Ubuntu chief surprised by desktop support boom

Shuttleworth was surprised by a sudden demand for desktop support contracts, but Nadella won't lose sleep yet.
3 May 2019

Mark Shuttleworth, CEO & founder of Canonical. Source: Ubuntu

A bump in the number of support contracts for Ubuntu desktops probably tells a better story about how much value companies are placing in their development function, rather than proving that people are switching to a Linux desktop.

In a discussion at the OpenStack Foundation’s Open Infrastructure Summit recently, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu Linux and its commercial holding company Canonical, admitted he’d been caught on the hop by the change in demand.

“We have seen companies signing up for Linux desktop support, because they want to have fleets of Ubuntu desktop for their artificial intelligence engineers,” he said in the conversation as reported by ZDNet. It seems therefore that companies are placing literal dollar-value on the continuity of their development processes, to the extent that they need to ensure that Ubuntu keeps running.

Like many companies in the free and open source software area (FOSS), Canonical distributes its Ubuntu platform for free, but funds itself and its own on-going development efforts by means of support contracts. Others doing likewise are SUSE and of course, Red Hat, whose Fedora-flavor of Linux has long been a common workhorse, alongside Ubuntu, FreeBSD and the other various Linux distributions in the data centers of private concerns and public clouds.

“We’re starting actually now to commercially support the desktop in a way that we’ve never been asked to before,” said Shuttleworth, “previously, those were kind of off the books, under the table. You know, ‘Don’t ask don’t tell deployments.’ But now suddenly, it’s the AI team and they’ve got to be supported.”

The dominance of Linux in the server rooms, data centers and cloud providers’ racks has been well covered on these pages and further afield, with commercial interests making themselves known in the whole FOSS ecosystem, epitomized by a series of high-profile acquisitions of open source organizations being bought by ‘traditional’ businesses for eye-watering figures in the last few months. The IBM purchase of Red Hat and Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub, plus plenty more besides, have confirmed the billion-dollar worth of open source and Linux.

That type of money floating around has led to much speculation about Canonical’s own future; namely a still timeframe-free IPO. According to Shuttleworth, there will be still yet some more waiting. Goals need to be hit by Canonical first, like “$200 million plus in revenue, the right growth story, and the right headlines around IoT and cloud.”

It’s in IoT and the cloud that Ubuntu is making most headway, despite the sudden surge in desktop support contract figures. Shuttleworth said, “Nearly, two-thirds of the public cloud is Ubuntu. It varies from public cloud to cloud, but Ubuntu is always there. The work itself might go to Azure, it might go to Google, it might go to Amazon, but wherever it goes, there’s Ubuntu doing the job.”

While there’s little empirical data that shows which flavor of Linux dominates the cloud (or servers in general), what’s undeniable is the effect of the work that Canonical & Ubuntu undertook when it released coherent documentation for its platform, via wikis, blogs, IRC channels, forums and discussion groups. It was that effort that differentiated it from, for instance, Red Hat, whose documentation came with a paid-for support contract. In no particular order, the most common distributions in use on, for instance, AWS, are: Kali, Debian, Amazon Linux, Ubuntu, CentOs, Red Hat and SUSE.