Jim Whitehurst

Jim Whitehurst

We interview Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst

It Starts and Ends with Community

Article from ADMIN 35/2016
Red Hat is known as the king of Linux. The company was founded as AAC Corporation by Bob Young in 1993, two years after Linux was created.

Red Hat is known as the king of Linux. The company was founded as AAC Corporation by Bob Young in 1993, two years after Linux was created. Red Hat has emerged as the most successful open source company, with revenues of more than US$2 billion per year. During his keynote speech at LinuxCon North America, Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, said that the Red Hat and the Linux community work so closely that it's hard to talk about Red Hat without talking about Linux. He also talked about how Red Hat changed its business model from selling t-shirts and coffee mugs to create what many today call the Red Hat business model. ADMIN news editor Swapnil Bhartiya caught up with Whitehurst to talk about Red Hat, Linux, and the challenges beyond.

ADMIN Magazine: Linux is 25 years old. What do you think Linux has achieved in these 25 years. What has it contributed to our society that is beyond software and code?

Jim Whitehurst: Linux has won. UNIX is slowly retreating, and Linux is driving new innovations, in areas like cloud and containers, that will be at the heart of IT for years to come. Linux is running some of the most mission-critical workloads in the world. It has retained its relevance because it's shown a better way of organizing and coordinating effort around building technology. It's helped spur the creation of hundreds of thousands of open source projects that are driving the innovation happening in technology today. An organization like Google would simply not exist without Linux.

AD: Red Hat was founded in 1993, two years after Linux was announced. What was Red Hat back then? What was the business model? What were you chasing? Fast forward to 2016, what's your business model today? (I want to talk about the evolution of Red Hat in these 23 years.)

JW: Red Hat has gone from a company selling boxed versions of our own curated Linux in stores to an IT vendor providing subscriptions to businesses using our open hybrid cloud technologies. More than 90% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Red Hat technologies, and more than half of the world's equity trades run on top of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. We've come a long way.

Although I wasn't here in those earlier days, I think about our history and believe we were always pushing to find a way to prove open source could work in the enterprise, that there was a way to build a business model around open source technology, and that technology really is better when it is open.

AD: What's most interesting about Red Hat is that you don't have any proprietary products, whereas many "open source" companies provide a mix of both open and proprietary products. How does Red Hat manage to thrive on purely open source software?

JW: The nuance so many miss is that, to truly be a 100% open source company, to really provide open source solutions to partners and customers, you have to be willing to do the work in the open source communities. You have to have patience to build the relationships and credibility you will need in the open source communities where you want to participate. It starts and ends with the community, period.

AD: Microsoft is becoming extremely friendly to Linux. They say they "love" Linux, but it is really more about what the customers need, and the changing market dynamics mean many customers want Linux. How do you feel about this love (isn't it better to have a loving Microsoft than a hostile one)?

JW: I welcome their enthusiasm and excitement around Linux and open source. It's a love driven by customer want for our solutions to work together to enable truly hybrid clouds. Customers want choice and are resistant to lock in, and they want technologies that work across their hybrid footprints. As a result, Microsoft's customers were asking to use Red Hat solutions on Azure, and developers wanted to use .NET in places like Red Hat Enterprise Linux and the OpenShift Container Platform.

AD: What are the areas where Microsoft and Red Hat are working together? Are you treading carefully while feeling the love in the air? Are there any caveats?

JW: No, we're both committed, and our progress is the proof. We've made big strides in less than a year, and many of the key things we talked about when we made the announcement last November are now available:

  • Microsoft is a Red Hat Certified Cloud and Service Provider, meaning our customers can use solutions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Red Hat JBoss Middleware, OpenShift, and Red Hat Gluster Storage , all via Red Hat Cloud Access on Azure.
  • Red Hat CloudForms, our hybrid cloud management platform, can now manage Azure and Hyper-V. .NET Core is available and supported for Red Hat Enterprise Linux and OpenShift.
  • We announced the availability of Red Hat Enterprise Linux images in the Azure Marketplace on an on-demand, "pay-as-you-go" basis, supported by Red Hat, and the availability of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Red Hat Cloud Access for Azure Government.
  • We're already working together to provide co-located, integrated support, an industry first for the public cloud.

Hitting those milestones was important because that's when the potential of a collaboration like this becomes real for customers.

AD: People often criticize open source business models by saying that there is only one Red Hat. But that fact is in every sector there is one top dog. What's your perspective on this criticism of open source business model? Is open source a business model or is it a development model?

JW: It's a fair point and one worth addressing. Red Hat has built a business model around our open source development model. Our business is to develop software that is fully open source, and our business model is to provide a subscription to use that software.

Although Red Hat has been the most financially successful open source company so far, I would love to see more open source companies in the market. We've proven the ability to build a business model around open source, but as I mentioned earlier, it requires a deep understanding and willingness to work with open source communities and be good stewards in those communities.

AD: In the open source world, commercial success and open source are seen as water and oil, but somehow Red Hat has maintained a fine balance between community and company. How did you manage that?

JW: It goes back to what I mentioned earlier with our commitment to the open source communities in which we participate. We're deeply committed to our "upstream first" model, and we've stayed true to our commitment to open sourcing the technology we've acquired. Key in finding this balance between corporate and community is understanding that open source is not a buzzword, or something that is sustainable when done halfway. Open source is a commitment. Half open is still half closed.

AD: What else is Red Hat doing beyond Linux servers and infrastructure software?

JW: I'm very excited about what we're doing around things like OpenStack and containers, especially with the Red Hat OpenShift container platform and our work to solve some of the surrounding challenges with container adoption, from security to container-native persistent storage with Gluster. The Red Hat Developers program is working to help programmers build open source-based applications. We've also made some strategic acquisitions that put us in the mix in some key areas, like IT automation with Ansible, API management with 3scale, and a mobile application platform via FeedHenry.

AD: Is Red Hat Enterprise Linux the core of Red Hat's business?

JW: There's no question, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a powerhouse and an important technology for Red Hat. But Red Hat is not just a Linux company. We provide the full IT infrastructure stack from Linux to middleware, storage, cloud, management, mobile, and virtualization. It's not a bad thing that Red Hat is synonymous with Linux. But it would be more accurate to equate Red Hat with open source. Linux is seemingly everywhere, but so is open source more broadly.

AD: Is open source here to stay? Or is there a chance it will fall out of fashion someday? How real is that threat and what are you, at the helm of Red Hat, doing to make sure it doesn't happen?

JW: I'm optimistic that the closed ways of the past will not survive during this next generation of IT. I speak with too many CIOs who are painstakingly working through their closed, legacy systems so they can free up their teams to focus on providing innovation to their lines of business. The idea of ever wanting to return to closed again seems a bit like a horror movie. The reality is that the IT decisions that are made today will be with an organization for quite some time and well into the future. Open source gives organizations better flexibility than proprietary solutions, and I think there are many organizations who are realizing that.

AD: What new challenges or opportunities are there for Red Hat as we enter a fourth industrial revolution that is all about machine learning and AI?

JW: I think both a challenge and an opportunity are the dramatic shifts in how way we organize and get work done. A company's value will boil down to its ability to innovate. We each have to recognize that and adjust accordingly.

For instance, IT departments can no longer afford to keep developers and operations people on opposite sides of the building. We have to culturally shift how we develop, build, and deploy technology. It's going to take a level of patience and collaboration that may feel foreign and new to many, but this step is critical if companies want to set themselves up to innovate.

I spend time with a lot of CIOs. And most of their questions now center around this culture shift, how to navigate it, and where to get started. They're looking for a roadmap. I wish I could give it to them. The best I can do is share what we've done at Red Hat around organizing and building an open organization and help them see how you can build bridges across your organization. It's going to take time. The first step is everyone needs to agree that these shifts have to happen.

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