The conventional wisdom about Linux is that it isn’t owned or created by any one company, but instead a whole group of players that give and take as needed. That said, there are several major companies that are readily identifiable as the biggest corporate sponsors of Linux, who market Linux most directly to enterprises, and who are in many people’s minds synonymous with Linux in both the server and desktop markets.
(Note that this overview doesn’t attempt to be an exhaustive list of creators of Linux distributions, which could easily run to dozens of entries.)
In the entire time that Linux has been in the public consciousness, Red Hat has been the embodiment of Linux for a professional environment. Created as a joint venture between Red Hat Linux creator Marc Ewing and businessman Bob Young, the company went public in 1999, and its Red Hat Enterprise Linux product continues to be the most visible and widely-recognized version of Linux used in business infrastructures. Along the way Red Hat has added a number of Linux-related products and businesses to its stable: the JBoss app suite, for instance, and the Mobicents VoIP system.
Red Hat’s main innovation has been to provide subscription-based customer support, services and training -- their main sources of revenue -- along with a version of Linux that serves as one of the most consistently targetable versions of the OS for third-party software developers. Any software vendor, whether they’re developing proprietary or open source software, can hardly go wrong by targeting Red Hat as a platform -- although they need to keep in mind the primary venue for Red Hat is servers and infrastructure, not desktops (for instance, Oracle’s database products, which are delivered in binary-compatible editions for Red Hat Enterprise Linux). Among Red Hat’s other innovations for Linux are the RPM package format, which has since been adopted by the Linux Standard Base: any Linux distribution that adheres to the LSB must support installing software from RPMs in some form.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux has spawned two major spinoffs, one direct and the other indirect. The direct spinoff is Fedora, a more general-purpose edition of Red Hat designed around software that is as free and open as possible. Patent-restricted software, e.g. codecs, are not included, and changes are submitted upstream whenever possible rather than simply being slipped directly into Fedora.
The indirect spinoff is CentOS, a project that takes the entire source code base of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and redistributes it in both source and binary form as its own separately-branded distribution. Some companies with internal Linux development teams have opted to go directly for CentOS and roll their own support rather than pay Red Hat for it, but this apparently hasn’t affected Red Hat’s success generally as a provider of professional Linux services.
Canonical’s flagship product has long been Ubuntu Linux, branded as “Linux for human beings”. Its original focus was (and largely remains) offering a version of Linux that appeals to the end user, with the explicitly-stated goal of unseating Microsoft Windows as the dominant desktop platform. Canonical clearly hasn’t reached anything like that goal, but they have established Ubuntu as being a Linux brand name at least as influential as, and perhaps even more recognizable than, Red Hat’s.
Founded, funded and overseen by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth (founder of encryption-certificate company Thawte, later sold to VeriSign), Canonical’s revenue comes from services and support. Unlike Red Hat, however, they are a privately-held company; by Shuttleworth’s own admission as of 2009 they are not yet profitable, but he has claimed they will become profitable as demand for services related to free software continues to rise.
Ubuntu is itself derived from Debian, but has been heavily reworked by Canonical to be as easy as possible to install and maintain.
Ubuntu has itself inspired a whole slew of spin-off editions. Several of them are produced directly by Canonical, such as the lightweight Xubuntu (for low-resource PCs) or the virtual-appliance edition JeOS. Canonical has also retooled Ubuntu into a server edition, which has been adopted by a number of high-profile clients (e.g., Wikipedia) and touts among its features the ability to easily create cloud-computing systems out of commodity hardware or interface with existing clouds, such as Amazon EC2.
After Novell lost most of its marketshare for NetWare and GroupWise to Microsoft, the company turned to Linux and open source as a path for future growth. The end result was the company’s acquisition of SuSE and the creation of three major Linux-based product lines: openSUSE, Novell Linux Desktop, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES). Each product has its own emphasis: openSUSE is akin to Red Hat’s Fedora project; Novell Linux Desktop is aimed at managed corporate desktops as well as end users; and SLES has both modern Linux technology as well as support for Novell’s legacy NetWare infrastructures.
Much of how openSUSE is built reflects the principles also honored in Fedora: the emphasis is on using software unrestricted by patents or other IP issues; being transparent and accessible in the development process; and contributing changes back upstream. SLES is released less frequently than openSUSE—once every 24 to 36 months or so, compared to openSUSE’s eight months. This is so time can be taken to test and certify the changes made, and ensure that the resulting edition of SLES can be deployed in a production environment without regret.
One of Novell’s major Linux innovations has been SUSE Studio, an online tool that
allows users to build their own Linux distribution through a
wizard-like web interface. The end results can be packaged for
distribution as an .ISO or virtual disk image, and can even be booted
and run in SUSE Studio’s virtualization system (albeit with a time
limit for each session).
No discussion of Linux vendors is complete without at least some mention of Debian, creators of what could be called one of Linux’s ur-distributions. Debian isn’t a corporation, but a nexus of developers woven together under the umbrella of a non-profit organization. To that end they don’t provide paid support for Debian in the same way that, say, Red Hat provides paid support for their product; instead, Debian engineers it and maintains bugfixes on it at their own pace.
The Debian distro’s breadth of packages (managed through Debian’s APT system, which also supports Red Hat RPMs) and support for multiple architectures makes it a common base for other distributions; they can whittle down and customize the core Debian install to their liking. Debian has formed the basis for Ubuntu, among many others, and like Fedora is built along strict guidelines as to what constitutes free vs. non-free software.
While IBM doesn’t have a formal Linux distribution of its own, it’s a Red Hat partner and has contributed enormously to the Linux kernel, as well as written Linux solutions for its System Z mainframe.
created its own “Unbreakable Linux” support program and Enterprise
Linux (derived from Red Hat) as a robust environment in which to run
their own database software, among other things.
Google’s contributions have been most visible recently in the form of Android (their Linux-based OS for mobile devices) and Chrome OS (a stripped-down Linux system that runs Google’s own Chrome browser), both of which have been the source of various kernel-level contributions. And Intel, AMD and SGI have all made contributions of their own, with a fair chunk of Intel’s work revolving around their graphics drivers and the creation of Moblin (now MeeGo), a netbook-oriented OS.