Q&A: Canonical’s Jane Silber says upcoming Ubuntu Linux to be enterprise-ready

The June release will be supported for three years on the desktop

The first release of Ubuntu Linux, whose name comes from an African word meaning “humanity to others,” arrived in October 2004. Since then, the always-free Linux distribution has won 2 million to 3 million users worldwide, most of them individual desktop users, according to Canonical Ltd., the privately-held company behind the Ubuntu distribution. At the 4th annual Linux Desktop Summit in San Diego yesterday, Jane Silber, the chief operating officer of Canonical, sat down to talk to Computerworld’s Eric Lai about how the upcoming June release of Ubuntu 6.06 might appeal to corporate users, too.

Ubuntu has won over many individual users since its first release 18 months ago. How about among businesses? One of the reasons we delayed the release of Ubuntu 6.06 by six weeks til June was because we plan to support it for three years on the desktop and five years on the server. And that decision was driven by requests from businesses. Both the PC vendors and business users wanted a longer support cycle.

We see interest growing. Our entree into the market are the technical folks, the people who know the strengths of Debian [a Linux distribution upon which Ubuntu is derived]. From that, we’ve seen significant uptake among [small and midsize businesses], governments and schools.

Our biggest customer is the Andalusian regional government in Spain, which is using an Ubuntu derivative we helped create. That’s hundreds of thousands of desktops. We have some deals with banks and retailers I can’t disclose right now.

Did you decide to create what you’re calling your first enterprise-ready version of Ubuntu now because Microsoft is just about to release Windows Vista? In theory, it’s important. When people are thinking about whether to upgrade to Vista or choose an alternative, we want to be out there. It really is a decision point for users. There are studies out there that say the learning curve associated with businesses transitioning to a new version of Windows is as big as transitioning to a Linux desktop. But I can’t take credit that we had this all planned out. It’s really because the technology was ready, and the users wanted it, and our corporate partners wanted a longer release so they can do the right certifications.

We will still release a new version every six months. Those we will support for 18 months. It’s just that we will occasionally pluck one of those out as one we will support for a longer period of time.

The new SUSE Linux Desktop 10 from Novell Inc. sports some impressive graphics capabilities. What are your plans in this area? We felt we weren’t quite ready for this 6.06 release, so I expect we’ll have similar graphics features in the fall release. Our mantra throughout this development cycle was “rigid and boring.” Someone would say, "This feature is really shiny and cool; let’s put it in," and I’d say, "Nope, we need to be rigid and boring."

That’s music to a CIO’s ears! Not only that, but our process would look familiar to anyone with a background in corporate software development. In fact, it’s quite stringent, because that’s the only way we can keep a six-month development cycle. Because our company is so scattered, it forces us to make our processes as open and transparent as possible. If you’ve got a bunch of developers in the same room, they talk face to face. Those conversations don’t get recorded.

So everything we do, from soliciting ideas about new features, [to] writing specs for those features, reviewing which ones we keep or reject -- and we reject a lot of them -- is made publicly available.

Corporate customers feel that buying a piece of software, since paid support is usually involved, is a de facto investment in the vendor, too. Describe Canonical’s business model. We are a for-profit company headquartered on the Isle of Man. We have 45 employees, most of them scattered around the world. We make money by providing technical support and customization services. Our support team is based in Montreal.

We have the luxury of a very long-term outlook, because we have a stable funding source, and because of our absolute commitment to the principles of open-source. So while some people look askance at tying themselves to a start-up, we are no more risky than any other company.

Are you similar to a mainstream commercial open-source vendor such as Red Hat Inc.? In a sense, but not completely. We believe software should be free to anyone. If you want to buy a support contract, it is there for you. There is no premium version that costs money.

We’re also happy for you to get support from someone besides us. We list companies on our site that provide that. We’re up to 200 around the world. Some customers buy support just from that firm, others buy it -- but with escalation support from Canonical. That way, a local company will provide front-line support in the local language. But for really hard problems, they can escalate trouble tickets back up to us.

Enterprises want one throat to choke when problems arise. Doesn’t the structure you just described contradict that? No. People do want one throat to choke, but they also want someone local who can speak their language, who knows their business and local economy. But we absolutely are happy to put our throats out there. We are about to launch 24/7 customer support, first in English, followed by French.

How did you join Canonical? I joined Canonical in July 2004. My original background is in software development, and then, later, project management. The company where I was a vice president at was bought out by General Dynamics Corp. I was a vice president at General Dynamics for two years, where I ran a small unit that developed information management decision-making software. It was mostly used at U.S. Army command posts or on U.S. naval ships. I oversaw about 150 people and about $45 million in revenue.

I was living in London and looking for a job when I happened to be at a party and met a friend of Mark Shuttleworth’s [the founder of Canonical]. I was familiar with Linux, but not using it in any way. But setting up a software company and growing it was right up my alley. I had lunch with Mark the following week and then started the next Monday. It was definitely a matter of being at the right place at the right time.

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