Ubuntu’s popularity has both spurred and belittled concerns about there being too many enterprise-level Linux distributions. On the one hand, freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the Linux/open source philosophy. On the other, too many distros making operating system choices difficult for businesses.
I just returned from a TechTarget Server Virtualization seminar in San Francisco and, sure, virtualization was the main event, but a group of IT pros there were talking about their love of Ubuntu. Sure, they’re using Red Hat or SUSE, the primary commercial distros, in production environments, but they’re putting Ubuntu to work whenever possible. A little prodding revealed that ‘whenever possible’ meant anywhere open source apps can be used or commercial vendor support isn’t needed or apps could be found that supported Ubuntu.
I wasn’t too surprised by running into a Ubuntu fan club at a virtualization event. The attendees were tech-savvy, and most that I polled used Linux and virtualization in tandem. Also, SearchServerVirtualization.com site expert Andrew Kutz stated his own preference for Ubuntu in his series on virtualization on Linux.
Their tech-savviness showed itself in their acknowledgement that too many “enterprise-level” Linux distributions may not be a good thing for business production environments. The forking or fragmentation of Linux can cause problems. During my recent conversation with Golden Gate University CTO Anthony Hill, he said that fragmentation poses problems for ISVs and driver vendors who must determine which Linux their products will support. Also, he noted that too many commercial Linuxes poses problems in training and makes it harder for Linux vendors to profit and thus be good long-term choices for businesses.
This problem is spelled out well in a Free Software Magazine blog post that says:
“The downside to all of this is of course the dreaded phrase “steep learning curve”. It is one of the most common complaints you will hear from those who are reluctant to adopt GNU/Linux and they will invariably invoke the bogeyman of fragmentation as irrefutable proof. However, a closer look at this familiar objection reveals that it it more of an issue for businesses adopting it than it is for private individuals. This is a fair point as the requirements of a business will differ markedly from yours or mine. A business will be looking for continuity, reliable upgrade cycles, technical support…and there are many enterprise versions of GNU/Linux which render such support and do it well; Suse (sorry, Microvell), Redhat and Mandriva to mention a few.”
I agree with this post’s argument that distro choice is good for individual users and not so good for businesses. The trouble is that new distributions, like Ubuntu, can also be vehicles for innovation and that innovation can usually happen faster in general open source development than in commercial operating system vendor product release cycles. So, by restricting fragmentation (if, indeed, it is at all possible to restrict it), the Linux community could also inhibit innovation.
The problem with choice of Linux distributions is the same problem as that posed by democracy. Truly successful democracy is dependent upon an informed electorate; voters who research the issues and candidates and make informed decisions. So, the success of commercial Linux development depends, I think, on informed IT pros who can determine if a new distro has been created for political reasons and offers little innovation or if it’s truly the next step forward in innovation.