November 10, 2016

Enterprise Linux Showdown: Ubuntu Linux


Xubuntu desktop
One of the primary differentiators between Ubuntu, RHEL, and SUSE is that Ubuntu boldly promotes their desktop version. The author's Xubuntu desktop is shown here.

Canonical's Ubuntu Linux is the newcomer in the enterprise Linux space. Its first release was in 2004; the other two enterprise Linux distributions in this series, SUSE and Red Hat, were born in 1992 and 1993. In its short life Ubuntu has generated considerable controversy, supporters, detractors, excitement, and given the Linux world a much-needed injection of energy.

One of the primary differentiators between Ubuntu, RHEL, and SUSE is Ubuntu unashamedly and boldly promotes their desktop version. RHEL and SUSE soft-pedal their desktop editions. Not Canonical. Desktop Ubuntu has been front and center from the beginning.

Ubuntu is based on Debian Linux, which is the #1 Linux distribution in size and influence. Debian supports several times more packages than any other distribution, and its family tree is by far the largest. Take a look at the Distribution Timeline for Debian; its largest descendants, Knoppix and Ubuntu, have sizable family trees of their own. Debian is a solid base to build on.

Crashing the Party

Mark Shuttleworth founded Canonical and Ubuntu with $10 million of his own money. Ubuntu is a word from the Nguni language with a complex meaning that doesn't translate well into English: we are all connected, correct behavior that flows from our connectedness, humanity to others, I am what I am because of who we all are. These were radical concepts in the Linux world, which was rather different back then. It was rough-and-tumble, allegedly ruled by meritocracy with the best code rising to the top, but in reality sizable swaths of it were personality-driven, cliquish, and hostile to newcomers. (And old-timers, and random passers-by.) The famous 2006 FLOSSPOLs study (see D16 - Gender: Integrated Report of Findings) claimed that 98.5% of FOSS contributors were men, while the proprietary software world had 28% participation by women. The study asked the question why such a difference? Answer: Hostile environment.

It's a fascinating report that is worth reading to see how far Linux and FOSS have come in terms of community and community values. Once upon a time the claim of "meritocracy" trumped everything, and too bad for anyone who couldn't take the heat or develop magnificent skills on their own. Now we're seeing more of the Apache Foundation philosophy of "community before code."

The Ubuntu community was key in pushing "community before code" into the Linux mainstream. Ubuntu got a whole new generation of people excited about Linux, and excited about contributing to Linux and FOSS. It launched a rowdy and far-reaching conversation about codes of conduct, the great value of diversity, and treating each other with civility and respect. Doubtless one can point fingers at numerous shortcomings in Ubuntu's performance in these arenas, but there is no doubt that they were responsible for bringing these issues to the forefront and catalyzing large-scale change.

Kick in the Pants

Ubuntu ignited excitement about desktop Linux by taking Debian Linux and putting a user-friendly face on it. Many had tried to do this: Libranet, Corel, Lindows...but only Ubuntu became dominant and survived. It held the #1 spot on Distrowatch for quite a few years and has always been in the top five. So, how did Ubuntu succeed where so many others did not?

1. Super-easy installation. Pop in your installation media, answer a couple of questions, and in a few minutes you have a nice new Ubuntu Linux system to play with.

2. Free Ubuntu disks. You could order free installation CDs through Canonical's ShipIt program, and copy and redistribute them. This was discontinued in 2011, but those first few years gave them huge exposure.

3. Live CDs. Live Linux CD/DVDs have been around for a long time, like Yggdrasil Linux, Peter Anvin's SuperRescue CD, and Knoppix. Ubuntu made running a live CD easy and pretty, and benefited from better hardware than the older generations had.

4. Mark Shuttleworth and Jono Bacon, Ubuntu's community manager. In the early years you couldn't go online or peruse print Linux magazines without tripping over these two. They were the first faces of Ubuntu, and they were very good at it.

Ubuntu's Unique Features

Ubuntu has all the usual products: servers, cloud, containers, microservices, Internet of Things, certified hardware, management tools, paid support, training, partnerships with key vendors, and all the things that enterprise users want.

These features set Ubuntu apart:

Ubuntu has a number of variants: desktop, server (which installs without a graphical interface like a proper server should), and different desktop flavors. These are the official Flavours, as they are called:

  • Edubuntu -- Ubuntu for education
  • Ubuntu GNOME -- Ubuntu with the GNOME desktop environment
  • Kubuntu -- Ubuntu with the K Desktop environment
  • Ubuntu Kylin -- Ubuntu localised for China
  • Lubuntu -- Ubuntu that uses LXDE
  • Mythbuntu -- Designed for creating a home theatre PC with MythTV
  • Ubuntu Studio -- Designed for multimedia editing and creation
  • Xubuntu -- Ubuntu with the XFCE desktop environment
  • Ubuntu MATE -- Ubuntu with the MATE desktop environment

Each one has its own website and community. Ubuntu ships with the Unity desktop. But here's the cool and unique deal: When you download and install any Ubuntu you get all of them. Don't like Unity? Then install xubuntu-desktop, ubuntu-mate-desktop, kubuntu-desktop, etc., to get a different Flavour. The base system is the same for all of them. When you install one *buntu you get all of them.

RHEL and SUSE both draw a wide line between the enterprise versions and their free community versions, Fedora Linux and openSUSE. Ubuntu does not do this; there is not an enterprise Ubuntu and a separate free community-supported Ubuntu. It's all the same. Instead, Ubuntu has a different lifecycle of standard and long-term releases, which you can read about below.

The other feature that sets Ubuntu apart is it's the easiest of the enterprise Linuxes to get and use. Just download and use it, no time bombs, no registration, no muss, no fuss. Server, desktop, Ubuntu Core for Raspberry Pi and other small devices are all a click away.

The desktop download has a small nag screen that asks some survey questions and asks for a donation. You can be a Scrooge and easily bypass this if you wish.


The free community support options are quite good, thanks to Ubuntu's large and engaged community. This includes good documentation, Ask Ubuntu, Ubuntu Forums, IRC channels, and Launchpad.

Ubuntu's paid support follows the model of get the software for free, pay for support. Support pricing is the lowest of the three enterprise Linuxes.


Ubuntu has two release versions: long-term support (LTS) and standard releases. LTS releases are supported for five years, both server and desktop. Standard releases are supported for nine months. Releases are time-based, and every six months a new release comes out. Ubuntu tends to ship fresher software versions, and when an LTS release reaches end-of-life that's it, it's done, no updates, no security fixes. Upgrades to new releases are usually reliable, and the Landscape systems management tool gives you complete control of all of your systems.

See Enterprise Linux Showdown: Red Hat Enterprise Linux for an RHEL comparison, and come back next week for a look at SUSE Linux Enterprise.

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