Should Oracle's Linux strategy be...Ubuntu?

Oracle has made a mess of its Linux strategy, and may need to do something to counterbalance Red Hat's threat to account control. Ubuntu could be the answer.

Oracle has gone on a buying spree in the past few years, consolidating an impressive portfolio of market-leading technology. But there's one thing it still lacks, despite awkward efforts to fill the void: an operating system. Though Oracle has unsuccessfully courted Red Hat as an acquisition target for years, its affections might be better placed on Ubuntu.

Yes, by acquiring Sun, Oracle is gaining Solaris, but as Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst indicated in the Red Hat earnings call on Wednesday, the exodus of Solaris-to-Linux users continues apace, as Sun's attempt to neutralize Linux's appeal with OpenSolaris have had zero effect on stopping the exodus.

Oracle Enterprise Linux (OEL), a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) clone, has failed to dent Red Hat's dominance , with Red Hat renewing all of its top 25 deals (again, and at 120 percent of renewal value) that were up for renewal, losing none to OEL. As such, RHEL's dominance remains a festering sore for Oracle's ambition to own a complete enterprise software stack. So long as Red Hat owns the foundation of that stack, it remains a real threat to Oracle.

So long as it's easier for Oracle's sales force to sell Oracle applications and databases on RHEL than on OEL, OEL will continue to bluster but fail.

Oracle could buy Red Hat, but with Red Hat earnings consistently strong, Red Hat is arguably too pricey to be a viable takeover target, as The Register opines. Besides, Red Hat has shown no desire to jump into the arms of its Redwood Shores business partner and competitor.

All of which makes me think that a strong partnership with Canonical for Ubuntu, rather than continuing to feed Red Hat, could be the right Linux strategy for Oracle.

Ubuntu is the clear community choice in Linux distributions, dominating Linux "desktop" adoption and also claiming a solid foothold on enterprise servers. Unlike OEL or Novell's Suse, Ubuntu comes with built-in enterprise momentum, albeit still at the grassroots level. Oracle's sales force could sell Ubuntu as a complement to Oracle technology, unlike OEL which is a difficult sales pitch.

The spirit to sell OEL is willing, but the flesh is weak.

As just one data point on this enterprise readiness to accept Ubuntu, my company, Alfresco, an open-source content management vendor, has seen adoption of Ubuntu rise to 37 percent of all trials of our Enterprise product, versus 28 percent for RHEL and Fedora.

A year ago, Ubuntu was making serious headway , but today the interest seems to be migrating to using Ubuntu for real enterprise deployments.

Other open-source companies I advise are seeing similar Ubuntu traction, a fact that is perhaps not lost on Dell and other hardware manufacturers that increasingly preload Ubuntu on their servers, Netbooks, and laptops.

Ubuntu, in short, has community momentum. What it lacks is the blessing of a major software vendor. Oracle, with its heft, is a kingmaker, and could give Ubuntu the "enterprise-ready" branding and certification that still elude it.

Not coincidentally, it was Oracle, more than any other company, that blessed Red Hat as the default enterprise Linux distribution years ago. But for Oracle's support for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we'd almost certainly have a very different Linux market today, one where Novell's SUSE and other Linux distributions would have more respectable market shares compared to RHEL.

Oracle has the ability to make Ubuntu a mainstream enterprise server player. The question is whether it wants to.

As Matt Aslett, an analyst with The 451 Group, told me, "Oracle's Linux strategy is about serving its existing customers," and, given that there are more Oracle customers using RHEL than Ubuntu--coupled with the fact, as Sean Michael Kerner points out, that Oracle has yet to certify its products to run on Ubuntu--RHEL (and its clone OEL) may be seen as the safer course of action.

Even so, it remains unclear why Oracle should continue to plow resources into OEL when the market is voting for RHEL (paid enterprise adoption) and Ubuntu (unpaid community and paid OEM adoption). Either go back to a full embrace of RHEL or try Ubuntu.

Oracle could turn that Ubuntu popularity into paid deployments, while simultaneously asserting a greater measure of control over its operating system story. I'm a big fan of Red Hat's business, but I'm surprised Larry Machiavelli (er, Ellison) hasn't sought to check the ever-growing power of Red Hat in enterprise infrastructure.

What do you think? Would Ubuntu be a good move for Oracle, or is Linux such an afterthought for Oracle that the status quo with Red Hat is the right course of action?


Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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