Does SUSE Linux Have A Future?

Remember SUSE? Way back when it was the cutting-edge Linux distribution, and held its own with Red Hat. But that was a long time ago, long before Microsoft adopted it as its pet and Attachmate took it over as part of its Novell acquisition. With Red Hat dominating the enterprise Linux server market, Canonical owning the Linux desktop market, and Google's Android running roughshod over everyone in the mobile market, what, exactly, is left for SUSE?

In The Clouds

Cloud, perhaps? After all, Alan Clark, director of Industry Initiatives, Emerging Standards and Open Source at SUSE, and a friend of mine, was elected in 2012 to chair the OpenStack Foundation board. OpenStack seems to have real momentum, but ever since Red Hat got involved, it's hard to see OpenStack turning out much different from Linux, where Red Hat wins in part because it's such an active contributor. Already Red Hat has gone from a somewhat light contributor to the third-highest contributor after Rackspace (OpenStack's founder) and HP.

SUSE? It barely makes the list of top-10 contributors.

In open source, being the source of the code is more important than owning the source code, and Red Hat is on pace to be the dominant contributor to OpenStack. This can't be comforting to SUSE. 

Even if we look at the Linux distributions that individuals run on Amazon Web Services (AWS), Rackspace and other public clouds, SUSE shows up as a rounding error, with Canonical's Ubuntu commanding the market and Red Hat Enterprise Linux clone CentOS coming in second. It's telling that when HP, a longtime SUSE supporter, had to choose an operating system to power its own public cloud, it chose Ubuntu

All of which leaves SUSE in a precarious position. 

On Life Support?

No, SUSE is not dead yet.  As longtime Linux pundit Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols told me, 

This is true, but in a conversation with a former SUSE employee who is familiar with SUSE's past and current performance, revenue from SUSE's hardware partners like HP and IBM has been constant but stagnant over the past few years. As he puts it, these longtime SUSE partners want a hedge against Red Hat, but they know that their businesses largely depend upon Red Hat. So they give SUSE just enough business to keep it alive.

This doesn't tell the whole story, though. Other sources inside the company tell me that last year SUSE exceeded its sales targets. Last year, as Forrester notes, SUSE brought in $200 million in revenue and expects to ratchet that up to $234 million.  Life is easier for SUSE now that it has jettisoned the need to upsell Novell's (pretty tired) management products. 

Post-Novell, all SUSE needs to worry about is Linux, and SUSE Linux has always had a reputation for serious quality. Now that it has seriously focused itself on the enterprise server market, eschewing erstwhile "sexy" markets like mobile, it's a much more coherent story to tell would-be customers. It remains relatively strong in Europe, as Paulo Frazao highlights, and its role as a hedge against Red Hat puts it in a good position with VMware, in particular, as Ian Waring suggests.

But even as a Red Hat hedge it plays second fiddle to CentOS, of which I was reminded by Kevin Schroeder. No, not with the server vendors, who generally avoid CentOS in an attempt to placate Red Hat. But over the past few years I've seen very large enterprises shift applications, including mission-critical applications, to CentOS as a way to cut costs. And in terms of general interest in the two platforms, well, a chart says a thousand words:

Still, this doesn't help SUSE. While I believe the company is wise to focus on the enterprise market, and not distract itself by chasing mobile or even desktop markets, doing so leaves it to compete against its old nemesis, Red Hat, without any compelling reason for the market to drop its preferred RHEL distribution for the Avis of Linux.  SUSE may well "try harder," but all it seems to have earned for its troubles is a permanent position as a distant, second-place hedge against Red Hat, whose lead continues to grow in the markets about which SUSE cares most. That's a dangerous position for any company.

Lead image courtesy of hotamr