distributions.”

George Weiss, an open source analyst at the Gartner Group, acknowledges that the Ubuntu ecosystem is growing. But he agrees that it will be tough for Ubuntu to replicate on the server side what it has accomplished on the desktop side.

And that could make it a hard sell to the corporate crowd.

“As long as Canonical can extend its reach, which is geographically limited in feet on the street, it would mostly be working through partners. Butserver partnerships are still limited (no server ties with HP and IBM),” Weiss said. “Their bottom up desktop to basic server infrastructure could gain them foothold but more will be needed as influence in the CIO's office. CIOs [will ask], ‘What, another Linux?!

As part of the rollout this week, Canonical announced that Ubuntu 8.04 LTS Server Edition is certified on several Sun x64 server platforms, including the Sun Fire X2100 M2, X2200 M2 and Sun Fire X4150 servers.

HP also committed to testing and ensuring compatibility of Ubuntu 8.04 LTS Server Edition on select Proliant servers – but failed short of offering certification or support beyond that.

In recent interviews, Ubuntu creator Mark Shuttleworth hinted that Canonical is in active discussions with "multinational" OEMs on the desktop and server side. But there was little progress to report on launch day.

That’s not to say Ubuntu won’t grow in use on servers. Ubuntu has been cropping up in very large deployments for single process file servers or DNS servers and at SMB sites and will continue to do so, Canonical executives say.

Gartner's Weiss Ubuntu’s business approach is similar to the model Microsoft successfully employed against Unix server vendors in the 90s.

“They do represent the prospects of new high volume, low price-structure commodity presence as undercutting the traditional up-the-stack approaches of Novell and Red Hat,” he noted. "If we characterize the market as expansionary, then Ubuntu's threat to Red Hat and Novell is in the form of lost opportunity rather than direct competitive replacement. A good example might be in massively scalable infrastructures and emerging internet-based businesses that want maximum flexibility at minimal license costs. On the other hand, I wouldn't look for Ubuntu in many complex, mission critical enterprise workloads and therefore as a benign presence."

At a recent OSBC panel, Shuttleworth opined that "we're at a tipping point" in which IT administrators are being questioned by CIOs about why they want to use proprietary software, not open source software, and that's a big turnaround in five years time.

True enough. Still, Ubuntu's maturing in the client/server OS market comes at an awkward time in which customers are evaluating a switch to a software-as-service model -- even as they move to open source. This could pose additional problems for Ubuntu.

And its big corporate pitch comes shortly after Microsoft released its Windows Server 2008, Windows XP SP3 and has begun banging the FUD drum about the next generation Windows 9.

One open source consultant said for now, Ubuntu likely has a better shot on the desktop and should focus its attentions on that side of the equation.

“I think especially Red Hat should be worried about Ubuntu. Red Hat abandoned the desktop and has been trying to regain it lately, but found that Ubuntu got there first," said Chris Maresca, founding partner of Olliance Consulting, Palo Alto, Calif. "A common Linux desktop is probably a long road, but the EeePC and the new Atom chipset from Intel are pushing it forward at the low end. Windows does not run on Atom because of no PCI so Intel is pushing Linux hard."

In spite of the success of open source, Linux on the desktop has a long way to go. Although many had predicted that HP would match Dell's commitment of last year and prebundle Ubuntu Linux on its PCs, it's out of the question at the moment, a company spokeswoman said.

"While HP continued to closely monitor demand for pre-loaded Linux PC offerings all of our regions around world, we are not seeing significant customer demand for expansion of our Linux plans to include Ubuntu," said Tiffany Smith, a spokeswoman for HP Personal Systems Group.