Who’s The Fastest Growing Linux Distro?

Which Linux distribution is the most popular? For many players in the open source realm, that answer depends on which part of the globe is counting, and how.

It could also depend on where the major Linux distributors stand with their product release cycles with the latest 2.6 Linux kernel .

By most accounts and research metrics, Red Hat is the current market leader in distributions. IDC, for example, estimates that Red Hat’s distributions cover over 60 percent of the Linux server market.

But according to one metric by Internet research company Netcraft’s January survey, when measured by counting active sites that contain the name of a Linux distribution in the header of the open source Apache Server, the Debian version of Linux is showing the fastest growth in the past six months.

From July 2003 through January 2004, Debian’s 24.6 percent growth to 442,753 installations represented the fastest growth in that period, Netcraft said.

Red Hat has a far greater number of installations at 1.5 million, but a slower growth rate in the six-month span at 17.8 percent; the research firm also said the company’s distribution numbers fell after Red Hat made changes to its licensing and security update policy. (The change included a subscription-based revenue model.)

In percentage terms, Debian was closely followed by Germany’s SuSE Linux with 23 percent growth to 296,217 installations in the six month period, followed by Gentoo’s 19.5 percent growth to 24,229 installations.

Each distributor, however, interprets the numbers differently, and each cites unique sweet spots for growth, according to interviews with major Linux distributors conducted by internetnews.com .

Red Hat’s spokesperson Leigh Day called the Unix operating system the company’s main competition. “We’re still seeing lots of Unix replacements,” she said. “We’re seeing demand for Linux in other areas of critical infrastructure. For instance we’ll be attacking the middleware layer next with our application server,” Day told internetnews.com.

Red Hat’s recent acquisition of storage vendor Sistina is also seen as underpinning the company’s strategy of moving its products from the operating system into new sectors such as storage. “We’re looking to grow our business beyond the platform and provide open source value in other parts of critical infrastructure to our customer base,” Day said.

The next full release of the company’s flagship Linux product, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, is not expected until early 2005, although quarterly updates are expected to introduce incremental improvements, with the next slated for the end of March or early April.

(Red Hat’s Fedora community project for hobbyists is also working on its next release and first implementation of the latest 2.6 kernel in April 2004.)

“We want to be known as a company that is providing value to customers in a different sort of way than the proprietary players,” Day added. “We’re a pure open source play and we want to really take that value and move it throughout [customers’] infrastructure and really help them solve their business problems in an open source way which delivers high-value, high performance, at low cost.”

The SuSe Factor

Red Hat’s Day may have avoided mentioning
SuSe Linux, its number two rival in Linux distributions according to IDC, but there is no question the company is watching its main competitor closely.

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Since Novell acquired Germany’s SuSe Linux for $210 million, Red Hat now has a major competitor looking for more growth in the U.S. marketplace, helped in part by IBM’s $50 million investment in Novell as part of the SuSe deal.

“We see more and more enterprises interested in SuSe Linux as we have now together with Novell a better global coverage and better support offering,” said SuSe spokesman Holger Dyroff. “We are a much more stable company and that’s what enterprises are looking for in Linux.”

He also said he expects the next version of SuSe Linux Enterprise server, based on the 2.6.x kernel, will accelerate growth in the second half of the year. That release is currently scheduled for July 2004.

Regarding SuSe’s principal competitors, Red Hat leads the pack, followed by Microsoft’s Windows and Sun Microsystem’s Solaris operating systems, Dryoff said.

“Of course we would like to be the most popular distribution,” Dyroff told internetnews.com.

“We want to grow faster than the competition. In general when you see SuSe in 2004, you’ll see cutting edge technology with the first commercial enterprise Linux distribution that can deliver the 2.6 kernel-based solution.”

SuSe’s Linux Professional distribution came out in October; a new version is scheduled for release in April.

The Debian Surge

While Red Hat and SuSe Linux are eyeing each other, Debian (which is also the base for a number of other distributions including Xandros and desktop Linux via Lindows), is plotting new growth for 2004 based on its darling status among Linux enthusiasts.

“The Netcraft survey clearly showed that Debian is a major player and that demand in Debian is increasing,” current Debian Project Leader Martin Michlmayr told internetnews.com.

But Debian’s Michlmayr also noted that governments and schools are sweet spots for the project’s momentum in 2004. Its next release, code named Sarge, is expected by summer and will include the 2.6 kernel, an improved installer, Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux) enhancements and numerous other improvements, according to administrators working on the project.

Michlmayr said he would like Debian to be the most popular distribution, but admits that’s a tall order. “Debian has traditionally been a system for people with high technical expertise,” he told internetnews.com. “However we are working on making Debian more usable and easier to use.”

The same could be said for the next release from MandrakeLinux. The company, which is working to emerge from bankruptcy reorganization, expects its Version 10 Community to be available early March with the official release several months later in May. Mandrake last month rolled out the beta version of its 10.0 Linux release, which boasts support for the Linux 2.6.1 kernel.

Mandrake Linux founder Gael Duval told internetnews.com that he believes Mandrake to be one of the most popular if not the most popular distribution in terms of user base and growth. According to the Netcraft survey, Mandrake’s 52,543 installations in January represent a 2.4 percent growth rate over the prior six months.

Duval said growth for Mandrake will come from the SMB (small and medium-sized business) and corporate server and desktop markets. “The corporate desktop is currently gaining big momentum,” Duval told internetnews.com. “We’ll have a dedicated product especially for this market by the end of 2004.”

For TurboLinux, the answer to the question of whose Linux distribution is most popular depends on which region of the world is asking.

Michael Jennings, a spokesman for TurboLinux, said TurboLinux is considered a leading Linux distributor in China. “If you’re talking about the U.S. it would be Red Hat, and in Europe it would be SuSE,” he added.

Jennings cited Red Hat as TurboLinux’s biggest competition in Japan. He also said TurboLinux expects its growth this year to come from markets in China, Japan and Korea, followed by India, Egypt and then Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.

“Turbolinux is devoted to staying loyal to its roots. We intend to remain the most popular Linux company in Asia and to grow in the region even more. We are not looking to be the worldwide leader,” Jennings told internetnews.com.

“Many economic reports show China and India with the largest economic potential and that’s where we plan to grow our company.”

TurboLinux released its latest desktop release (TurboLinux 10 Desktop), in October. Its next server release is expected in the fall.

In the meantime, the company is working on a new weapon: Turbolinux Appliance Server 1.0, an entirely new product that has yet to be announced publicly. TurboLinux officials said it will be based on Sun’s Cobalt cube (which is now open source) and is code named Blue Quartz. It is slated for release by late February or early March.

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