Linux profitability: How successful are the companies behind the biggest distros?

Although profitability does not necessarily equal success, it's still interesting to check in and see how much money Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE are bringing in.

It’s hard to put a number on success. How much money does a technology company need to make in order to be considered successful?

On the Linux side of things there are (for many) three "big dogs" that we tend to think of: Canonical (Ubuntu), Red Hat (Fedora) and SUSE LLC (SUSE). Let’s take a look at how each of these companies are doing financially.

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Let’s start with SUSE - now a wholly owned subsidiary of Attachmate. In the summer 2012, at "SUSEcon 2012," SUSE itself was announced to be profitable, with revenues above $200 million (USD), with expectations of continued revenue growth into 2013.

The phrase "not too shabby" would be an understatement. Then again, SUSE offers some pretty interesting services and products, including SUSE Linux Enterprise (in both Server and Desktop versions), server management tools, enterprise level support deals and SuseStudio.

Then we look at Red Hat, who just this last December reported a profit of $38.2 million, with a revenue of $322 million for the quarter. Like SUSE, their success is not terribly surprising. Red Hat Enterprise server alone (and its various support deals and tools) is a huge business with a large user base.

Which brings us to Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu.

This is where things get a bit hazy, as Canonical is a privately held company and hasn’t released a great deal of financial information. But what we do know is this: Back in 2009, Mark Shuttleworth (founder of Canonical) stated that it was "creeping" towards its break-even point in revenue (roughly $30 million).

Then, during the announcement for Canonical’s latest project (Ubuntu for Tablets), Shuttleworth stated that the company was not yet profitable. And that’s just about the most detailed information we’ve gotten so far.

My immediate inclination is to compare revenue and profit numbers with the installed user base of each corresponding Linux Distro. I wanted to see if big numbers of users helped spur big numbers in the company bank account. Unfortunately, this is just about impossible to do.

Canonical estimates that there are roughly 20 million Ubuntu users worldwide. But, for SUSE and Red Hat, things are a bit more complicated, as there are multiple flavors to consider (Red Hat Enterprise, Fedora, openSUSE, Suse Linux Enterprise). In 2010, openSUSE installations were estimated at over 2 million. Fedora (the Open Source, community distro that Red Hat Enterprise is based on) reports roughly 3.5 million unique IPs connecting to their software repository for the most recent version.

So what does that all mean? Really...not much more than the fact that a larger install base does not necessarily mean higher revenues.

But it does show something truly vital: that three of the firms behind the most popular editions of Linux are either quite profitable, or very close to it.

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