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Talkin' Ubuntu Cloud With Canonical VP Neil LevineTalkin' Ubuntu Cloud With Canonical VP Neil Levine

March 10, 2011

5 Min Read
Talkin' Ubuntu Cloud With Canonical VP Neil Levine

By samdizzy

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Ubuntu recently pronounced itself “the cloud OS.” That’s a lofty declaration, but what does it mean in practice? I recently had the opportunity to discuss just that question with Canonical VP Neil Levine. Here’s what he had to say.

As both an operating system with major followings on both the desktop and server fronts, Ubuntu is positioned somewhat uniquely in the open-source world, where most other mainstream Linux distributions cater either to the desktop or server users, but not both. By extension, Ubuntu enjoys interesting opportunities for uniting these two halves, which up until now have remained relatively disparate, through the medium of the cloud.

Asked how Canonical might pursue such an endeavor, Levine pointed to the goal of building an Ubuntu that exists “in the cloud and for the cloud.” In other words, he said, Canonical’s longterm vision is to make Ubuntu the operating system that powers cloud-hosted servers, as well as the desktop machines accessing the cloud-based resources hosted on those servers.

And he pointed out, convincingly, that such a vision is more than just talk. Ubuntu’s desktop and cloud offerings fuel one another in a dynamic way, since moving computing to the cloud means that issues of OS-dependency disappear, with most cloud-based resources accessible via Web browsers regardless of which desktop operating system they run on. As organizations increasingly shift their focus to the cloud, then, desktop Ubuntu becomes an increasingly viable option in places where there has been no practical alternative to Microsoft for a decade.

Ubuntu’s development focuses in the desktop and cloud arenas thus promise to mitigate vendor lock-in–a problem to which most organizations have grown wise over the last several years, and which they seek to escape in the next generation of technology investment by sticking with open-source technologies–and, by extension, make desktop Ubuntu an increasingly viable option on corporate workstations. If Canonical’s strategy plays out as planned, then, we can expect to see the number of enterprise desktops powered by Ubuntu climb from the tens of thousands which already exist within organizations like the French gendarmerie to hundreds of thousands.

How Ubuntu is Different

Perhaps the most obvious question surrounding Ubuntu’s self-proclamation as the cloud OS is how it stands out–and how it plans to continue standing out–from competitors, and above all Red Hat, which is also investing heavily in the same channel.

Levine’s answer on this topic seemed particularly interesting to me (and not only, I think, because I study history as my day job). He pointed to Ubuntu’s genealogy as the major source of its leg up over Red Hat, arguing that the latter was designed in a different era, when competition with other Unix systems, like Solaris, was paramount. As a result, Red Hat ended up feature-heavy and not particularly modular, because that is what the market demanded several years ago.

Ubuntu, in contrast, was conceived at a different time, when Linux’s role as a major player in the Unix world was no longer a matter a question and virtualization was becoming the next big thing. In addition, because Ubuntu is based on Debian, it inherited an infrastructure designed to be lightweight and modular–hence why Ubuntu server edition can run out of the box with minuscule amounts of memory and no physical display, while Red Hat ships with X and a lot of other applications which may not be useful in many cases.

That doesn’t make Red Hat objectively worse that Ubuntu–in certain situations, having so many applications built in can be advantageous–but it does mean that Ubuntu comes out on top as a guest OS for the cloud, where being lightweight and modular is preferable. (On the other hand, perhaps Red Hat is more suited out-of-the-box as a virtualization host for cloud hardware.)

Ubuntu also stands out from Red Hat because of differences in licensing policies. There’s no question that RHEL is dirt cheap compared to its competitors in the proprietary world. But Red Hat licenses still require some cash, and perhaps more importantly, they necessitate bureaucratic overhead that is absent in the Ubuntu world. Because it requires no license or other sources of “friction,” Levine believes, Ubuntu can be rolled out cheaply and quickly, even on a massive scale. Red Hat currently cannot, which makes it a less ideal choice, in Canonical’s view, as a guest OS in rapidly expanding cloud environments.

My Two Cents

Most of Levine’s arguments for Ubuntu’s bright future in the cloud are compelling, and there’s not much about them to dispute. The key area to watch going forward, however, will be how Canonical capitalizes in real terms on the gains it hopes to make in coming quarters in the cloud channel.

Canonical won’t earn money simply by the fact of being the cloud OS. It also needs to find ways to generate revenue from that position, and it remains for the moment to be seen how exactly the company will accomplish that goal without selling licenses for Ubuntu.

The obvious answer is by selling Ubuntu support, which Canonical has been doing for some time, although there is no publicly available information regarding the profitability of that initiative and the major accomplishments so far seem limited to very large enterprises.

Over the longer term, however, it seems to me that the real cash cow for the company will be to push adoption of Ubuntu desktop edition to the critical mass needed to turn desktop-based services, like Ubuntu One and related offerings, into real money-makers. And for the reasons outlined above, Ubuntu server edition stands poised to facilitate such a transformation in a major way. We’ll stay tuned to developments in this area as they continue to evolve.

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