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Ubuntu: Vendors need to step up

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"Intrepid Ibex", distributed as Ubuntu 8.10, goes live today for distribution later this week, and the economic crunch certainly makes the Linux variant more compelling.

While there are plenty of skeptics doubting Ubuntu's prospectsin business - except in a few big businesses with lots of Unix skills - going broke tends to make you examine your options a little harder.

Chris Kenyon, head of OEM services at Canonical, is attempting to get IT vendors to show that Ubuntu is compatible with their computers and to get them certified as supporting Ubuntu in specific configurations. The holy grail for any operating system distributor is to take the next step and have the operating system preconfigured and preloaded on machinery and sold through the direct and reseller channels of the major IT players.

So how is Ubuntu doing on this front? To answer that fairly, you have to remember that Ubuntu is one of the younger Linux distros. Red Hat and SUSE Linux had a much earlier lead, and have made more traction in the market thus far. Canonical put out its first Ubuntu desktop release in October 2004 and its first server edition in June 2006.

Ubuntu is pretty pleased with its progress thus far. "We're four and a half years in, and this is our ninth release," says Kenyon. "We see this massive shift happening. For the first time, people are buying Ubuntu on PCs preinstalled." Dell's Inspiron Mini 9 netbook runs Ubuntu and Sylvania's G Netbook uses gOS, a variant of Ubuntu. According to Kenyon, Toshiba is expected to announce Ubuntu preconfigured on a PC "any day now."

And while Ubuntu is not getting the kind of penetration on the desktop that Windows has, neither have Red Hat, Novell, Mandriva, or Xandros. "The current situation is a huge turnaround from a year ago," says Kenyon, presumably with a certain amount of pride.

You would think that Ubuntu would have long since got the attention of server makers, with somewhere between 6 million and 8 million users (an estimate that Mark Shuttleworth, the Ubuntu project's founder and Canonical's chief executive officer, gave out a year ago when Ubuntu 7.10 was launched). But server buyers are the most conservative of IT participants, and it takes a lot longer to get traction on servers than it does on desktops and laptops.

"Our major partners see growth in Ubuntu in the network, and with 8.04 LTS this year, we took a big step forward," says Kenyon. Most of the current lineup of X64 servers from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and IBM were shown to be compatible with Ubuntu 8.04 LTS, and Sun Microsystems even got a bunch of its machines certified - meaning they've been put through more rigorous testing to ensure compatibility.

This still, however, falls short of getting Ubuntu actually pre-installed on servers. And the lack of pre-installation is the classic chicken-and-egg problem. Companies - particularly the small and medium businesses that buy the lion's share of X64 servers - do not want to have to install an operating system. That is why pre-installation, despite the effort, is important. But server makers drag their feet for economic reasons Ubuntu understands.

"Pre-installing an operating system is a big investment," says Kenyon. "It is a multi-million dollar investment to fully certify and take the next step to pre-install." And while it is Kenyon's job to make that sales pitch to the IT vendors of the world, he offers no estimate for when this might actually happen.

The Long-Term Support releases of Ubuntu, which have five years of support on the server and three on the desktop, have a long enough lifespan to make the investment in certification and pre-installation worthwhile - particularly if vendors want to use Ubuntu to deliver cheap laptop and server appliances.

Interestingly, Canonical has a big engineering presence in the Asia/Pacific region where a lot of IT gear is actually made these days. Of the 200 people at Canonical these days, a large number are in a Taipei, Taiwan, facility that works with OEM and ODM suppliers that are creating products based on Linux and other operating systems. The core server testing and development work is still done in Canonical offices in Europe and the United States, while desktop and laptop certification and testing is done in Taipei and Shanghai, China. ®

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