Merged Red Hat and JBoss could be headed for a fall

Can the open source vendor handle competition from the big leagues of enterprise IT?

Red Hat's acquisition of JBoss came as something of a surprise. Like many others, I expected Oracle would be the one to snap up the open source J2EE vendor. Still, stranger things have happened.

With JBoss under its wing, Red Hat gains a new level of enterprise viability. Instead of merely "selling Linux," now it can offer a complete and credible enterprise application development platform, from the bare OS on up to the J2EE application server.

Some pundits have even suggested that this move brings Red Hat a big step closer to competing directly with the big boys of enterprise IT: companies such as BEA, IBM, Novell, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems. No longer just a plucky startup from North Carolina, the addition of JBoss makes Red Hat a kind of enterprise open source supergroup.

Which makes me wonder: Has Red Hat bitten off more than it can chew?

I once spoke with an IBM exec who explained to me that IBM was not interested in getting into the business of selling a Linux distribution of its own. Rather, it was quite happy having a number of Linux distributions from competing vendors to choose from -- that number being, oh, say, two.

The two vendors he was referring to were, of course, Novell and Red Hat. IBM will install and support Linux from both companies more or less interchangeably, allowing the competition between the two to drive innovation in the OS. Meanwhile, IBM concentrates its own efforts on the proprietary layers above the OS, such as its WebSphere application server and DB2 database.

A move into the J2EE business could therefore prove problematic for Red Hat and its relationship with IBM. Not only does it mean that Red Hat will be competing more directly with IBM's core business, but by changing its market positioning so that it's no longer foremost an OS vendor, Red Hat could become less valuable to IBM's two-vendor Linux policy.

Red Hat's move tracks mud onto the carpets over at Novell, also. Last year, Novell stopped development on its own, proprietary J2EE server, in favor of directing its customers to JBoss. Now Novell customers who want top-tier support for Novell's preferred app server must turn to the company's No. 1 competitor in the Linux market, Red Hat.

It's a no-brainer that Sun Microsystems hates the idea of a merged Red Hat and JBoss. Red Hat has been steadily cannibalizing the market for Sun's Solaris OS, prompting Sun to attack the upstart at every turn. And there's certainly no love lost between the JBoss camp and BEA.

If I were Red Hat, I'd be plenty nervous. Like when Frodo puts on his Ring, all the Ringwraiths' heads have just turned toward Red Hat.

But there was one more company on my list that I haven't touched on yet. Where does Oracle figure into all this?

Oracle has said outright that it plans to make open source a key part of its strategy. No one knows why the Oracle/JBoss deal fell through, although some have speculated that the talks were just Marc Fleury's way of driving up the price he could ask from Red Hat. But Oracle is plainly interested in acquiring open source companies; to snap up one of the significance of JBoss wouldn't be out of character. And if JBoss's technology seemed interesting enough to consider owning, it will most certainly stay on Oracle's radar.

Meanwhile, Linux is becoming an increasingly important part of Oracle's strategy. Oracle has been actively promoting Linux as a platform for its Oracle 10g database clusters. According to a study by the Independent Oracle Users' Group, 44 percent of respondents said they would use Linux by 2007.

How does it add up? Here's a wild idea, just for fun.

Apparently JBoss by itself isn't a sufficiently attractive acquisition target for Oracle. But maybe an overextended and struggling Red Hat battered by heated competition with giant vendors that are out of its league -- with not just a premier Linux distribution in its portfolio but all of JBoss' technologies, as well -- is.

Who knows? Stranger things have happened.