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Ubuntu and the coming Linux popularity contest

It's just a matter of time before Ubuntu is crowned "enterprise ready" by one of the major ISVs. Will it be able to maintain its popularity once it is popular with enterprise buyers?

It's just a matter of time before Ubuntu is crowned "enterprise ready" by one of the major ISVs. Will it be able to maintain its popularity once it is popular with enterprise buyers?

Ubuntu plays an increasingly important role within the larger Linux market. According to a new white paper from IDC [PDF], Linux is big business and is ready for prime time, with IDC forecasting overall spending on hardware, software, and services for Linux to increase 25.2 percent annually through 2011, particularly at the expense of Unix:

Increasingly, deployments of the Linux server operating system are expanding from infrastructure-oriented workloads to more commercially-oriented workloads such as database, enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and other general business processing, workloads that historically have been the domain of Microsoft Windows and Unix. Where once Linux was seen by customers primarily as a low-cost infrastructure solution, it is now increasingly viewed as a solution for wider and more critical business deployments.

The question in my mind is therefore, "Which of the big-three Linux vendors is going to dominate the market?" Red Hat is the obvious first choice, but I think there's a serious spoiler in the Linux market, and its name is Ubuntu.

Novell's SUSE, with its rising Linux revenue, should perhaps be the contender for the throne, and I believe it will continue to leverage its Microsoft relationship to the maximum advantage. But Novell (and Red Hat, for that matter) is missing something that Ubuntu has in spades:

Community momentum.

This isn't just about downloads. As I've seen within my own company, where Ubuntu is our fastest-growing Linux distribution, community momentum increasingly translates into revenue momentum.

If you're Sun, IBM, Oracle, HP, or other big companies in or surrounding the Linux phenomenon, Ubuntu has to look mighty tasty. For Oracle, Ubuntu has proved that it can compete head-to-head with Red Hat. As movement from Sun, IBM, and others is starting to show, OEMs and ISVs are making room for Ubuntu in their certification plans. Given enough community momentum, the certifications will follow.

Oracle need not continue attempting to replicate Red Hat, the market leader. It could buy into Ubuntu and foster a new market leader.

Ubuntu has done all of this largely on its own. Consider what would happen if an IBM or Sun seriously threw its weight behind Ubuntu, banishing the "It's not enterprise-ready" myth forever? I suspect we'd see widespread, immediate enterprise adoption of Ubuntu. Why? Because Ubuntu is already being used widely within enterprises. It's just not being allowed to carry mission-critical enterprise applications yet, because those are reserved from the "enterprise Linux distributions" like RHEL and SUSE.

In short, the only thing Ubuntu is missing is a big brother that will officially declare, "Ubuntu is enterprise class." It's already there, but needs the certification by A Big Company. IBM, Sun, and others all have their own reasons for crowning it such.

It's just a question of when and who. My money is on Sun, as IBM still wants to pretend it's a neutral Switzerland in the Linux market. Oracle could also make a move, but I've not heard any rumblings on this one.

Would such an action make Ubuntu the winner in the Linux popularity contest? Of course not. If anything, it might stifle Ubuntu's popularity, just as Red Hat's transition of its Linux distribution into Fedora and RHEL caused consternation in its community (but not in its stock price or annual sales :-). Ubuntu "growing up" might be the worst thing that ever happened to its community.

But I think Ubuntu's increased commercialization is not up for debate. It will happen. It's just a question of whether Ubuntu can "grow up" on Mark Shuttleworth's terms, rather than on crass materialistic terms. I think it can.