Ubuntu's objective of becoming the distribution that finally brings Linux to "human beings," i.e. non-geeks, is certainly ambitious.  Its simultaneous (and thus far successful) pursuit of the server market, however, is perhaps yet more impressive.

Few Linux distributions have been able to achieve equal success on both the desktop and enterprise fronts.  Red Hat's desktop following forked off into Fedora several years ago, when it became clear that RH's focus on the server market was not in the interests of users who wanted to run the distribution at home.  SUSE has had some success on the desktop, but Novell, its parent company, remains chiefly concerned with the server market.

There's nothing wrong with targeting servers—after all, contracts with enterprise clients generate a lot of cash that is invested back into open-source projects, which benefit the free-software community as a whole.  On the other hand, focus on enterprise Linux leads some desktop users to grumble that they're being shortchanged by developers who cater to corporate clients (for example, see this interview with Con Kolivas, who split with the kernel project amid charges that it had become “burdened with enterprise crap”).

Too Much Too Soon for Canonical?

Ubuntu's dual commitment to the desktop and server markets might therefore seem a bit counter-intuitive, especially to those who subscribe to the worldview that it's better to do one thing and do it well, rather than overextending a finite amount of resources on multiple projects.

Nonetheless, Ubuntu's strategy seems to be paying off.  It has long been regarded as the most popular Linux desktop distribution, but is also enjoying impressive success in the server market, where it has to compete against well-entrenched foes like Red Hat, Novell and Sun but has nonetheless managed to garner a 4% (or, depending on your perspective/agenda, -96%) market share. Not bad for a distribution that's barely four years old (Red Hat and SUSE, remember, have been around since the mid '90s).

It's important to note that, rather than sowing internal divisions as they have for many other distributions, Ubuntu's desktop and server forks seem to complement one another.  The Works With U 1000 survey has found, for instance, that more than three-quarters of businesses that deploy Ubuntu on desktops are also running it on servers.  Instead of concluding that Ubuntu is great on the desktop but not so good on a server, or vice-versa, businesses are using it in both environments.

This finding lends credence to the idea that, rather than conquering the enterprise market (and thereby securing a solid financial base) from the top-down, Ubuntu and its parent, Canonical, might seek to work their way into the server market via a “grassroots” approach: that is, by establishing a broad user base (8 million and counting, according to the official numbers) on the desktop that will lead them into a position of dominance in the lucrative server market as well.

So will Ubuntu be the undoing both of proprietary platforms on the desktop and its competitors in the server market as well?  It's certainly too early to say that, but it's plausible.

WorksWithU Contributing Blogger Christopher Tozzi is a PhD student at a major U.S. university. Tozzi has extensive hands-on experience with Ubuntu Server Edition and Ubuntu Desktop Edition. WorksWithU is updated multiple times per week. Don't miss a single post. Sign up for our RSS and Twitter feeds (available now) and newsletter (launching January 2009).