supply chain

Supply Chain Case Study: Canonical and Ubuntu


I love talking about supply chain management in an open source software context, especially as it applies to managing collaborative processes between upstream projects and their downstream products. In the article linked above, I called out a couple of examples of supply chain management: an enterprise OpenStack distribution and a container management product utilizing Kubernetes and Docker for upstream platforms.

What about anti-patterns or things to avoid? There are several we could call out. At the risk of picking on someone I like, I’ll choose Canonical simply because they’ve been in the headlines recently for changes they’ve made to their organization, cutting back on some efforts and laying off some people. As I look at Canonical from a product offering perspective, there’s a lot they got right, which others could benefit from. But they also made many mistakes, some of which could have been avoided. First, the good.

What Canonical Got Right About Supply Chains

When the Ubuntu distribution first started in 2004, it made an immediate impact; the kind of impact that would frankly be impossible today for a Linux distribution. Remember what was happening at the time: many, many Red Hat Linux distribution users were feeling left out in the cold by Red Hat’s then groundbreaking decision to fork their efforts into a community stream and a product stream. One of the prevailing opinions at the time was that Fedora would be treated like the red-headed stepchild and starved for resources. Unfortunately, Red Hat played into that fear by… initially treating Fedora like the red-headed stepchild and almost willfully sabotaging their own community efforts. (for a good run-down of the 2004 zeitgeist and some LOL-level hilarity, see this page on LWN).

Ubuntu never had that problem. From the very outset, there was never any doubt that Mark Shuttleworth and crew meant what they said when they set out to deliver an easy-to-use, free distribution. Lots of people tried to do that, but Ubuntu went about it more intelligently and made a lot more progress than its predecessors. Where did they succeed where others failed?

  1. They chose a great upstream platform. Instead of building something from scratch (which would have taken forever) or using the abandoned Red Hat Linux or even Mandrake, which were both going through awkward transitional phases (one to Fedora and the other out of the Red Hat orbit), they built Ubuntu on a rock-solid, dependable, community-maintained Linux distribution: Debian. openSUSE was not yet a thing, and building on SuSE Linux would have tied Ubuntu to the fortunes of SuSE and Novell, which would have been a bad idea. Slackware was long in the tooth, even then. Debian had its own challenges, not the least of which was a clash of cultures between free culture diehards and a group of people starting a for-profit entity around Debian, but it worked for Ubuntu’s purposes. It was also a challenge to install, which provided a great opportunity for an upstart like Ubuntu.
  2. Their supply chain was highly efficient, which is directly related to the above. Contrast this to what I’ll say below, but in the case of the base platform they started from, the software supply chain that made up Ubuntu was reliable and something its developers and users could depend on.
  3. They invested in the user experience and community. Ubuntu classified itself, at least back then, as “Linux for humans”, which spoke to the fact that, up until then, using Linux was an  esoteric and mistake-prone set of tasks. It was the sort of thing you did in your spare time if you were a CS or EE major looking to construct a new toy. Ubuntu changed all that. They made Linux much easier than any previous desktop Linux initiative. From a supply chain perspective, they did this great UX work as participants in the greater Gnome community. I realize some Gnome folks may blanch at that statement, but by and large, Ubuntu was very much depicted as Gnome people, and they were making contributions to the greater effort.
  4. They scaled globally, from the beginning. It was awe-inspiring to see all the local communities (LoCos, in Ubuntu parlance) spring up around the world dedicated to evangelizing Ubuntu and supporting its users. This happened organically, with Canonical providing support in the form of tooling, broad messaging, and in some cases, on the ground resources. Ubuntu also employed a formidable community team helmed by Jono Bacon, who accelerated Ubuntu’s growth (I once chided Jono on a community managers panel at OSCON about how easy he had it as the Ubuntu community lead. I still chuckle over that). One cannot emphasize enough that when this massive global community kicks into gear, the effect on upstream supply chains is tremendous. A hefty number of these global users and developers also became participants in many of the upstream communities that fed into Ubuntu. It’s one of the great examples of increased participation yielding positive results for everyone in the ecosystem, including Canonical.
  5. They were early adopters of “cloud native” workloads. As Simon Wardley will never let us forget, Canonical bought into cloud-based workloads before any other Linux vendor. It was their work in 2008-2009 that really cemented Ubuntu’s status as *the* primary and default platform for all new cloud and server-based technologies, which continues to this day. Even now, if a new project wants to get early adoption, they release .DEBs on Ubuntu and make sure it builds properly for those Ubuntu users and developers who download the source code. It gives Ubuntu and Canonical an incredible advantage. Again, from a supply chain perspective, this was gold. It meant that the upstream supply chain for cloud native tools was heavily Ubuntu-centric, wrapping it all together with a nice bow.

Where it Went Pear-shaped

In writing about everything they got right, I am of course using the rhetorical device of setting up the reader for a barrage of things they got wrong. This is that section. For all of their incredible acumen at scaling out a global community around a Linux distribution, they failed to learn from their supply chain success, and instead started down the path of NIH syndrome. You’ll see lots of critiques elsewhere pertaining to other challenges at Canonical, but I’ll focus on their supply chain strategy, and how it failed them.

  1. Launchpad. The first sign that Canonical were moving away from their established supply chain methodology was when they first released Launchpad, a web-based service for developers to create, share, and collaborate on software projects. It also featured an auto-build service and an easy way to release and manage unofficial builds of bleeding edge software: the “Personal Package Archive” or PPA. The service was great for its time and highly ambitious. And when Canonical announced they were open-sourcing it, even better. But there were problems: maintaining a code base for a service as complex as Launchpad is really difficult. Even with an entire company devoted to such a concept, there are still major challenges. There were a couple of ways to deal with that complexity: upstream as much as possible to defray the cost of maintaining the code and/or create a long-term revenue model around launchpad to sustain its development. Canonical did neither. In fact, it was the worst of both worlds: they neither upstreamed the project nor created a revenue model to sustain development. In other words, Launchpad became a proverbial albatross around the neck, both in terms of technical debt to be maintained solely by the Launchpad team and in the lack of funding for future development. It was the first sign that Canonical was on the wrong track from a business strategy viewpoint. The polished user experience that Ubuntu users came to expect from their software was missing from Launchpad, giving GitHub the opportunity to build something larger.
  2. Juju. It might be premature to write off Juju entirely, but it hasn’t become the force Canonical and Ubuntu intended it to be. Written at a time when Puppet and Chef were the young upstarts, and Ansible was but a gleam in Cobbler’s eye, Juju was Canonical’s answer to the problem of configuration management in the age of cloud. It might have had a better chance if Canonical had decided to be a bit looser with its user base. Puppet and Chef, for example, were always available on a variety of platforms, whereas Juju was specifically tied to Ubuntu. And while Ubuntu became the de facto standard for building cloud tools, the enterprise was still dominated by Windows, Unix, and RHEL. Developers may have built many tools using Ubuntu, but they deployed in production on other platforms, where Juju was not to be found. If you were an enterprising young devops professional, going with a Juju-only approach meant cutting off your air supply. Because it was Ubuntu-only, and because it was never a core part of the Debian upstream community, the impact made by Juju was limited. Canonical was unable to build a collaborative model with other developer communities, which would have improved the supply chain efficiency, and they weren’t able to use it to add value to a revenue-generating product, because their capacity for generating server revenue was limited. It’s another case of great software hobbled by a poor business strategy.
  3. Unity. If Launchpad and Juju gave observers an inkling that Canonical was going off the rails, the launch of Unity confirmed it. From the beginning, Canonical was always a participant in the Gnome desktop community. This made sense, because Ubuntu had always featured a desktop environment based on Gnome. At some point, Canonical decided they could go faster and farther if they ditched this whole Gnome community thing and went their own way. As with Launchpad and Juju, this makes sense if you’re able to generate enough revenue to sustain development over time with a valid business model. I personally liked Unity, but the decision to go with it over stock Gnome 3 drove an even larger wedge between Ubuntu and the rest of the Linux desktop ecosystem. Once again, Ubuntu packagers and developers were caught in a bubble without the support of an upstream community to stabilize the supply chain. This meant that, once again, Canonical developers were the sole developers and maintainers of the software, further straining an already stretched resource.
  4. Mir. I don’t actually know the origins of Mir. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. What you need to know is this: the open source technology world participated in the Wayland project, whose goal was to build a modern successor to the venerable windows server, and Canonical decided to build Mir, instead. The end. Now, Mir and Unity are, for all intents and purposes, mothballed, and Wayland is the clear winner on the desktop front. Supply chains: learn them, live them, love them – or else.
  5. Ubuntu mobile / Ubuntu phone. The mobile space is extremely difficult because the base hardware platforms are always proprietary, as mandated by the large carriers who set the rules for the entire ecosystem. It’s even more difficult to navigate when you’re launching a product that’s not in your area of expertise, and you try to go to market without a strong ecosystem of partners. The iPhone had AT&T in its corner. The Ubuntu phone had… I’m not even sure.  Ubuntu phone and the mobile OS that ran on it were DOA, and they should have understood that much sooner than they did.
  6. Ubuntu platform itself. I know, I spent the first half of this article talking up the great success of Ubuntu, but there is one place where it never excelled: it never became a large enough revenue generator to sustain the many other projects under development. There was also never a coherent strategy, product-wise, around what Ubuntu should grow up to become. Was it a cloud platform? Mobile platform? Enterprise server? Developer workstation? And there was never an over-arching strategy with respect to the complementary projects built on top of Ubuntu. There was never a collective set of tools designed to create the world’s greatest cloud platform. Or enterprise server. Or any of the other choices. Canonical tried to make Ubuntu the pathway to any number of destinations, but without the product discipline to “just say no” at the appropriate time.

I get no joy from listing the failings of Canonical. I remain a great fan of what they accomplished on the community front, which as far as I can tell, is without parallel. Not many companies can claim with any credibility that they fostered a massive, global community of users and developers that numbered in the millions and covered every country and continent on the planet, driven by organic growth and pursued with a religious zeal. That is no small feat and should be celebrated. My hope is that this is what Ubuntu, Canonical, and yes, Mark Shuttleworth, are known for, and not for any business shortcomings.

I’m not suggesting that a company cannot be successful without building out an upstream supply chain – there are far too many counter-examples to claim that. What I am suggesting is that if you have limited resources, and you choose to build out so many products, you’re going to need the leverage that comes from massive global participation. If Canonical had chosen to focus on one of the above initiatives, you could argue that supply chain would not have been as important. I will note, for the record, that none of the challenges listed above are related to the fact that they were open source. Rather, to sustain their development, they needed much broader adoption. In order to sustain that model, they would have had to create a successful product with a high growth in revenue, which never came. The lesson: if you want more control over your software products, you need an accompanying product strategy that supports it. If I were at Canonical, I would have pushed for a much more aggressive upstream strategy to get more benefits from broader open source participation.

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