There's no question that Ubuntu dominates the desktop-Linux world.  With commanding market share and a huge user community, it's by far the most well supported and documented open-source platform in the desktop world.  On servers, however, the situation is different--and Canonical needs to address it if it wants to become a real player in the server market.

When I entered the Linux world in 2006, I started with Mandriva.  It was easy enough to use as long as I stuck to officially supported channels, but trying to find RPM packages or Mandriva-specific documentation for third-party applications was a hit-or-miss affair, since Mandriva's user base was not large enough to ensure attention from all developers.

One of the things I liked most about Ubuntu after switching to it a year later was its ubiquity in the free-software world, which meant that finding installers and ensuring compatibility with my distribution was no longer a struggle--no more downloading random packages from RPMforge, double-clicking and hoping for the best.  I won't say Ubuntu was objectively better than Mandriva, but it was more popular, which in itself goes a long way towards improving usability.

Server challenges

While Ubuntu's dominance of the desktop ensures strong support by developers of desktop applications, its less commanding presence on servers, where it faces competition from well entrenched companies like Red Hat, Novell and Sun, works in the opposite direction.

Rare is the third-party server-application developer who officially supports Ubuntu.  More often, support is limited to license-based Linux distributions like Red Hat and SUSE Enterprise.  For example, here's a short list of non-Ubuntu-friendly software I've needed to install lately on servers:
  • SiteMinder plugin for Web-application authentication: supports only Red Hat and SUSE
  • IBM Blade Center Management Module: documentation mostly only refers to Red Hat; binaries available only as RPMs
  • QLogic fiber-channel modules: distributed in RPM-form only
Granted, the examples above are anectdotal, and the software referred to can be made to work on Ubuntu with enough effort.  Nonetheless, having to hack apart RPM packages in order to get enterprise servers working with Ubuntu is not reassuring to server administrators.

If Canonical wants to expand its foothold on the server market, it needs to work harder to gain official support for Ubuntu from developers and hardware manufacturers.  That's no easy task, especially since it means competing with companies that have had a decade to forge relationships with channel partners.  But until server administrators can install Ubuntu and be sure that whatever software they want to run on it will be officially supported, Canonical will be fighting an uphill battle against Red Hat and friends.