Analysts: Enterprise Debian Distro Takes On Red Hat, Novell

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-07-08

Analysts: Enterprise Debian Distro Takes On Red Hat, Novell

A new enterprise distribution of Linux is in the works, sources say, due to arrive later in the summer. However, analysts were mixed on its impact and prospects.

Sources say that Mandriva, Progeny and Turbolinux will announce a new Debian Linux-based enterprise distribution at the LinuxWorld event in San Francisco in August. This new enterprise distribution, which may include other companies as well, is said to be built on top of the Debian 3.1 "Sarge" Linux distribution.

It is meant to compete with the two giants of enterprise Linux: Novell Inc.s SLES (SuSE Enterprise Linux Server) and Red Hat Inc.s RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux).

Can such a distribution, or any other Linux distribution for that matter, compete with Novell and Red Hat for the growing enterprise Linux market?

For once, there is no common wisdom. The analysts who follow operating systems and Linux disagree on whether any new distribution can make a dent in the business Linux world.

Stacey Quandt, lead analyst for Quandt Analytics, for one, said she has her doubts.

"The challenge for a Debian-based distribution [attempting to succeed] in the market today is that Red Hat is the first port of choice for the majority of ISVs. This not only benefits Red Hat but distributions based on Red Hat Linux such as Red Flag and Asianux."

"It is expensive for ISVs to support and certify applications on multiple Linux distributions. Hence, most ISVs port to SuSE after Red Hat or release support for Red Hat and SuSE simultaneously," Quandt said.

Others, though, say they think Debian already has the ISV support it needs to make a go of it.

"It appears that vendors are willing to support three Linux distributions: Red Hat, SuSE, and one other, depending upon the region and their customer base. Debian is often the third one supported," said Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs program vice president for system software.

"The key question is if hardware and software vendors would be willing to support this groups version or just the generic Debian distribution," Kusnetzky said.

Gordon Haff, senior analyst for research house Illuminata Inc., thinks that a Debian-based release has a shot, "given how popular Debian has become with the roll your own crowd. And Progeny is effectively already partway down this path on its own."

Describing this distribution "as UnitedLinux Version 2005 is apt," Haff said. "The idea would be the same as with UL—gain critical mass for those key ISV certifications."

That being said, Haff added, "Even Novell is still struggling to really grow the SuSE Linux operation. Red Hats still the dominant enterprise distro, especially in North America. Sure, Debians popular—but its popular in large part because its the leading free as in beer distro."

A colleague of Haffs at Illuminata, Jonathan Eunice, a principal analyst, takes a much dimmer view. Asked if Mandriva SA, Progeny and Turbolinux Inc. have a shot at success, "Have a shot at what? Not shooting themselves in both feet simultaneously? Maybe... at the outside," Eunice said. "But a shot at successfully establishing yet another enterprise Linux platform? Not likely, at least not at this time."

Why? Because, he said, "The world doesnt want or need yet another enterprise Linux distribution. The whole point is to standardize around a very limited set of well-qualified, well-known, well-branded options so that ISVs have a suitable set of development and deployment targets."

Eunice added, "It is software vendors needs that drive this game—and what they need is just one or two key platforms to focus on. Red Hat and Novell/SuSE do just that. If one or the other were really broken, that might create an opening—but theyre not."

Next Page: The alliance is in a challenging race.

A Challenging Race

Kusnetzky said, however, that an alliance of these companies makes sense for other reasons.

"Considering the size and state of financial health of the organizations, if they could spread their development and support costs over many more customers, it would make it possible to continue to compete," Kusnetzky said.

Yankee Group Research Inc. senior analyst Laura DiDio also said she thinks that a Debian-based alliance might work.

"Id never say never," DiDio said.

However, she said, "Red Hat is solidifying its lead in the Linux distribution market and putting more distance between itself and the rest of the field in terms of quarterly shipments, quarterly revenue and customer base, both domestically and internationally.

"In the most recent financial data, announced last week, Red Hat said that it shipped 190,000 units in the last quarter. By contrast, Novell—its next closest competitor—shipped about 19,000 units in the same period. Thats a huge disparity," DiDio added.

Read more here about Red Hats latest announced financial results.

"Additionally, Novells numbers seem to be static or up very slightly. Novells acquisition of SuSE, which is now 19 months old, has to date not resulted in a significant boost to that firms revenue, unit shipment or market share."

Hence, DiDio said, "Its possible that a collection of Linux distribution vendors such as Mandriva, Turbolinux and Progeny could surpass Novell and make up some ground on Red Hat. But if Red Hats momentum continues at this pace, its doubtful that anyone will challenge them for the number one spot in Linux distribution."

In conclusion, DiDio said, "The race is far from over, but Red Hat has built a commanding lead. It also has strong support and partnerships with IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. Given all these facts, it will be hard for competitors to overtake the North Carolina firm. But that shouldnt stop anyone from challenging them!"

And Kusnetzky points out that while "Red Hat and Novell/SuSE hold the lions share of the revenue-producing shipments of Linux server operating-environment software," making it "difficult and costly for others to directly challenge them," it is still the case that "with the right investment, of course, anything is possible."

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