How Red Hat can catch the developer train

Developers are embracing a range of open source technologies, virtually none supported or sold by Red Hat. Can the open source giant recover?

Developers love open source. So why don't they love the open source leader?

Ask a CIO her choice to run mission-critical workloads, and her answer is a near immediate "Red Hat." Ask her developers what they prefer, however, and it's Ubuntu. That's just for the operating system -- Red Hat's strongest product franchise.

Outside the operating system, according to AngelList data compiled by Leo Polovets, these developers go with MySQL, MongoDB, or PostgreSQL for their database; Chef or Puppet for configuration; and ElasticSearch or Solr for search. None of this technology is developed by Red Hat.

Yet all of this technology is what the next generation of developers is using to build modern applications.

Given that developers are the new kingmakers, Red Hat needs to get out in front of the developer freight train if it wants to remain relevant for the next 20 years, much less the next two.

What developers want

Developers, writing applications for lines of business within enterprises large and small, increasingly deploy to the cloud. Whether looking at the leading public cloud (Amazon Web Services) or OpenStack, developers have been voting overwhelmingly for Ubuntu, not Red Hat.

According to the Cloud Market, which tracks adoption on AWS EC2, Ubuntu claims more than 50 percent of all guest OSes. Across Red Hat's complete product range (RHEL, CentOS, and Fedora), the company gets less than 20 percent of all guest OSes. On OpenStack, where Red Hat has been the top contributor for the last few releases, Red Hat notches a more respectable 34 percent adoption rate.

Ubuntu? 55 percent.

Red Hat isn't merely an operating system company, of course. It has a thriving middleware business (JBoss), a growing storage business (Gluster, Ceph), and an increasingly strong footprint with developers through its OpenShift and OpenStack cloud products.

Still, for a company that pays the bills by making it easy for mainstream enterprises to consume otherwise unwieldy open source software, Red Hat has missed out on nearly all of the biggest projects, from Hadoop to ElasticSearch to Cassandra. Each of these technologies is now backed by private companies that are valued too richly for Red Hat to buy them, but Red Hat also lacks meaningful partnerships with most of them.

These are the technologies that developers crave, as Polovets' analysis shows, yet Red Hat offers very, very few of them in any meaningful way.

What open source companies want

This isn't to suggest Red Hat offers no value. Clearly, it offers a great deal, translating into more than $1 billion in annual revenue. The key is who pays that money to Red Hat: operations.

Way back in 2003, Red Hat made the very difficult decision to focus completely on operations professionals and largely to eschew developers. By introducing Red Hat Enterprise Linux (then "Advanced Server") and tying its brand completely to a commercial, enterprise-grade product, Red Hat was forced to downplay the more developer-friendly Fedora.

The move made financial sense. But it didn't make developer sense.

Most open source companies have taken the opposite tactic, starting with developers. SpringSource, MySQL, JBoss, and others fit into this category. What JBoss taught us is that dev is critical to fueling adoption, but ops is critical for paying the bills. Yet no one besides Red Hat has managed to effectively capture those operations budgets at any sizable scale.

The best route to those budgets may be Red Hat.

What Red Hat wants

Red Hat needs developers. It also needs a big story consistent with its brand as the leading open source company. Meanwhile, the most promising open source big data companies have developers, but now need a stronger story with operations as they seek to turn developer affection into access to operations budgets.

Can you sense the symbiosis?

Developers are flocking to Hadoop, NoSQL technologies, configuration management systems, and Web frameworks, among other items. Virtually all of the best technologies in these categories are open source.

One way for Red Hat to become more relevant with the rising generation of developers is to more firmly tie itself to the companies and projects that these developers love, either through acquisition or, more likely, through partnerships.

On the acquisition side, Red Hat has made bold, strategic acquistions in the cloud space (Ceph, KVM), but has not made a significant, developer-oriented acquisition since JBoss. Imagine the developer love that would flow to an ElasticSearch/Kibana/Logstash combination.

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