No doubt, it's sometimes difficult to measure Ubuntu's business success. Canonical says Ubuntu now has about 12 million Linux users -- up from an estimated 8 million users in 2007. That sounds impressive, but what does that really mean in terms of Ubuntu's market penetration, Canonical's march to profitability and Ubuntu's progress as a Linux distribution? In my mind, there are additional data points Canonical could share to further show Ubuntu's momentum. Here they are.

On the one hand, I want to give Canonical credit: 12 million estimated users is a big figure. And it provides a foundation upon which Canonical can promote additional services -- Landscape, Ubuntu One, Ubuntu Music Store, etc. -- to consumers and business users.

But just how well is Canonical doing? In March 2010, new Canonical CEO Jane Silber said the company had about 320 empl0yees and was on a path to profitability. But she conceded the company wasn't yet profitable.

As a privately held software company, Canonical certainly doesn't have to say much about its financial performance. But frankly, I think Canonical can share a bit more information without having to completely open its books.

A few ideas...

1. Time to Phone Home: In a LinuxPlanet article, Canonical VP Chris Kenyon conceded that the company had has no registration or "phone home" process for Ubuntu, so deployment and user numbers are always a guestimate. In my mind, it's time for Canonical to more closely track Ubuntu. Find a way to maintain customer privacy but begin to have Ubuntu phone home. The data points will show Canonical key regional and international trends that could help future business development.

2. Change the Landscape: Canonical offers Landscape -- a tool for remotely managing Ubuntu systems -- in SaaS and on-premises configurations. For the SaaS version, Canonical should start disclosing just how many Ubuntu systems are being managed worldwide. If it's too early to share those numbers -- after all, Landscape is just getting started -- then simply share year-over-year growth percentages for Landscape-managed systems.

The idea here is to push beyond the consumer desktop mindset. By sharing some Landscape management stats -- even rough percentage growth rates -- Canonical can more effectively position Ubuntu as a business solution for notebooks, desktops and servers.

3. Open Up Ubuntu One: I realize Canonical may not want to disclose how many people are paying for the storage and file sync service. But there are other ways to show growth... For instance, percentage growth (quarter-over-quarter) for the amount of storage Ubuntu One handles. And soon, some stats for the Ubuntu Music Store would be a solid step in the right direction, too.

Reality Check

Ultimately, Canonical faces many familiar challenges that we frequently hear about in the open source market. Other than Novell and Red Hat, it's difficult to find publicly held companies that disclose in-depth information open source revenues.

But there are ways to show progress. Many open source companies will disclose how many "paying customers" they have. Others will disclose year-over-year revenue growth rates.

In the months ahead, I hope Canonical takes similar steps. The effort could help to silence Canonical's critics while also giving customers and partners peace of mind as they consider more Ubuntu-oriented business efforts.