Ubuntu makes a bid for the enterprise

New version of ‘Linux for humans’ touts enterprise readiness, five-year support

Mark Shuttleworth is really sticking his neck out this time. Conventional wisdom says that enterprise Linux customers should stick to one of the "Big Two" suppliers -- Novell or Red Hat -- to be sure they get the support and accountability they need for mission-critical deployments. But as of last week, Shuttleworth officially began offering those customers a new "throat to choke": his own.

The South African-born Shuttleworth, who in 1999 sold his digital-certificate startup to VeriSign for a reported half-billion dollars, is the mastermind behind Ubuntu, a fledgling free software distribution he's dubbed "Linux for human beings."

[ Talkback: Has free enterprise software’s time come? ]

I've mentioned Ubuntu in this column before. Stable, streamlined, and thoughtful, it may be my favorite Linux distribution overall. It has improved with each new release, which appear at regular intervals -- about every six months. But the new version, 6.06 LTS, code-named Dapper Drake, is different. For starters, it's the first release that's available in a server version. More significantly, based on the maturity of the Linux kernel, Ubuntu's new installer, and other components that make up the distribution, for the first time Shuttleworth has declared this release ready for enterprise use.

The "LTS" in the product name stands for Long Term Support. Canonical -- the Shuttleworth-founded company that maintains Ubuntu -- is so confident of the Drake's viability that it is offering to support the release for a full five years, compared with 18 months for earlier versions. In a conference call last week, Shuttleworth said Canonical was in the process of building up its support operation in Montreal and would soon be able to offer 24/7 support to the global market. The question is, Will the market bite?

Ubuntu for the enterprise represents a unique fusion of ideas: the world of commerce and the world of free software rolled into one. As opposed to Red Hat or Suse, there is no "enterprise edition" of Ubuntu. Canonical's enterprise customers will get the exact same software that anyone can get free of charge from the Ubuntu download site. What's more, the distribution itself remains decisively free in that other sense of the word.

"We have already, on occasions, made decisions not to explore certain kinds of relationships with third-party companies," Shuttleworth says, "because we feel they would not be in keeping with our community."

That means you won't find Adobe Acrobat Reader on the Ubuntu installation disc, or Macromedia's Flash Player. In fact, you won't even find Java -- something that's sure to raise some eyebrows among enterprise customers. All these things can be obtained from third parties and will run on Ubuntu, of course. They just aren't there by default because they're not free software.

Is the business world ready for an enterprise Linux distribution that cleaves so closely to free software ideals? Shuttleworth hopes so. "It's certainly true that our community wants us to succeed commercially," he says, "because that would mean long-term stability."

Moreover, there's a bigger picture here than simply repackaging free software. Over the long term, Shuttleworth believes that the software market itself is evolving, and he plans to be first in line to give the customers what they want. By way of example, he points to open source's tendency to commoditize segments of the software market as the clearest sign of the coming shift.

"We would like to drive that process almost to its completion," Shuttleworth says, "so it's not just the individual pieces of code that are the commodities, but the overall setup of the environment."

Dapper Drake is the first stage in that master plan. Type "lamp" at the server install prompt, and a short while later you'll have a fully configured LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) server, ready to run. In the future, Shuttleworth hopes to deliver many more such appliancelike configurations, including mail servers, Asterisk servers, or possibly even the JBoss Java application server stack (if the licensing issues around Java get worked out).

Is free, commodity enterprise software an idea whose time has come? Mark Shuttleworth is no stranger to putting his money where his mouth is; he's already invested millions of his own into Ubuntu. What remains to be seen is whether the business world will do the same. But if enterprises are leery of betting their businesses on free software, then a polished, stable, supported product such as Ubuntu may be all it takes to convince them.