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Canonical makes Ubuntu Pro free for up to five machines

Kernel live-patching and a full decade of software updates

Canonical has opened up its previously paid-for Ubuntu Pro update service. Now it's free of charge for up to five physical boxes.

The announcement only applies to Long Term Support releases. All you need is a free Ubuntu One account to sign in and obtain a token.

If you connect your machines to Ubuntu Pro, they get Extended Security Maintenance coverage, meaning that the normal five years of software updates is extended to 10 years. The free offer also includes the company's Livepatch service, which can install critical kernel updates without rebooting the machine. This is potentially very useful for busy servers, for which scheduling a maintenance window and downtime can be tricky, but it's less important for desktop machines.

For servers, as long as the physical host system is running Ubuntu, all Ubuntu virtual machines on that server are also covered. Machines can be attached to Ubuntu Pro from the command line with pro attach or in the GUI via Ubuntu's Software & Updates app, under the Livepatch tab.

As we have previously reported, Ubuntu Pro also extends to both Google Cloud and AWS.

The move is reminiscent of Red Hat offering its paid-for enterprise Linux distro, RHEL, free of charge for up to 16 systems. For Canonical and Red Hat, as well as for the largest independent Linux vendor SUSE, their main revenue streams are from paid service and support. The principle difference between the SUSE and Red Hat business models and Canonical's is that the Ubuntu distro is free of charge… although, controversially, a decade back the company used to solicit donations on its download page and show Amazon results in its search tool.

Canonical sells support under a multi-tiered scheme it calls Ubuntu Advantage, which is complex enough that the company offers an entire page of infographics to explain it. Its entry-level service offering is Ubuntu Pro, which itself has multiple levels, with separate pricing for server and desktop support.

The most basic level of support mainly covers system updates. Ubuntu's biennial LTS releases get five years of updates as standard, and approximately a year ago, the company extended this to 10 years for the 14.04 and 16.04 releases.

Canonical has been talking about going public for five years, but for now it's still privately held. The key difference between Canonical and the two largest enterprise Linux vendors, SUSE and Red Hat, is that Canonical's main distro is free; SUSE and Red Hat both sponsor free distributions, openSUSE and Fedora respectively, but these come with only community support.

Fedora releases receive updates until four weeks after the latest version is out. As new Fedora versions are approximately semiannual, that means 13 months of updates. The slow-moving Leap version of openSUSE puts out point releases roughly annually, which are supported until six months after the following version.

So if you were running an Ubuntu LTS release, you were already considerably better off than with either rival's free products. More recently, the Debian project also started offering long-term support.

As is lamentably normal for press releases and marketing information, technical details about how it works and precisely what it covers are scant. Call us cynical if you will, but we suspect that the good people of the marketing department don't know what a "repository" is. As far as we can tell, this not only covers software from the Ubuntu's main repository but also the universe repo, which means it should, theoretically, cover more or less all the packages in the distribution other than from the encumbered restricted and multiverse repos.

If so, this is a giant undertaking. By comparison, the repos for SLE and RHEL are relatively tiny. Notably, for instance, although SUSE was a prominent backer of KDE until Novell forcibly married it to GNOME pushers Ximian, SLE no longer includes KDE at all – you have to add an unsupported community repo to install the German-created desktop on the German-created distro.

It could well be that Canonical has some telemetry about what its paying customers are running, and knows that very few are running tools from universe, and therefore feels able to cover this substantial maintenance workload. At a very rough estimate, there are some 60,000 packages in the main and universe repos, which is in the ballpark of 20 times more than in RHEL or SLE. ®

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