How does a South African company go from giving away its product for free, to being a profitable business software firm selling to large enterprises around the globe? The tale of Ubuntu is a long and interesting one, involving Linux, space tourism, and now phone hardware. Running for only 30 days, the Ubuntu Edge crowdsourced fundraising campaign on Indiegogo is attempting to make history by raising the US$32 million needed to build a new type of phone and computer from scratch.
The Ubuntu Edge is supposed to be more than just a phone. The device will dual-boot between Android and the Ubuntu mobile OS, and will include support for attaching a monitor, mouse and keyboard. The ultimate goal is to make a phone that can double as a full computer.
In a video posted on the fundraising page, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu (and the world’s second space tourist), compared the Ubuntu Edge to a Formula One racing car. While car companies can use racecars as a test bed for future technologies, he said, there is no such test bed for phone technologies.
Victor Palau, vice president for phone delivery at Ubuntu, said that the Ubuntu Edge isn’t quite an F-1 car. “The comparison I like the best is with a concept car, where you maybe decide to build a very limited number,” he said.
“Companies only make one or two F-1 cars. This is more like a small run—like 4,000—using some materials and components you might not find in more mainstream devices.”
One of the reasons Ubuntu has decided to build a mobile operating system is that phone manufacturers are quickly becoming worried about how many of their customers are controlled by Google, said Palau. Whereas once mobile phone companies could sell their own software and monetize their end users after the device was sold to them, today Android phone users are almost entirely monetized through the Google Play store, leaving carriers and phone makers out in the cold.
The Tizen phone operating system has been emblematic of this desire by HTC, Samsung and other handset makers to build an operating system that they can control. Despite lavish conferences and developer evangelism, the Tizen operating system has yet to ship on a device in the United States, and Samsung has become increasingly powerful in the Tizen world.
“People are backing Tizen, I think, to not be tied to Google,” said Palau. “They want some alternative. In the past, Tizen has been a good alternative.”
But Samsung’s increasing control over that project, coupled with its dominance of the Android handset market, has given Ubuntu a space to work in, he added.
Ubuntu’s independence from hardware manufacturing (Ubuntu Edge aside) will keep it neutral, said Palau, unlike Google, which owns Motorola, a major manufacturer of Android phones.
But Ubuntu isn’t only making headway with its operating system. The Ubuntu Juju service orchestration tool is also making waves in the cloud-based development community.
Mark Baker, server product manager at Ubuntu, said that Juju is actually a step above OpenStack and other Infrastructure-as-a-Service platforms. “Juju is actually a tool that is used to be able to deploy and manage workloads to different types of environments. You can deploy Hadoop or Web infrastructure onto AWS, or onto an OpenStack cloud using Juju, or onto bare metal,” he said.
“It’s referred to as a service orchestration tool. It’s tightly integrated with OpenStack. OpenStack is one of a number of components for storage, networking and compute, that when combined together create a piece of very useful infrastructure. You can then run virtual machines or cloud guest instances, and the two things work in harmony, but they’re not dependent upon each other.”
That means Juju is more about standing up and managing an entire string of servers, rather than about configuring and running a single application across a dozen servers. The Juju system does this through what are called Charms.
Charms are user-defined descriptions of an entire service. For something like WordPress, that definition would include a description of, say, an Apache Web server, a MySQL database, and some networking information for firewalls and proxies.
“Service orchestration takes the view that it’s the service that matters,” said Baker. “A Tomcat service, for example, is comprised of a number of units. Juju defines what that service is. The Charm defines how that service gets deployed, what the configuration of that is, and the interfaces or hooks that are exposed to be able to connect that to other things. Those are all defined in the Charm.
“What that means is, when you deploy Tomcat into your environment, you will say, ‘Juju, deploy Tomcat.’ Then you could say, ‘Juju, expose Tomcat,’ which will expose it to a Web server. Then you could say, ‘Juju, add relation to MySQL.’ ”
The end result is a deployment tool that takes a step back from the standard way of doing things, and embraces a more holistic approach to cloud computing. “Juju can integrate with Puppet and Chef, but we need to better tell that story,” said Baker. For now, the focus for the Juju team is to spread the gospel of service orchestration, and to encourage the user community to produce more Charms.
To that end, there is a US$10,000 Charm competition going on. That reward is paltry compared to the sum still needed by the Ubuntu Indiegogo fundraiser. As of this writing, the Ubuntu Edge project has effectively raised $1 million per day. While that’s a great deal of money, unless that rate picks up, the project could fall short of its $32 million goal, due Aug. 15.