Who really has the most Linux users?

First, Red Hat's claimed the lion's share of the Linux market, then Novell said Red Hat's not that much in the lead, so where does the truth lie? It's a good question. At the recent Red Hat's Analyst Day, Red Hat Executive VP Paul Cormier, said that Red Hat now represents 75 percent of the paid Linux market, easily beating out other the other Linux distributions such as Novell's SUSE and Canonical's Ubuntu.

Impressive, but, Novell's PR manager Ian Bruce has a different take. In a Novell blog, Bruce wrote, "First, to borrow an analogy from the old car rental business, we should acknowledge that in the Linux market Novell is definitely 'Avis' to Red Hat's 'Hertz:' we're in second place and we try harder."

Bruce went on to point out that in IDC's latest report on the Linux market that SUSE Linux has about 28% compared to Red Hat's 62% of the world's business Linux market. He also added that while Red Hat's mainframe Linux marketshare has indeed grown considerably, but that, according to Gartner, "Novell has by far the largest market share, which they estimate at 70 percent." I'm inclined to agree to the numbers Novell cites. In any case, both agree that Red Hat is number one today. And, that's quite true... as far it goes. You see both companies and the analyst firms are focusing on the Linux business market. IDC, for example, in its Quarterly Server Reports, counts "server revenue [that] includes components that are typically sold today as a server bundle, including frame or cabinet and all cables, processors, memory, communication boards, and OS."

Again, that's fine for as far as it goes, but only some businesses buy Linux as part of a server bundle. A lot, yes, but many companies make Linux servers out of older or generic commodity servers.

In my own office, for example, I currently run four Linux servers and none of them came with Linux pre-installed. Or, on a far grander scale, look at Google. Google runs on Linux. But, Google uses its own home-brew Linux on its own servers. Neither mine, nor Google's, servers would ever show up on Red Hat or Novell's sales numbers or in the IDC surveys.

What Google developers and I have in common is that we both know Linux. We, and many other businesses that know Linux, use our knowledge to run the operating system without any need to pay a company for support.Again, our use of Linux won't show up in any Linux vendor's bottom-line.

Because Linux lets you do this it doesn't lend itself to the kind of surveys and analysis that software businesses have historically used to measure success. So, while we can safely say that Red Hat is the number one Linux vendor and that Novell is number two, we really can't say which, if either, actually has the most overall Linux servers or users.

We can, however, safely say that Google, with its massive, world-wide datacenters, has the most Linux servers and users in the world. So, does that mean Google's in-house Linux is really the most popular Linux? You could argue that. Indeed, looked at that way, Linux becomes the most popular operating system in the world. But, what Google has done, with its search engine and all its applications, is to make the operating system invisible.

If we're talking about, as most people do, Linux as a visible operating system, then you could also argue, based on the popularity ranking in DistroWatch, that Ubuntu is the number one Linux in the world. The Linux desktop seems dominated by Ubuntu and its close relatives like Mint.

So, which Linux is the most popular? Really, it all depends on how you look at the question. Red Hat is the most successful business that supports its own Linux distribution, with Novell as number two and trying hard. Thanks to Google, there are hundreds-of-millions of people who use Linux ever day and never know it. And, as for individual users working and playing on a Linux desktop, I strongly suspect Ubuntu can claim the most fans.

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