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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?

There can be no doubt that Ubuntu has made shock waves around the world since its first release in 2004 (although their first Long Term Support release was not made until 2006).

It has quickly gained huge market share in the Linux desktop arena, but how has it fared in the commercial space?

When it comes to the commercial sector, there’s no question that Red Hat is the king. Canonical might not be deliberately setting out to challenge Red Hat with their new support offerings, but they are now competing in the same space. So with this latest move from Canonical, could the crown be possibly up for grabs?

The New Advantage

In 2007 Canonical launched their Landscape service, a management and monitoring system. It allows simplified administration across a range of systems, all through a convenient interface (either online or via a dedicated local server). Then in 2009 Canonical launched desktop support.

Now Canonical is taking all that to the next level with Advantage. This is a revamp of existing services with a few new ones and includes Landscape, Support, Assurance (which we’ll talk about shortly), and Knowledge (access to information). Advantage is available in three levels for servers (Essential, Standard and Advanced) and two levels for desktops (Standard and Advanced), with the differentiating factor being the level of support on offer.

Aimed primarily at business (although available to all), it offers complete support solutions for a range of areas. The support team will help clients with installation and various aspects of system administration. Depending on the level of support, you can also have a dedicated engineer at your beckoned call, 24/7.

When it comes to desktops the Advanced support (for US$165 per machine, per annum) includes two extras over Standard (for US$105 per machine, per annum), namely support for virtualization and developer tools. They both include Landscape, access to the Knowledge base, Assurance and basic Support. If we’re talking servers, then the Essential package (for US$320 per server, per annum) comes with Landscape, Assurance, Knowledge and basic Support, but the Standard (at US$700 per server, per annum) also includes support for Windows integration and virtualization. The top of the line support comes in at $1200 per server per annum, which includes clustering and high-availability failover support as well as custom package repositories. Cloud and premium service engineer support are available on top of these.

Of course, add Canonical’s training packages on top of all this and you have a pretty complete, and compelling package. Take note Red Hat, there’s a new player in town.

Assurance

One interesting new development is the offer of protection from litigation. Yes, although Canonical (unlike Novell) told Microsoft to go jump, it is selling protection from “intellectual property” risks which might arise through the use of Linux. Hmm, that’s curious, isn’t it? In one way, it’s sort of playing into the whole racket. “Ubuntu Linux could be at risk, so just pay us some money and we’ll make sure that you’re covered.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. Urgh, it just doesn’t sit right.

Still, one can see why they offer it. Even if Canonical does not believe that Linux infringes on software patents (deliberately or otherwise), perhaps they simply realize that it’s a scare tactic Microsoft has been using over and over again. Now thanks to Advantage, businesses, governments and even the humble user can confidently tell Microsoft (and anyone else) to go take a hike.

Or can they?

Would it really work? This is not just about Canonical protecting itself, they are offering compensation to their clients should they face litigation! Is Canonical big enough to withstand (let alone fight) litigation from the likes of Microsoft?

When it comes to patents, it’s not just about proving someone wrong. A company like Microsoft needs only put in an application to the court to have all possibly offending products stopped from shipping (remember when Microsoft had to stop selling Office over those XML issues?). The big problem is not whether one is right or wrong about patent infringement, that takes a long time to come out in court. What hurts are injunctions put on the products a company sells. Take Tom Tom for example. They had to settle because if they didn’t, Microsoft could have shut down their business by stopping the sale of their products until the court case was settled, but then dragging the court case out for years and years. Few companies could afford to fight that.

Red Hat on the other hand, has a massive port folio themselves and agreements with other corporations to share pool patents. If Microsoft sued Red Hat, it would be on for young and old. This is why it’s an arms race. If Microsoft sued Canonical, could it withstand the pressure? I highly doubt it. Not unless it has the backing of other big guns. Insurance won’t cut it long term, especially after the first few cases and premiums go through the roof. Of course, this does leave one other option on the table for Canonical. Settle and pay for patent protection. Indeed, this is written into their assurance (emphasis mine):

“Canonical will replace or modify the infringing portion of the software so that it becomes non-infringing, or obtain the rights for you to continue using the software.”

Microsoft has already approached Canonical pressuring them to sign up to a patent deal, but they turned it down. Does this mean they might have to re-consider their position? Certainly Ubuntu ships with VFAT support.

I don’t know. I’m not sold on the idea, but then I’m probably not the target market either. Nevertheless, if this is an issue which is hindering the adoption of Linux and it adequately addresses this for those entities, then that’s a good thing.

Next: Two Different Approaches

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