3 open-source software giants to watch in 2021

The three big names in cloud and data center software will duke it out in 2021.
12 January 2021

Predictions for the upcoming year in business technology are as challenging to make as in any other field. Additionally, published guesswork is often influenced by wishful thinking, and end-of-year roundups usually gloss over those hopeful statements made eleven months previously.

Throughout 2020, staff writers at TechHQ have covered a broad range of subjects, ranging from Apple and ARM through ZFS and Zendesk. Of all the company names that have cropped up, it is the software companies that continue to have significant influence, and none more so than the large players in the server space: in alphabetical order, Amazon, Canonical, Google, Microsoft, Red Hat, and SUSE.

Thousands of words have been written about these industry giants over the year, but of these, it’s probably worth highlighting the three lesser-known — at least in the mainstream — as we consider this trio are the ones to pay more attention to in the coming year.

If that sounds like the sound of frantic hedging, then perhaps so. But read on, and you might discover some concrete predictions among the spread betting. Just don’t quote us in eleven months!

Why Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE?

Apart from on desktop PCs used in businesses across the globe, the dominating operating systems on today’s computers are UNIX-like. The hardware that runs the world’s services, in the cloud, on the internet of things, and many phones, runs software that comprises of Linux variants and a small percentage of BSD-you-likes, typically FreeBSD. Windows Server instances still exist — estimates put the figure somewhere between 20% to 30% of servers running the OS.

But in the main, the vast majority of operating systems, applications, databases, deployment tools, development tool-sets, and so forth comprise open-source software, which runs, usually, on UNIX-like operating systems.

Of the Linux variants found in the data center, the three big players are Ubuntu Server (of Canonical), SUSE Linux Enterprise, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux — or variants thereon. (The word variants is often found in the free and open software world: variations or forks are rife in just about every part of open-source IT.)

There are some interesting variations, too, in the proportions each supplier holds. For instance, in mainland Europe, you are much more likely to find SUSE deployed in anger. In the US, SUSE remains less popular, Red Hat more so. The much more disparate geography of Asia is reflected in the IT stacks commonly found in the region, plus of course, Tencent and Alibaba also begin to feature in the mix. These particular influences and the ensuing combinations are best left to our sister site, Tech Wire Asia, for now.

Canonical and Ubuntu

Anyone interested in a career in computing could do worse than getting acquainted with Ubuntu, or the OS from which it is derived, Debian. From cybersecurity to systems administration, from database administration through support and MSPs, the Ubuntu operating systems are a de facto standard in the mainstream cloud.

Like all open-source software, any individual or organization can download and deploy Ubuntu at will. Canonical, the company’s financial arm, makes its revenues from additional services, such as support, consultancy, maintenance, and oversight.

The company’s relatively dominant position makes it one to watch in 2021. It is rumored that Canonical will be sold to another company or float on a stock exchange — an IPO (initial public offering).

In the first instance, any potential buyer would have to have deep pockets, which means another technology company. Microsoft is often quoted as a potential suitor, although any such purchase is bound to raise eyebrows at the various competition authorities around the world, whichever tech company offers the cash.

An IPO for Canonical has been rumored for several years now, to the extent that predicting such an event has almost become an annual motif. Traditional investors may wish to bear this in mind.


Headquartered in Nuremberg, Germany, SUSE is the company behind the eponymous SUSE Linux Enterprise. Over the years, its history has been marked by a series of acquisitions by third parties (the word acquisition appears at least a dozen times on the company’s Wikipedia entry). However, the consensus is that its owners have always struggled to resolve the open and free nature of SUSE Linux Enterprise with revenue generation.

In that respect, of course, SUSE is not by any means unique. In 2020, however, SUSE appeared to have nailed its colors firmly to the mast by its acquisition of Rancher Labs — a company specializing in microservices and container deployments at scales suitable for enterprise use.

While Kubernetes, containers, and surrounding development ideologies are very much the technology industry’s poster children, no-one could argue that microservices are fully mainstream — yet.

SUSE’s move into this area with one of the better Kubernetes deployment systems could herald a new era for the German underdog, which seems to have set its sights on the big time, in the long run. With some of Red Hat’s recent actions garnering negative press (see below), SUSE has an ample opportunity to grab more market share, traction among the development community, and space in the data center, especially outside its native Europe.

Red Hat

The enterprise open-source stalwart has been an example in recent years of how the acquisition of a smaller, open-source outfit has helped transform an older, more stolid company’s fortunes. IBM is now a solid third-place player in the public server market (behind AWS and Google Cloud), and the good feeling from Red Hat’s positive treatment by its paymasters in Big Blue has developed a loyal following drawn from the open-source community and paying enterprise clients.

However, some recent changes to its product line-up have caused grave disquiet in technology circles, especially among the ground troops of application developers.

In the past, two operating systems overseen by Red Hat — Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and CentOS — were identical save for two things: CentOS had no RHEL branding nor any price tag for a license to use it.

Typically, developers would create CentOS instances and work on those, then (hopefully) “upgrade” to paying plans for RHEL and benefit from the company’s first-rate support and expertise.

However, in the dying months of 2020, the decision was taken that CentOS would change into CentOS Stream, positioned as the upcoming-version-of-RHEL. In that, CentOS Stream users would be, effectively, beta testing the next version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. At the same time as the announcement of the CentOS repositioning, Red Hat announced the massive shortening of support terms for the latest version of CentOS, effectively end-of-lifing the status quo of CentOS.

As is often the case in the open-source arena, forks of CentOS have already begun to appear. Rocky Linux seems to have edged ahead of the alternatives as to the distribution, that is, by any other name, RHEL without the licensing overhead.

Red Hat may find itself losing market share in 2021. If so, it will be Canonical or SUSE that will be installed on the world’s SSDs in data centers everywhere.