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September 2, 2016updated 21 Sep 2016 2:52pm

Red Hat CEO: Avoiding bloody noses, hammering home open source participation, and why Microsoft is trying to stay relevant

CEO briefing: Jim Whitehurst, CEO, Red Hat talks to CBR about how allowing open source contributions could help your business hire the best tech talent.

By James Nunns

The fast changing world of technology has placed added pressure on businesses to go through digital transformations, to adopt new technologies and discard the old in order to continue to exist – but this isn’t enough.

In addition to changing technologies there is a growing call from tech vendors to businesses demanding a change of culture, without which businesses will remain playing a constant game of catch up and never truly lead.

Never more so has this message been more apparent than at the recent Red Hat Summit in San Francisco, during which, Jim Whitehurst CEO, Red Hat called for businesses to stop just using open source technologies, but to participate by giving back.

Whitehurst told CBR: “As we march forward in open source I think it is really important to hammer home that it is not about consuming cool stuff that other people did, it’s about truly getting involved.”

The question is whether vendors are asking too much of businesses, should it not be enough for them to simply adopt the latest and greatest technology that helps them do their jobs better.

Whitehurst doesn’t think so, believing it to be hard in one sense but easy in another. “The biggest trouble I get is with CIOs saying my compliance or legal department won’t let me contribute,” said Whitehurst.

So it is not that businesses don’t want to contribute, but sometimes their hands are tied. One of the reasons why there is an increased desire to allow developers to contribute is so that the best talent can be hired.

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Whitehurst said that often CIOs say that they cannot hire the best talent unless they are allowed to contribute to open source projects.

“If I can’t contribute I can’t get the best people, so it’s not hard at all to get developers to want to contribute,” said Whitehurst.

While potentially opening themselves up to the brightest talent might be quite an enticing proposition for some businesses, a much more exciting prospect is to gain competitive advantage.

System integrators for example are contributing more to open source projects as it means that they then know exactly how something works and they can gain an advantage over competitors.

“We have one investment bank that literally has kernel engineers that work with us on Fedora because doing that they know that when a version Red Hat Enterprise Linux (based on Fedora) comes out, they’ve already written their trading platform.

“So when we introduce a new version of RHEL they are dropping that platform on and they know they have an advantage for a while because they have been involved upstream for so long and pushed things they specifically need into the kernel,” he said.

So for businesses and vendors alike there are clear advantages, but not all businesses are as open source oriented as Red Hat and some concerns should remain that proprietary vendors use the tag of open source as a badge to lure customers into their locked down software.

Whitehurst agrees that for years vendors have been in the business of building and selling intellectual property and that there is not necessarily anything wrong with that, but there has also been a much more concerted efforts from tech vendors to embrace open source, at least to some extent.

Whitehurst said: “I think they are basically saying we are taking interesting open source components and will leverage that to make their own product better, that’s fine as a model, we just think there is a better model to be totally open source and to me it would be a hard message to say it’s really great here but not here.”

The eagerness to have that open source badge has led to some problems in early versions of technologies, such as OpenStack where early versions were released because vendors wanted to have a version on the market.

The problem with this is “because the code was open people were releasing product, that if they had full control over it, they would recognise is early alpha release stuff that you don’t really want to put into production,” Whitehurst said.

“A lot of people stubbed their toe on that.”

This is a problem that Whitehurst says will happen again whether it is with Open Daylight, an open source project aimed at accelerating the adoption of software defined networking, or some other project.

“I do think we need to figure out how to work our way through that or we will have a lot of bloody noses on some of the early versions of this technology,” he said.

When Microsoft announced that its database software would be available for the Linux platform from mid-2017, it felt like something of a validation of open source, or at least of Linux and that it is becoming too big to ignore.

Whitehurst believes that virtually all of the newer innovations in technology are happening on Linux first.

“If you look at Hadoop – Linux only, Microsoft paid Hortonworks to port it to Windows but I don’t know anybody who actually runs it on Windows, if you look at everything happening round SDN or containers, they are Linux containers,” said Whitehurst.

Microsoft’s plays were described as a company that is effectively playing catch-up, chasing the pack and trying to re-ignite the domination of the 90s that came about because the Microsoft Developer Network started building on Windows, said the CEO.

Whitehurst said: “I think they are recognising that all the developers, all the cool kids, are developing on Linux now, so there is a nexus of innovation happening there and they are trying to figure out how to work in that new system.”

Microsoft has made a play to try and stay relevant with developers that are increasingly comfortable with open source tooling and Linux as the operating system.

Whether it is staying relevant or making your business more attractive to the best and brightest tech minds, Red Hat is asking users to adopt the mindset and not just the technology with the hope of making open source the default method of development in the future.


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