The 'Linux desktop' heads for the cloud

Red Hat and Canonical demonstrate that the battle over Linux operating-system distributions designed for personal computers really isn't about the desktop at all.

While evangelists of Linux distributions built for personal computers (i.e., "Linux desktops") point to Netbooks as an indication of renewed life in their chances to compete for consumers, new data suggests that this may be a fool's hope.

Instead, such advocates would do well to follow the leads of Canonical and Red Hat, as they respectively extend the desktop with cloud services and deliver desktop functionality from the cloud.

Although it's true that roughly 30 percent of Dell Inspiron 9s Netbooks run Ubuntu Linux, it's equally true that about 90 percent of Netbooks run Windows, as Computerworld recently pointed out, while Linux had started with 30 percent of the Netbook market.

And while Dell is now saying that the return rate on Linux Netbooks is no longer four times that of Windows, as it was reported in October 2008, it's unclear how or why Linux will be able to take a greater share of the Netbook market, given that Microsoft has reduced its pricing to compete with Linux.

Sure, this means lower profit margins for Microsoft, but that's a hollow victory for Linux, isn't it?

Linux has a much better chance of succeeding on personal computers, if it starts from a position of strength, not weakness. Two areas of strength for Linux are mobile and servers. The mobile Linux market, however, remains somewhat fragmented, making it difficult to mount a near-term desktop challenge.

The Linux server, however, is ripe to creep down into the desktop, and that's precisely what Canonical (Ubuntu) and Red Hat are doing.

The two companies are going in opposite directions, but they end in similar positions. For Canonical, which, with Ubuntu, arguably has the strongest claim to innovation and leadership on "the Linux desktop," the trick is to move more personal-computing services into the cloud.

Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth told me last year that his Ubuntu desktop strategy would increasingly include cloud services. Recently, Canonical started to deliver on this vision by Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) hooks to its server edition, which has the added bonus of giving Canonical a compelling revenue model.

Red Hat, for its part, is starting with the server, where it's the undisputed market share and value leader. Recently, Red Hat told Computerworld that it plans to grow its so-called desktop footprint with a "desktop" that isn't: it's a virtual machine running remotely on a server and sitting side by side with Windows.

There may be flaws in this strategy, as some have pointed out, but as Red Hat CTO Brian Stevens told me on Wednesday, Red Hat's approach makes a lot of sense for CIOs who want to increase manageability of desktops while simultaneously reducing costs:

The target we are designing for is not the legacy model of thick Windows clients or terminal services. Open source is about driving innovation and new paradigms of use, not just to make a cheaper alternative to proprietary (software).

So the desktop target model we are designing for has several elements:

  • Enable open-source solutions to help lower the OpEx costs of Windows environments by allowing Windows desktops to be virtualized within the data center;
  • Open up the interoperability and technical advancement of the desktop remote-protocol space by open sourcing the Spice protocol for building VDI infrastructure on. This will have impact not just on virtual desktops, but also remote display of physical desktops;
  • Through our effort, build an open-source implementation and reference architecture for building clouds, on which servers and desktops can be instantiated on demand;
  • Bring virtualization to the client through our KVM technology, putting a hypervisor directly on the desktop. Enable the client to not just plug into VDI environments, but to be able to run desktops within the cloud or locally, seamlessly, and with full mobility;
  • Through this new model, which enables multitenancy of desktop environments, enable a virtualization-optimized Red Hat Enterprise Desktop to be run from the same pane of glass as Windows.

In sum, Red Hat is not merely looking to join the Linux game for personal computers; it's also seeking to completely change the desktop market--Linux, Windows, or otherwise. This is an ambitious goal--one that Red Hat's Linux server strength puts it in a good position to deliver.

Linux desktop advocates should take a cue from two leading Linux companies, Red Hat and Canonical. The point isn't to replicate the Windows desktop. The point is to completely change the way desktops are delivered and their services consumed. Anyone still worried about Linux on Netbooks is fighting the wrong battle.

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