Among software developers, Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux distribution is widely known and used, especially on servers for the web and cloud. (The Ubuntu operating system is free and open-source, with Canonical generating most of its $126M revenue in 2017 from Ubuntu-related software licensing, maintenance, support, and managed services.) At a recent industry analyst event in New York City, Canonical executives laid out the company’s strategy going forward and made a strong case for continued growth of Ubuntu in the cloud and expansion of Ubuntu at the IoT edge, backed by additional presentations from various customers and partners.
For the web, Canonical showed data from W3techs.com, indicating that Ubuntu surpassed Debian in early 2016 as the most popular Linux distribution for hosting websites, and continues to lead in that realm. (CentOS, the community-supported distribution derived from Red Hat Enterprise Linux, is in third place, with all other Linux distributions far behind.) Not surprisingly, Canonical’s presentations positioned Ubuntu’s chief competitor for datacenter and cloud computing as being Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and to a lesser extent virtualization software VMware.
Canonical called Ubuntu the “default OS for hosting containers on public clouds,” and repeatedly noted the extent to which it supports Kubernetes for application container orchestration. This includes Kubeflow for machine learning applications, which can utilize NVIDIA GPU hardware if present.
Ubuntu has a large presence for artificial intelligence and machine learning in the cloud, as well as in retail systems and telco computing (especially using Network Function Virtualization).
On the IoT side, Canonical’s strategy slots in at two levels. The full Ubuntu distribution can reside in IoT gateways and devices with sufficient processing power and memory resources, and the stripped down Ubuntu Core can fit in those with lesser resources. In both of these contexts, pre-packaged applications, called Snaps, can be downloaded from the Snap Store, which supports apps from Canonical as well as from partners and customers.
At the analyst event, Canonical customer Rigado presented its Cascade IoT “edge-as-a-service,” which provides gateway hardware (running Ubuntu Core), combined with managed services, including device management, performance monitoring, firmware updating, and a suite of security features (e.g. secure boot and key management). The price is $9 per month per gateway, and the company says it has over 300 customers with a total of 5 million connected IoT endpoint devices, primarily in smart building use cases. Although the monthly price does not include connectivity service, Rigado CEO Ben Corrado told VDC that most of the gateways are currently connected via local networking (Ethernet, Bluetooth, WiFi) at no dedicated service cost, rather than via paid cellular or LPWAN services.
Other examples for IoT devices running Ubuntu include Amazon’s AWS DeepLens camera, and, as Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth put it, “Every self-driving car that you’ve ever read about, both triumph and tragedy, runs Ubuntu.”
In the cloud, Ubuntu’s position as the leading operating system is both significant and solid for the foreseeable future. In the IoT, however, the situation is more challenging for Canonical for a few reasons. Among IoT edge devices, the usage of operating systems is much more fragmented than in the server market. (VDC tracks more than 70 OSs actively used by embedded systems developers.) Many IoT devices still have insufficient processing power and memory to run Linux, even the stripped down Ubuntu Core. And many devices have response time requirements that favor performance-oriented real-time operating systems (RTOSs) over any more heavily featured OSs. Further, the developers who work on embedded systems tend to be experienced working at deeper levels than those who work on conventional IT computing applications, and therefore they are often more comfortable customizing their own operating systems. Even if a device has sufficient resources to run Linux, the developer might choose to create a custom distribution such as via the Yocto Project. And among IoT embedded systems that run commercially distributed Linux, VDC’s data show that Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) currently has a higher market share than Ubuntu.
On the other hand, Linux is a clear choice for most gateway hardware, and OEMs are designing an increasing portion of IoT endpoint devices with 32-bit processors and enough memory to run Linux, so the market share of all Linux distributions combined is rising. And Canonical is uniquely positioned among commercial Linux providers to gain share in IoT endpoints (with Ubuntu Core) as well as in gateways and clouds servicing those devices and their data. Amazon has AWS and now stewardship of the popular FreeRTOS for IoT devices. Google has Cloud and Android. Microsoft has Azure and Windows 10 IoT Core. But, ironically, none of those major cloud service providers has its own leading operating system for public cloud servers. Red Hat may be stronger in today’s datacenters (and IoT devices), but Ubuntu’s role in the cloud may be the lynchpin that ultimately enables Canonical to leverage the operating system for optimal IoT device features and IoT data analytics performance across a broader range of IoT systems.
View the 2018 IoT & Embedded Technology Research Outline to learn more.