New Ubuntu Server Release Aims for the Cloud

Next week sees the release of Ubuntu Server 10.04 LTS, and the fruition of Canonical's cloud goals.

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While we weren't looking, guess who went and became a cloud company?

Canonical.

I know, right? It seems like just yesterday the UK-based company was capitalizing on the goodness of Debian and rocking out the Linux desktop with all the shades of humanity and then the shades of eggplant. But here we are, on the essential eve of the Ubuntu 10.04 LTS release, and it looks like Canonical is a company that has quietly re-cast itself as a cloud platform builder.

So how did this happen? Did Mark Shuttleworth get tossed out in a bloodless coup by Jane Silber, who then mercilessly drove the other Canonical employees into producing a cloud-friendly operating system by threatening to show them and endless loop of Shuttleworth's space mission slides?

Er, no.

In reality, this is something Canonical has been moving towards for some time... it's just we didn't notice it with all the other work the company has put into the Ubuntu distribution--such as making a Linux distro that just works, without all of the pimping out that most Linux users used to have to do to get their systems performing well. Now speculation is afoot that this is the goal Canonical had in mind all along.

This notion of Canonical as a cloud company is going to jump out front and center this coming Tuesday, when Ubuntu Server 10.04 LTS is officially released. This is the third LTS version of Ubuntu that's been released, which provides five years of official support to end-users, as opposed to the usual 18 months. With this release comes the formal inclusion of a cloud toolset--a toolset that will be very attractive to enterprise customers when coming in an LTS release.

"We're baking in stuff we've been releasing in the last six-month releases."--that's the word from Canonical's new COO, Matt Asay, who recently spoke with me about the new Ubuntu Server release. Asay seems excited about the 10.04 LTS release, which is the first big release since he came on board at Canonical earlier this year, but his reasons may go beyond the satisfaction of yet-another Ubuntu release: clearly, Canonical is aiming at the cloud, and the Lucid Lynx release is a big step towards that goal.

On the technical side, the Server edition of Ubuntu has a lot of Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud (UEC) and Amazon EC2 improvements, such as improved installation profiles for EC2 and UEC deployments, cloud-init enhancements, and the integration of Puppet, a Ruby-based configuration management tool.

The attention the Ubuntu community and Canonical are paying on the cloud seems to be paying off: right now some variant of Ubuntu is ranked as numbers 1, 2, and 3 on EC2's most used platform, and recently IDC reported that Ubuntu Server installations have grown from basically nothing to five percent of Linux paid subscriptions in 2009 alone--a phenomenal jump that Asay was very pleased to point out.

Anecdotally, I mentioned to Asay that I keep hearing increasing buzz from end users and developer about Ubuntu as a platform for stack/appliance use. Gerry Carr, Marketing Manager, chimed in and said that a lot of this ease of use was inherited by the Debian community's commitment to packaging and "fire and forget" installation. Canonical's own engineering teams continue this effort, with Carr describing it as "fanatical."

Asay added that this commitment towards integration extends to all software running on Ubuntu, even out to proprietary vendor partners.

"The amount of energy put into making sure these [proprietary software] stacks work is the same as the work done on the open source stacks," Asay said.

Of course, having a growing developer community doesn't hurt, either. Asay mentioned a recent conversation with Forrester's Jeffery Hammond, who pointed out that with 12 million active desktop deployments, Ubuntu would be simply the natural choice for more developers to code with. The logic being that since they're using it anyway, why not just build apps for it? It's a valid point, and it might explain why Ubuntu Server is seeing Android-like growth in the server sector.

"Maybe all along this was the strategy," Asay pondered aloud.

Asay also cited the perpetual state of free from Ubuntu offerings. The company remains committed to keeping Ubuntu free, which he believes makes a difference when talking about companies like Pfizer, who are deploying something like 40 new cloud applications a week. That may seem like a lot, but to them, "it's just like kicking the tires on the cloud." If a company is in that kind of testing mentality, Asay explained, then going with a server platform that's free makes a lot more sense.

Another big reason for Ubuntu Server's rocketing growth? Lack of competition in the cloud sector.

"I can't point to a single other Linux vendor with a significant cloud offering," Asay said. When I pressed him on why that would be so, he replied, "It's just easier for us. For us, the cloud is a greenfield." While for other Linux vendors, the cloud represents a significant shift in marketing and development.

For Canonical, "virtualization is a means towards an end, not the end itself," Asay said. "It's just a way to get you to the cloud."

This release of Ubuntu 10.04 LTS could be characterized in the same way: a way to get users into the cloud. Which is just how Canonical likes it.

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