Red Hat CEO’s state of the Linux nation

A half-year after becoming president and CEO of Linux vendor Red Hat, (NYSE: RHT) Jim Whitehurst was in Boston for the company’s annual Red Hat Summit. The former COO of Delta Air Lines discussed open source, a new patent settlement, and Red Hat’s moves in virtualization.

CDN Now: What are your top challenges over the next year or so?

Jim Whitehurst: We’ve got to keep the company focused, a lot of work to do to execute. This was a company that was tiny a few years ago and it’s growing rapidly. Just being a lot more structured with who makes what decisions, how decisions are made and processes and systems. I like to say around the organization that people at Red Hat do amazing things in spite of our systems. It’s certainly not because of them. You have to push down and disperse decision-making and put in place processes and governance. That’s not sexy stuff but this is the time when a lot of companies trip. They get to a certain size and they fall under their own weight because they’re between being small and big. One of the reasons I’m here is to make sure we go through this transition well.

CDN Now: Where are you taking open source and are there any more details you can share about the patent settlement case?

J.W.: We’re the leaders of open source, we do hard things in open source, it’s not just marketing to us. I talked about the patent settlement, the first time there has been a patent settlement consistent with the GPL [open source license]. What was impactful and important about it was we not only protected ourselves and our customers, we protected all upstream and downstream use of the technology. A lot of times, not to pick on anyone in particular, but Novell in the Microsoft settlement didn’t protect all their upstream and downstream users. We’re not just protecting ourselves, we’re protecting everyone who uses that technology. Are patent disputes a common problem for you?It’s always one of the issues, how do you handle patents with open source, because of the necessity in open source to protect up and downstream. It’s a complex set of legal issues. We generally don’t run into it that much because open source is really good at working around patent issues. It doesn’t take up a lot of my time.

CDN Now: The virtualization market is dominated by VMware, but Red Hat expanded its virtualization portfolio with a Linux-based hypervisor. What are your goals in virtualization?

J.W.: Virtualization is half the operating system. Paul (Cormier, Red Hat president of products and technologies) would actually say virtualization is the operating system in a lot of ways. We feel pretty strongly virtualization needs to be pretty tightly integrated with the operating system. VMware’s the dominant player in an industry that’s what, like five or 10 per cent penetrated? And it’s primarily in development and test scenarios, and primarily to reduce server sprawl. We come from a different heritage. Our systems usually aren’t running at 10 per cent. Linux workloads are a lot higher. The value from our perspective is less around server consolidation and more about what new functionality or architectures can be enabled by virtualization.

CDN Now: How’s middleware business and integration of JBoss going?

J.W.: We bought JBoss a couple of years ago. I would say it ramped up slowly. We’ve integrated it. The most fundamental thing we did was we changed the business model. In our basic business model, we take community-developed software and make it consumable by the enterprise by creating fully supported, certified, tested, with the long support life we guarantee. One of the issues with JBoss, it’s ubiquitous in development and test. Everybody loves to use it, but often when it came time to develop something on JBoss it would actually be implemented on something else. Because in production people would say ‘well, it’s not supported.’ In the last six months we went to the enterprise model of JBoss and we’re seeing a lot of uptake. Initially that transition took a while but it is really firing on all cylinders now.

CDN Now: Do you come from an open source background?

J.W.: No. I have an undergraduate degree in computer science and I’ve been using Fedora and before that other variants of Linux for many years. But I was chief operating officer at Delta Air Lines. I was a partner with the Boston Consulting Group, I come from a pretty buttoned-down corporate world.

CDN Now: So, you’re not a typical tech geek?

J.W.: I’m not a tech geek for a career, but if you ask the engineers I’m pretty geeky at home. I’ve got computers all over the place, I always have, all over my house, my wife’s always complaining at me. I’m always doing something bizarre on them, programming as a hobby. So I’m a tech geek. It was more of an avocation until now.

CDN Now: Do you guys use Windows at Red Hat?

J.W.: No. All RHEL [Red Hat Enterprise Linux].

CDN Now: Are there any non-Red Hat technologies you use extensively?

J.W.: We have some proprietary software for things like our financials. But for the most part we do our best to stay open source wherever we can. We run RHEL on the desktop and OpenOffice, we use JBoss. Our licensing costs are very, very low.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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