A prediction in 2009 that Ubuntu usage was going to grow in the face of Red Hat’s Linux operating system dominance could easily have been laughed off. Yet, that’s exactly what Ubuntu has been able to pull off, thanks in part to developers and growing adoption of cloud computing.

Developers, ahead of the Ubuntu usage curve
Like many, I was quite surprised by results from the 2009 Eclipse User Survey which found strong adoption of Ubuntu on developer desktops and production servers alike.

Survey respondents selected Ubuntu on their developer desktops over 3 times as much as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Fedora combined. While surprising, this result could be explained away by the fact that Ubuntu is free and positioned as a user friendly desktop alternative to Windows. On the other hand, RHEL is a for fee product targeted primarily at deployment servers, not desktops.

However, this reasoning failed to explain the strong usage of Ubuntu on deployment servers.

According to 2009 Eclipse survey results, Ubuntu just barely trailed Red Hat on deployment servers with 12 percent versus Red Hat’s 13.1 percent usage on deployment servers.

According to the 2010 Eclipse survey, Ubuntu usage on the developer desktop had increased to 18.3 percent, from 14.5 percent in 2009. Additionally, Ubuntu usage on deployment servers at 12.6 percent usage narrowly beat out Red Hat’s 12.5 percent usage.

In another data point, RedMonk analyst Stephen O’Grady analyzed data from Hacker News consisting of 1.7 million entries. O’Grady explains:

This dataset is interesting not because it is representative of developers as a whole, but rather because it’s a community of technologists who are collectively ahead of the curve.

O’Grady found nearly 10,000 mentions of Ubuntu versus fewer than 2,500 mentions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Fedora combined.

As with many recent trends in the IT industry, developers become ambassadors for products they enjoy using and have quickly become an early indicator for enterprise technology usage in the future.

Another key data point that is working in Ubuntu’s favor is cloud computing. And more specifically, the usage of Amazon’s EC2 cloud. O’Grady’s analysis shows over 25,000 mentions of Amazon/AWS (Amazon Web Services). The next closest cloud provider mentioned in the Hacker News data set is Google with it’s App Engine receiving approximately 3,000 mentions.

Canonical bets on cloud early, leaves Red Hat behind
Canonical’s early focus on cloud computing along with its partnerships with open source cloud vendors such as Eucalyptus helped to establish Ubuntu as the de facto Linux distribution for cloud deployments.

Data from The Cloud Market, which tracks Amazon EC2 cloud statistics, highlights the lead that Ubuntu has over other operating systems on EC2.

Take note of Red Hat’s position on the chart, the lowest line at the bottom. Even when Red Hat usage is combined with Fedora, the result still pales in comparison to Ubuntu usage, the highest line in the chart.

Red Hat is well aware of their position in the cloud computing arena and spent much of 2010 making cloud-related announcements in an attempt to close the gap. Judging by the statistics above, Red Hat’s announcements haven’t translated into significant cloud usage as yet. Interestingly enough, even Windows usage, the green line, has far outgrown RHEL/Fedora usage on EC2.

Ubuntu in 2011
In a seemingly perfect storm, Ubuntu is benefiting from strong developer usage, and the fact that developers are increasingly selecting Amazon’s EC2 cloud platform bodes well for continued Ubuntu success on EC2. As that occurs, IT decision makers will need to consider or reconsider Ubuntu for usage within the enterprise.

Rest assured that Red Hat won’t sit idly by during these discussions.

Watching Canonical/Ubuntu and Red Hat engage to win cloud workloads will be interesting to track in 2011. Can the upstart keep up its growth trajectory? Or will the gorilla be able to convert its enterprise market share into cloud workload share?

Follow me on Twitter at SavioRodrigues. I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.”