The Ubuntu Advantage? Canonical Takes On Red Hat

Red Hat is the king of commercial Linux support, no doubt about it. Canonical has entered the market and with some refined support products could present a very compelling alternative. Is it enough to make the company profitable long term, though?

Two Different Approaches

Red Hat is a phenomenal open source company which is, deservedly, well respected. They don’t just talk free software, they live it. Their commercial operating system, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), is available for free (as in price) only in source code form (OK, so you can get a free 30 day trial). Unfortunately, this is where the free ride ends (and perhaps rightly so). Without paying for support, you won’t get any of the system updates in binary form from Red Hat. You could compile them yourself, of course. Red Hat does sponsor Fedora however, their free (in both senses) community based operating system. Unfortunately, they do not commercially support it. Despite this, their current model obviously works.

Canonical on the the hand is coming at it from a completely different angle. Their operating system Ubuntu, is free (as in price) and is community based. They have no separate commercial, purchase-only style version like RHEL. The great thing about this is that the same familiar version you might run at home or as a trial in the office, is the exact same version you can get commercial support for. This is in stark contrast to Red Hat’s model.

Ubuntu’s Long Term Support releases are generally more conservative than their regular releases, but they are still reasonably bleeding edge being based on Debian’s testing branch (non-LTS are based on Debian unstable). RHEL on the other hand seems to be more dated, even though they both share the same release period of two years. Ubuntu’s previous Long Term Support version 8.04 shipped with a 2.6.24 version of the Linux kernel, whereas RHEL 5 (which is still the current version) shipped with kernel 2.6.18 (although it shipped one year earlier than Ubuntu’s 8.04 LTS). Even so, Red Hat has been in this market for a long time and they are well experienced experts. Will that see them through?

During his keynote at Linux Conference Australia in 2009, Simon Phipps (formerly of Sun Microsystems) warned that Red Hat would one day have to offer commercial support for Fedora, rather than just selling support for their commercial operating system. Perhaps Simon is right. With Ubuntu, one can install the exact same operating system for free, with all the updates and trimmings, and only purchase support if they so choose. That’s huge. You simply can’t do that with RHEL.

Let me put this a different way. A company is starting to take a look into free software and wants a Linux based operating system. They could install Fedora, but they won’t get commercial support from the vendor. They could install RHEL and play around with a free trial for a month. Or, they could try Ubuntu, for as long as they want, without restriction, and at a later date purchase support only for those services it deems worthwhile. They might decide to pay for support for all their servers, but have hundreds of desktops running the same operating system for free. Which one sounds more enticing?

One of the other major differences between the two offerings is that Canonical’s support is based solely on services, not by the hardware which runs the operating system. This is something which never sat right with me about Red Hat’s offerings. The support you pay for will only be provided on a server with a specific level of hardware. For example, a support contract might be valid on a server with one CPU and 2 GB of RAM. However, if you wanted to upgrade that server to 4GB of RAM or add another CPU, then you would have to pay for a higher license. Come again? To me this just seems like Red Hat finding a way to milk more money from their clients. To their credit, some of these restrictions have been removed for servers, although the restrictions still remain for the desktop. You’re telling me that if I want more than 4GB of RAM in my desktop, I have to buy a new support license? Come on! It totally feels like Windows licensing. No doubt they have their reasons, but from the consumer’s perspective the service based approach from Canonical makes more sense.

So as you can see, this product from Canonical should not be underestimated. It has huge potential (if it can scale well and users get value for money). Could this cause Red Hat to change their tune about support for Fedora? Or is there still a big enough slice of the pie that it won’t matter? Red Hat’s model is thus far tried and true, but can both ideas succeed in the long run? It remains to be seen. Of course the other question is whether Ubuntu LTS can even compete with RHEL. Is it really enterprise quality?

Ready, aim, fire!

Whether warranted or not, the adoption of Linux has often been hampered over concerns of “lack of commercial support”. Now, with Advantage, system administrators can manage hundreds of desktops and servers within a single interface, get access to experts, and there’s IP protection thrown in (for better or worse).

The beauty of Canonical’s support offerings is that you don’t need to take them to use the product, unlike offerings from Red Hat. If you want to manage your own support or get support from a third party, you surely can. If you want a little bit of help from time to time, Canonical has that covered. If you need someone to hold your hand every single step of the way, well then they can do that too. Hopefully these services will help to push Linux to the forefront of the mind of businesses everywhere. At the very least, it should help to make Ubuntu more attractive.

As for Red Hat, no doubt they will continue to power ahead. Will they have to change their model at some point to offer at least some level of corporate support for Fedora? Maybe. Either way, competition is always good. Hopefully at the end of the day Canonical can become profitable through services such as these and continue to innovate and improve their products (it has to be better than striking a deal with Yahoo!, right?). In which case, everybody wins (well almost everybody).

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