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May 31, 2017updated 02 Jun 2017 3:29pm

Red Hat CEO on being an open source zealot

The CEO of Red Hat spoke to CBR about de-risking open source technology and whether proprietary vendors really want to compete against the likes of Google.

By James Nunns

The role that open source plays in businesses around the world is growing. One piece of evidence to back this up is the increasing success of open source companies such as Red Hat or Hortonworks.

Both companies are experiencing good times when it comes to growing their customer bases and increasing revenues.

The acceptance of open source as an integral part of any IT set up has even been embraced by companies that have made a living off proprietary software, or have in the past referred to open source as a cancer.

While this means that IT professionals no longer have to work so hard to get an open source project approved, it does mean that there’s a lot more influence in the open source world coming from those companies that are still predominantly proprietary tech driven.

Anecdotally I am often told by open source companies that this is a good thing, but there is a strange clash of cultures.

Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat CEO.

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, recently spoke to CBR about what kind of impact this has on the customer, the communities, and whether it damages the image of open source.

“It’s a balance, so yeah I think that it can be an issue if it turns out it’s not open, but at the same time it makes it easier for customers to convince their boss or general counsel because even IBM or Dell are doing it, it’s ok, it’s safe,” said Whitehurst.

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“I also think there was a long time in the open source community that there was a sense of open source versus proprietary and I think we are finding out more and more there’s open source components in almost any piece of software now and so the fact that they are betting more open source in I think over time that’s going to beget more open source.”

All in all the CEO thinks that in the short term it’s a good thing, as long as it continues to drive more open source consumption.

While Whitehurst isn’t overly worried about proprietary vendors operating in the open source community, he is worried about open source projects that aren’t truly open source because they don’t have a community around them.

“That’s becoming this whole open source washing, you know, you get some of that where it’s really one or two companies and that’s not really open source. It’s open source software but not participative user driven innovation – that worries me,” said the Red Hat CEO.

Read more: Big, open hypocrites? Open source big data analytics brings out the Beauty and the Beast in tech

Red Hat’s role is one where the company tries not to start open source projects, instead it observes what the best open source projects are and then looks to get involved in those by doing upstream contributions and downstream productisation.

Red Hat also plays a role when it comes to influencing proprietary companies to become more open source oriented.

Whitehurst said: “The pitch that I use with all of them is look if there’s a viable open source project, especially one that has a lot of the web 2.0 contributing, just because they are big wealthy companies, then you are competing with any product of Google that’s not a good business model. So it’s not open source vs proprietary, it’s look at this and recognise – Tensorflow is a by-product of things Google is doing and it’s a great machine learning engine, do you want to compete with that which is free? Or do you want to get on board and see how you can embrace it and then think about building business models around it?”

The CEO said that there are categories where this kind of disruption is an inevitability and that rather than fighting it, companies should embrace it.

Read more: Hortonworks CEO Exclusive: De-risking Hadoop amid a new wave of data

“I’m a zealot for open source but I’m not saying it’s clearly superior in every context but in an infrastructure context where user participation is valuable it’s going to win,” said Whitehurst.

Switching from the vendor side of things to the customer, there’s frequently mentioned at conferences the need for cultural change within organisations.

While technology can be fixed and improvements made relatively easily, changing the culture of a business and the people within it is far from being a simple thing.

Whitehurst said: “In terms of the open source way and culture, that’s so hard, especially for big established organisations that have engrained existing cultures. I don’t think we have to fully wait for a new generation but I do think that seeing enterprises with millennials that are much more open and risk taking, and more willing to be transparent and share is helping.” Red Hat CEO

Whilst Whitehurst says that the CEOs at the largest organisations see the problem and that a more open culture and open source approach is the solution, he admits that getting there is hard.

Although the open source way has plenty of positives associated with it, there are also negatives, as highlighted by Cloudera’s recent IPO filing.

Read more: Cloudera IPO: An argument against open source business?

“I think walking across the street has risk, there’s risk in life and I think, what we go out and sell every day is risk of this versus risk of that,” said the Red Hat CEO.

“The risk of not innovating, the risk of not getting the best talent, the risk of not getting to use the best tech developed by Google and Facebook are pretty big risks too. So relatively I think you can kind of look across those trade-offs, and inherently open source software is proven by academic study to say it is safe, I think we have great data on the reliability of the code itself, it’s more on the business model issues and I’d rather deal with figuring out those business models than being extinct, which in many cases is the alternative.”

Red Hat, along with other successful open source companies, de-risks the technology so that businesses can become leaders and adopt the various technologies without fearing for the safety of their organisation.

Whilst challenges persist and time needs to be spent on changing the culture of organisations, all the signs point to open source becoming the default way of operating for businesses in the future.

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