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Ubuntu's next wave: Open server, closed cloud

Canonical's new strategy is to make Ubuntu an open bridge to closed clouds such as's EC2 service. Depending on an open but weak cloud service would be futile.

I admit that I nearly got caught up in my former colleague James Urquhart's excellent analysis of Canonical's Ubuntu 9.10 release, code-named Karmic Koala. I saw the word "open" laced heavily through the post, and given Canonical's commitment to fully open-source Ubuntu experience, I played along.

Ubuntu in the clouds
Ubuntu in the clouds Ubuntu

But something doesn't quite fit in Canonical's story.

It's called Yes, Ubuntu 9.10 will give users an option to build its own Elastic Compute Cloud-style service, using open-source Eucalyptus (or another cloud provider), but the intent certainly seems to seamlessly plug users into Amazon's closed cloud:

Ubuntu aims to keep free software at the forefront of cloud computing by embracing the APIs of Amazon EC2, and making it easy for anybody to set up their own cloud using entirely open tools...During the Karmic cycle, we want to make it easy to deploy applications into the cloud, with ready-to-run appliances or by quickly assembling a custom image...Wouldn't it be apt for Ubuntu to make the Amazon jungle as easy to navigate as, say, APT?

Or is Ubuntu simply making it easier to navigate one's way into the Amazon jungle but not to get out of that jungle?

This isn't meant as a criticism. After all, I've increasingly seen that the best way to monetize open-source software is with the careful inclusion of proprietary software. I told The New York Times' Ashlee Vance that Mark Shuttleworth would eventually have to grapple with this same strategy, basing it on my own conversations with Shuttleworth about how to effectively monetize Ubuntu.

That strategy increasingly points to tethering an open server (and desktop) with closed cloud services. That's not a critique. It's a fact.

Unfortunately, it's also a fact that once Ubuntu hands off its customers to a closed cloud, it depends on that cloud vendor to offer open data policies. The delivery of such policies is out of its hands. It won't have much say in the matter.

It's ironic, in many ways, that the key to Canonical monetizing Ubuntu will be proprietary software. There's a very good reason that Canonical isn't leading with a link into open-source software like Eucalyptus: just as Red Hat depended on proprietary Oracle to drive its early business, Canonical's best chance of driving open-source revenue from Ubuntu is likely to be closed-source Amazon.

Amazon's service is popular. It's also proprietary. Depending on an open but weak cloud service would be futile; building bridges to proprietary Amazon will likely not.

Canonical, just as Google has done in search, is helping its users build habits. I am sure that there will be positive financial remuneration to Canonical, the more that Ubuntu users indulge their Amazon EC2 habit--a habit that Canonical therefore will have an interest in feeding.

Is this bad? No, it's business. Even Canonical needs to make money, and it's really, really hard to make a lot of money by giving everything away.

Some things need to be closed. In this case, it's the cloud that Ubuntu will feed.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.