Canonical Releases Updated Enterprise Management Solution for Ubuntu Linux

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Ubuntu Linux, which started with the tagline “Linux for human beings,” was originally an easy-to-use Linux distribution for desktop users. Canonical picked what they considered to be the best of breed applications from the many thousands available in the Debian Linux distribution, put on a healthy dose of polish, and released their own version. They then repeated this release process every six months. Six months is slightly too frequent a release schedule for many users — especially companies that might look to standardize on Ubuntu Linux — so Canonical declared that every fourth release would be a “Long Term Support” version, with three years of support.

At the same time that Canonical was pushing Ubuntu for the desktop, they also released a Server edition, with five years of support in LTS releases. Ubuntu’s ease of use made it, unsurprisingly, very popular. The synchronicity between the desktop and server releases made Ubuntu a very attractive development target, and many organizations used it as their web tier. As Ubuntu’s usage has increased, it has slowly penetrated the traditional enterprise segment. To succeed there, robust management tools are required.

In 2006, Canonical released their Landscape product to provide centralized systems management. Like Red Hat’s Satellite and SUSE’s Subscription Management Tool, Landscape aims to provide management and monitoring capabilities to a large fleet of Ubuntu systems — servers, desktops, and cloud images — from a single interface. Today Canonical is announcing a major update to Landscape with a host of new features.

The big new features include robust compliance reporting — which are especially important for industries regulated by HIPAA or PCI DSS — integration with Ubuntu’s metal-as-a-service, and a thorough API.

Canonical is a little late to the enterprise market: Red Hat and SUSE have been the major players in the enterprise for substantially longer. I asked Zaid Al Hamami, director of products and engineering at Canonical, what, if anything, the company was able to learn by watching the missteps of their more established competitors. His response was not what I expected.

“Ubuntu fills a different role in Enterprise IT than does RHEL and SUSE,” Hamami told me. “Both RHEL and SUSE emerged as UNIX replacements, and as such, for a lot, if not most of the enterprises, they are used for the same workloads that UNIX was used for; namely for running business applications and large databases.” He went on to say that “Ubuntu was never about being another UNIX replacement; it was about being the best platform for developing and using open source projects.”

According to Hamami, Ubuntu does not “get asked for 10-year maintenance periods because that’s not what Ubuntu is about – it’s about innovation, not about running business applications for a very long time.” This is certainly a marked difference between Ubuntu and Red Hat or SUSE. The latter two do provide full support for their releases for up to a decade, which means that the latest and greatest versions of Ruby or Python are often absent.

I’ve observed in the past that Canonical seems to take a “not invented here” approach to technology and open source. Stated another way, they seem very hesitant to throw their weight behind established open source projects, and instead re-invent the wheel. I asked Hamami why Canonical made Landscape on their own, rather than work with something like Spacewalk, which SUSE recently adopted for their SUSE Manager product. He was quick to point out that Landscape was released in 2006, two years before Spacewalk was open sourced by Red Hat.

Enterprise customers with established Red Hat or SUSE deployments will have sophisticated management solutions in place already — Red Hat Satellite, SUSE Manager, etc. — so the addition of Ubuntu and Landscape introduce very real costs in terms of complexity, skills currency, and supporting infrastructure. I was curious if the bulk of Canonical’s enterprise customers were monoculture Ubuntu shops?

“A lot of our enterprise customers are not monoculture,” Hamami told me, “but they’re not expecting one tool to manage everything Linux either.” Hamami confirmed that there’s a lot of RHEL and SUSE in addition to Ubuntu. As an example, Hamami suggested that “an enterprise might be hosting its Financials system on another Linux distribution, and they’ll have a specific management system for that. On the other hand, they’ll use Ubuntu to deploy a 5,000 node Hadoop cluster. There’s a lot of management needs that come with 5,000 nodes. So they’ll use Landscape to manage those Ubuntu machines.”

It’s interesting that Ubuntu is taking an intentionally different approach to the enterprise market. It’s a smart play, and clearly one that’s working well for them.