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Ubuntu's new Linux tries getting cloud-friendly

Canonical's newest versions of Linux are due Thursday. Notable features: synchronization for PCs and a built-in replica of Amazon Web Services for servers.

With all the hubbub about Snow Leopard and Windows 7, there's another operating system out there you may not have noticed that's getting a significant update: Ubuntu Linux.

Ubuntu backer Canonical plans to release its "Karmic Koala" version on Thursday, and both the desktop and server versions of the open-source operating system take significant steps toward cloud computing. The concept of moving work away from the computer in front of you and into the network does have some merit, but cloud computing is today's fashionable buzzword, and Canonical Chief Executive Mark Shuttleworth is sensitive to its overuse.

Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth speaking at the Intel Developer Forum
Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth speaking at the Intel Developer Forum Stephen Shankland/CNET

"What frustrates me is the term 'cloud' has come to mean anything with an Internet connection, including some stuff that really looks familiar like internal IT," said Shuttleworth in an interview. It's fair to say that in Ubuntu's case, though, it's not a stretch.

Built into the server version of Ubuntu 9.10 is Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud, technology built atop the Eucalyptus software package. Amazon Web Services (AWS), a collection of computing infrastructure accessible over the Net on a pay-as-you-go basis, is among today's most significant cloud-computing efforts, and Eucalyptus implements many of its functions so companies can build their own "private clouds" using the same services.

And in the desktop version of Ubuntu, the cloud connection is a service called Ubuntu One, which lets Ubuntu users synchronize files stored on different machines and back them up on the central service. Storage space of 2GB is free, and 50GB costs $10 per month.

The Ubuntu software itself is free; Canonical sells Ubuntu support services.

Ubuntu remains popular among the technically savvy Linux crowd, but it faces challenges. On the server, where Linux is common and there's money to be made, Red Hat is still dominant. On desktops and laptops, Linux has yet to take on Windows or Mac OS X among mainstream computer users.

And to this day, Canonical, the company Shuttleworth founded to back Ubuntu, remains unprofitable. Shuttleworth demurs when asked when the company he's funded will go into the black.

As ever, he's optimistic that the business will bear fruit. Revenue is growing, he said.

"It takes a long time to build traction in the enterprise market, but I now see that traction," Shuttleworth said. "Our growth is something to be proud of."

Linux on the desktop?
Linux has existed for more than a decade as an alternative to Windows for people's PCs, but so far it hasn't spread far beyond programmers and other technically advanced users. It's been held back in part by the difficulties of learning and installing new operating systems and by the lack of software such as Office, Quicken, Photoshop, and games.

Overall, Shuttleworth remains optimistic. One key to the growth among consumers will be adoption through computer manufacturers, an area where he believes the company has made progress. Dell offers Ubuntu machines. And last week, IBM announced a software package called IBM Client for Smart Work that combines Ubuntu with IBM's Lotus software suite.

So how might Linux take off as an operating system for PCs? Although Ubuntu continues to work on basics such as faster booting and better audio in version 9.10, Shuttleworth believes it'll be hard to succeed if the strategy is just to out-Microsoft Microsoft.

"I don't think it'll happen if we continue to define the desktop the way Microsoft defines the desktop," Shuttleworth said.

A better idea is to try to capture growth in new markets. "It's initiatives like Chrome OS and Moblin that hold the key, whether through the pendulum shifting irreversibly to the Web, or with new users and devices," he said. Chrome OS is Google's browser-based operating system that uses Linux under the hood; Moblin is Intel's Linux product for mobile devices built with cooperation from Canonical. "I don't think we will dislodge Microsoft from the traditional desktop."

With its Chrome browser and Chrome OS, Google seeks to push operating systems into the background; applications are Web-based rather than running on the operating system embedded beneath to handle things like communicating with a keyboard, trackpad, or screen. Shuttleworth sees Chrome OS as helpful, though, since other Linux projects could benefit from the support it will bring for technology such as wireless networking hardware.

And Shuttleworth clearly is a fanboy for some of Google's latest initiatives. "I'm fascinated by Chrome, Chrome OS, and (Google) Wave. I think they're awesome," he said.

Ubuntu One, the online storage service, could provide a bit more revenue for the company from the consumer operating-system business.

"Think of it as a drive in the sky that can replicate content across multiple machines," Shuttleworth said. "Most our users are sophisticated users. They have more than one PC and generally battle with the tension of having some content they don't want to manage on the Web but do want to have on multiple machines."

And data sync is a service that could be larger than Linux. "We expect it will span all Ubuntu devices and ultimately perhaps grow to other platforms as well," he added.

Your own private AWS
The most proven Linux market is on the server, though, where Linux is in some ways just another branch of the Unix family tree. Unix and Linux are fixtures of the server market.

Here, Canonical hopes to get ahead through the Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud technology.

The AWS Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) provides access to raw computing power on which customers can fire up their own software from the operating system up. Those servers can store data on AWS' Simple Storage Service (S3) and tap into other AWS services. It's all paid for on the basis of how much processing power is consumed, how much storage space is needed, how much network capacity is used, and similar consumption-based pricing.

Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud is for those who want similar services on their own servers. The software interface mirrors that of AWS' EC2 and S3, so at least in principle a service that exceeds an organization's internal computing capacity could spill over to Amazon's infrastructure.

"In principle the goal is to provide API (application programming interface) compatibility," he said. Eventually, when such services reach mass-market appeal, standards will follow for controlling them, he believes: "We think eventually there will be a common IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) management protocol."

One tricky piece of engineering, though, comes through virtualization, software that lets multiple operating systems run in compartments called virtual machines on one physical computer. Amazon's EC2 uses open-source virtualization called Xen, but Ubuntu's preferred foundation is another, KVM. Ubuntu 9.10, though, will be available in a Xen-based version that works on EC2.

"It's possible to build one machine image which works in both places," Shuttleworth said. "We went to a lot of trouble to make a version for 9.10 that works on EC2."