According to survey results released earlier this year, Ubuntu still has a lot of room to grow in the cloud space.  But it seems to be doing just that, the latest indicator being HP's release of cloud products based partially on Ubuntu.  Here's the scoop, and why it matters for the Ubuntu world in particular.

Last week, HP announced the public availability beginning May 10 of its HP Cloud platform, which began life as a private beta about six months ago.  Most of the HP Cloud features are not very unique -- it's the same basic deal as other popular hosted cloud infrastructures, like Amazon EC2 -- but one of the characteristics HP seems to be pushing is the open-source technologies on which its solutions are built, freeing users from vendor lock-in.

Toward that end, the operating systems supported by HP Cloud include Ubuntu versions 10.04 through 11.10 inclusive, as well as Debian Squeeze and CentOS versions 6.2 and 5.6.  HP promises "to add support for more operating systems as our public cloud offering evolves."

HP, Ubuntu and the Cloud

While Ubuntu is only one of three operating systems currently integrated into HP's cloud solution, it's also the most remarkable for several reasons.  First, it currently enjoys the broadest support, with four different Ubuntu releases endorsed by HP compared with only one version of Debian and two of CentOS.  More importantly, Ubuntu is the only distribution in the lineup with direct commercial backing, since Debian and CentOS are community projects with arguably less appeal to customers seeking paid support offerings.

And because of Ubuntu's uniqueness in this respect, this news is particularly good for Canonical, which has invested heavily in the cloud with relatively little obvious return so far.  As noted above, the company's survey of Ubuntu Server users a few months ago found that a somewhat stunning majority of respondents -- seventy percent -- opted not to answer a question about whether Ubuntu was a viable platform for the cloud.  (Of those who did respond, eighty-nine percent said it was viable.)

On its own, of course, the HP move hardly proves Mark Shuttleworth's somewhat questionable claim that Ubuntu is more popular than Red Hat Enterprise Linux on servers.  But HP Cloud certainly won't hurt Ubuntu's image in the cloud niche, at least, and it may indeed help substantially as Canonical endeavors to position Ubuntu as the dominate open-source cloud operating system.

The fact that HP Cloud adopts the open-source KVM hypervisor as its virtualization platform also plays into Canonical's cards.  Although KVM development itself is closely linked to Red Hat, Canonical embraced the technology relatively early-on, and it has been an integral part of the Ubuntu Server software stack (not to mention for Ubuntu Desktop, for anyone who chooses to install it there) ever since.  That decision may now be starting finally to pay off, and could give Ubuntu a competitive edge in a channel where other open-source vendors have focused largely on proprietary virtualization hypervisors, namely VMware, that don't offer the flexibility conceived as a major selling-point of HP's cloud offerings.

To be sure, Ubuntu Server fans shouldn't get too excited yet.  HP Cloud remains a work in progress whose ability to compete with similar, better established alternatives remains uncertain.  But HP clearly hopes that pushing the open-source angle of its solution will provide a leg up in this frenzied channel, and the choice of Ubuntu in particular as a central part of the offering may indeed help HP to stand out in a niche where other products are looking increasingly identical.