Red Hat – the open source conglomerate

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As successful companies grow, they accumulate products; new ones are developed and additional ones are acquired. Managing diverse portfolios is a challenge, not least when it comes to putting it all together on a single presentation slide to make it appear there is an overall coherent product strategy.

For IT vendors the problem is particularly acute, a conglomerate like Unilever will not be expected to show how its washing powders are integrated with its ice creams, but Microsoft will be expected to show how its latest public cloud platform is back compatible with use of its on-premise email servers. On the corporate slide deck, the connection may be bold connection or, in some cases, a more tentative dotted line.

Red Hat, the world’s largest supplier of commercial open source software is no exception. It has a dazzling range of products to match any of its proprietary competitors. However, for Red Hat there is a subtle difference, it aims to mirror the open source movement which is user- rather than vendor-driven. In other words, in the open source world if developers or operators want to do something, and it does not exist, they will just build and share it. If the result of such efforts become widely used, then Red Hat may add the resulting product to its portfolio to keep up with the its users.

Quocirca last wrote a review of Red Hat in 2014 (Up the revolution! The rise of Red Hat). Back then the vendor’s annual revenue stood at about $1.5B; it has now exceeded $2 billion. Not bad for a company that has modelled its business around selling something that is ostensibly free!

The Red Hat slide decks attempting to paint the whole picture are complex. First the open source story is told on a single slide; a glob of white bubbles representing 1 million plus open source projects with some spokes coming off naming some of the better known ones; OpenStack, Kubernetes, Docker, Apache and Puppet to name a few.

Then there is a Red Hat version of the same slide. The blobs gain some colour and re-assuring Red Hat prefixes, like a Kitemark for open source. Moving from the first slide the second represents Red Hat’s business model, going from the seeming chaos of the open source movement to an organised set of commercial distributions with stable release levels and support, that businesses can rely on and will pay for; Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), The Red Hat OpenStack Platform, Red Hat JBoss Middleware, Red Hat OpenShift, Red Hat Virtualisation, Red Hat Storage and so on.

However, it is still a complex story. So, Red Hat goes on to simplify the whole thing; rationalising its whole product range into four product categories for what it terms “open hybrid computing”: physical, virtual, private cloud and public cloud. The charge in each of these areas is led by RHEL, Red Hat Virtualisation, The Red Hat OpenStack Platform and OpenShift respectively. All other products can be positioned in relation to this. Making a complicated story easier to tell.

Simplification is especially required when it comes to one area Red Hat was keen to talk about at its recent analyst event at the Tate Modern in London – management tools. Currently it has four: Cloudforms for hybrid cloud management, Ansible for software deployment, Insights for infrastructure monitoring and Satellite for lifecycle management. There is overlap between these and, as with any software conglomerate, the mix has arisen as the products have arrived in the Red Hat camp via different routes and at different times.

Satellite is the oldest dating back to 2008, developed by Red Hat with an open source version called Spacewalk. CloudForms was initially developed in-house and first released in 2011 alongside Red Hat’s public cloud platform, OpenShift, the original codebase was largely replaced with that from the 2012 acquisition of ManageIQ but the old name was retained. Red Hat added a commercial version of the Ansible automation tools to it portfolio in Oct 2015 when it acquired a start-up, also called Ansible. These first three are all installable on-premise, whereas Insights is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering introduced in June 2015.

There are integration issues that would be familiar to any commercial software vendor, for example Satellite does not currently support Ansible. Red Hat says it will be providing more integration between the products over time; perhaps, helped by Red Hat’s latest acquisition the 3scale API (application programming interface) management platform in June 2016.

In many ways dealing with a software giant like Red Hat is no different to any other. A complex portfolio of products with on-going integration issues. However, there is one big difference, if there is missing feature or something you do not like, your own modifications can be made to the underlying open source code. The only trouble with that is, such contributions will not be supported by Red Hat, unless of course the open source community accepts them and they are added to the project. Red Hat will then ensure its commercial version eventually catches-up at.

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