Malcolm Yates of Canonical

Canonical's ISV and partner manager, Malcolm Yates, talks about fast-growing Linux distro Ubuntu's place in the rapidly-evolving enterprise Linux ecosystem.

September 27, 2006

8 Min Read
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Canonical, Ltd. is the company behind Ubuntu: one of the fastest-growing Linux distros on the market today, and certainly one of the most respected among experienced Linux users. Since its inaugural release in October, 2004, Ubuntu has earned a significant and very loyal following among desktop Linux users. More recently, Canonical announced plans to make Ubuntu a player in the enterprise Linux market, including a new server release and extended support packages tailored for business users.

TechWeb recently spoke with Malcolm Yates, Canonical's ISV and partner manager, about Ubuntu's place in the rapidly-evolving enterprise Linux ecosystem. Yates discussed the pivotal role Canonical's nascent ISV and OEM partnerships will play in deciding whether Ubuntu earns a spot alongside the likes of Red Hat and Suse -- and he explained what Ubuntu, in return, can offer Canonical's enterprise Linux partners.

TechWeb: A lot of Linux users have heard of Ubuntu, but they may not be familiar with Canonical. How do the two relate to one another?

Yates:: There are actually two [organizations] here. First, there is the Ubuntu Foundation, which was set up to ensure that Ubuntu would be able to survive as an open-source project, despite any other commercial considerations -- if that day came.

Canonical, on the other hand, was started to make Ubuntu a commercial success. At Canonical, we are focused on delivering the best Linux experience for the user as well as providing the service and support for businesses. By doing that, our plan is that Canonical becomes a self-sustaining business, in its own right.Canonical has been working closely with a number of ISVs and hardware vendors; this work is just now coming to fruition. With the increase in business partners, Ubuntu is becoming more widely distributed and supported, and hence is being deployed in more businesses globally.

TechWeb: Canonical officially launched Ubuntu as an enterprise Linux product just a few months ago [in June, 2005]. What was your initial take on how to position Ubuntu in this market?

Yates:: We have been building our services team and portfolio for a few months, ready for the launch of Ubuntu 6.06. This has generated quite some interest in the services that we provide, and we currently have some very interesting projects.

I think the next few months will see us involved more and more with enterprises looking at using Ubuntu to deliver business solutions. Previously, we have seen Ubuntu deployed in organizations where it it was hidden, but now with full and extended support, we are getting calls, to move to Ubuntu as a major Linux platform.

TechWeb: What is the greatest challenge facing firms that sell and service Linux as an enterprise product?Yates:: That's actually difficult to answer . . . but I would say that sustainability is the challenge that everyone in this market must face. The business model for companies built upon open-source software solutions is still evolving.

Even as businesses see that software itself is no longer a major item in their budgets, they will demand commitment and support to ensure that they can run mission-critical systems on free and open software. Many of them will, and some do already, build internal open-source teams; they will develop the software that they need, and they will feed this work back to the [Open Source] community.

In that environment, partnering is essential -- and maintaining a balance between commercial and community involvement will also be essential. This could be a problem for companies that sell Open Source services to large corporations, as those customers acquire the skills and the experience to deliver their own, internal, open-source business solutions. Broader exposure to Linux in particular means that Linux distributors need to focus on specific areas that augment regular, in-house support for larger enterprises.

In addition, Linux distributors must focus on providing easy-to-use solutions for the SMB market -- a category, of course, which includes millions of firms around the world.

TechWeb: What, in your opinion, sets Ubuntu Linux apart from the commercial distros that are already available in the enterprise market?

Yates:: Being Debian-based, but also providing world-class, global support, is a key difference. [Editor's note: Debian is one of the oldest and most stable Linux distros; it has spawned numerous other Linux products, including Ubuntu, Xandros, and Linspire. However, Debian itself is considered unsuitable for business use, due to its volunteer, non-profit developer organization, an unpredictable update schedule, spotty documentation, and other factors.] Also, being a no-charge, no-subscription, no-restrictive license distribution is very attractive to business users. Knowing these key facts -- knowing that the terms and conditions and the software charges will not change -- enables them to plan ahead,TechWeb: When Red Hat purchased JBoss, it shifted its focus away from enterprise Linux per se, and towards enterprise open-source solutions where Linux is one of multiple components. Given this shift, can Linux distro development still support a viable open-source business model on its own, or will an organization such as Canonical succeed or fail based upon the strength of its own partnerships?

Yates:: Predictions are always difficult. For years we have all been saying "This is the year of the Linux desktop." Actually, every year has been, but it is only when we look back that we see that.

The Linux business has always relied on partnerships. The open-source ecosystem can only work through partnerships. If you look at the IT business over the years, it does not make a difference if you sell proprietary software, or produce free or open-source software. There is always something that your company cannot do alone.

"For years we have all been saying 'This is the year of the Linux desktop.' Actually, every year has been, but it is only when we look back that we see that."

The benefit of partnering with larger, more established companies is the access they provide to bigger markets, more experience, and more credibility. I don't believe that this is a new phenomenon, but it is simply essential now -- and it will be even more so in the future.We also encourage the development of derivatives [specialized, alternate versions of the Ubuntu Linux distro], and in fact, we are working with several partners to deliver specific, certified software stacks targeted at specific business areas. We already have the Ubuntu Server version that delivers only the functionality that is required on a server, with no extraneous applications taking away resources from the main task of running the server.

Many of our partners are interested in using Ubuntu Server as a base for creating "load and go" certified solution stacks -- thus delivering real value to their customers, while making support and installation for the channel that much easier.

TechWeb: Speaking of desktop Linux, does it make sense for distro developers to continue to pursue a desktop Linux product with true mass-market potential? Or is it a better idea to use those resources to pursue other, more promising areas of Linux development?

Yates:: The desktop is obviously the face of the OS that most people see. Think of it as the shop window. Our skills and experience go in to making the desktop fit the needs of the majority of the requirements from the majority of the user; it shows the strengths of the development team from both the community and from Canonical.

Also, while many large enterprises have already embraced Linux on the server, smaller businesses often look at things for the desktop user's point of view: In other words, a stable, secure, supported desktop Linux product drives their acceptance of Linux servers. An active channel presence is especially important here; we can cater to a firm's exact needs and help them to make these decisions.TechWeb: Ubuntu has a reputation as a good choice for first-time desktop Linux users, including those who are curious about Linux and want to try it out for themselves. Do you see the same sort of curiosity about Linux among business users, or are they more inclined to stay with familiar, tried-and-true options?

Yates:: I think the market has moved on somewhat in the past year or so. Specifically for Ubuntu, we are seeing more smaller businesses that are less afraid of Linux. I think that this is due in part to the dynamics of smaller service providers and system builders that now offer Ubuntu as a major choice. Also, many of the experienced professional users who formed Ubuntu's initial user base now have small businesses of their own, and they are keen to promote Ubuntu as a base for the solutions they provide to their clients.

Of course, users also have the option to combine proprietary and open-source solutions, just as they always have; we do not believe that this will go away any time soon. Some applications will always involve proprietary solutions, but the commoditization of the OS is affecting where businesses are willing to spend their budgets. We have been saying for years that businesses have a choice -- but now, they really do.

TechWeb: How does Canonical see its relationship to IBM, Novell, and Red Hat: the three firms that dominate the enterprise Linux market? Do you see yourselves as a direct competitor?

Yates:: Ah, competition. I would probably ask you to look at the market size and who has the largest share, and then ask you to supply the answer. In fact, as you know, the Open Source market is a little different from traditional markets that feature one or two dominant companies. The barriers to entry have been low, and this has ensured that new ideas, new strategies, and new companies have always appeared and grown.We would be wrong to assert that Ubuntu is taking huge volumes of business from either Red Hat or Novell. But I can say that many of the enterprises that we speak to now use Ubuntu, as do many software developers. And as I mentioned before, more and more ISVs are supporting Ubuntu -- because their customers are asking them to support it.

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